The Reeler


February 7, 2008

Tell Me About Sidney

Musto, Carr, Swanberg, Longworth and others on the subject of Film Forum's latest epic retrospective

"He ain't done yet": Sidney Lumet, respected and retrospected starting this weekend at Film Forum (Photos: Film Forum/Photofest)

The gang at Film Forum sure knows how to throw a guy a party, and the three-week, 22-film Sidney Lumet retrospective opening tomorrow is one of its biggest single tributes since so honoring Woody Allen a little over a year ago. We were impressed enough back then to ask a few New Yorkers their thoughts about the collected Woodwork, and I thought it might be worth another quick survey around New York and elsewhere to see what's on people's minds about Lumet and his 50-year career.

Aside from one contemporary who wasn't having any of it ("Sorry... I have nothing to say about Sidney Lumet," he replied), the filmmaker has all the admirers you'd expect and an even more diverse array of titles among their program (and personal) highlights. Read on for a few favorites, and take a minute to add your own two cents as well in the comments or at Film Forum itself, where, on Feb. 11, Lumet will drop in for a discussion and Q&A. I will see you there.

--S.T. VanAirsdale, Editor

--"Last year I saw Network again at a revival screening attended by Lumet and was stunned that its immediacy and power are as fresh as when it was made. Peter Finch is electrifying, Beatrice Straight packs a wallop in her tight little role ('Can't you see that I hurt?') and Faye Dunaway is seductively good as the cutthroat programming lady. The only difference is that, with the advent of reality TV and the cynicism that has permeated the medium in all of its demystification, her character didn't seem monstrous to me at all. She seemed perfectly reasonable! But that's also a testament to the prophetic nature of Network." -- Michael Musto (columnist and blogger, The Village Voice)

--"George Clooney, who knows a thing or two about movies, has been known to have repeated viewing parties for Network in part because of its prescience, but I suspect it's also because it is an amazingly dense work jammed with eye-popping performances. Forget 'mad as hell' and pay attention to the scene in which William Holden, as the network exec Max Schumacher, tells his wife Louise, played by Beatrice Straight, that he is leaving her for the soulless avatar played by Faye Dunaway. It is an amazing minuet of love and betrayal. Ms. Straight is way down in the credits, getting all of five minutes or so of screen time. And by the way, she won an Academy Award for her performance.

"The scene delivers like few others because Lumet owns the two-shot, mining the space between two people like few other directors. For another look, check the tracking shot in the courthouse during The Verdict between Jack Warden and Paul Newman. Tempo, stakes, dialogue and a visual amazement that does not draw attention to itself, only what is said. Those films hold up very well while other classics, like Serpico, do not fare as well." -- David Carr (Film and media reporter and Carpetbagger blogger, The New York Times)

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--"My favorite Lumet story, if I'm remembering it correctly, is that he was asked to direct The Verdict; the studio had commissioned God knows how many rewrites to 'fix' the original script; Lumet worked his way down through this pile of studio efforts to arrive at the last one at the bottom -- an archaeological dig -- and there was Dave Mamet's first script, the one that had been deemed so in need of 'fixing' by the studio folks. Of course, this is the version Lumet wanted to make; the script is well-nigh perfect. Would that there were more true heroes willing to stand up to the absurd received thinking in Hollywood regarding scripts, casting and storytelling." -- Craig Lucas (Screenwriter, Longtime Companion, The Secret Lives of Dentists, The Dying Gaul)

--"I think that Dog Day Afternoon is one of the most inspiring movies I've ever seen. I saw it cold -- no one prepping me or explaining the plot, how it was made or anything. I didn't really know who Lumet was; I think at that point I'd seen 12 Angry Men and maybe Murder on the Orient Express, which definitely didn't prep me in any way for Al Pacino's crazy bank robbing freakout. All the performances were so fresh and every actor seemed to give such a shit about their characters -- they loved them and I loved them. Like Penelope Allen and Carole Kane all hot and sweaty, drinking Tab in the bank vault, or a very dimwitted John Cazale wanting to go to the foreign country of Wyoming. So good.

"I immediately bought Lumet's book and learned that the actors and Lumet all got together before the shoot and rehearsed in the bank. They improvised tons in the rehearsals with the writers in the room, and the writers just went back after and tweaked the script to fit each actor perfectly. I still think about that technique all the time -- I've tried to mimic that to some degree. It unhinges acting from anything stilted. Lumet lets the actors knock it out of the park -- the 15-minute phone call scene is probably the highlight of both Pacino and Lumet's careers." -- Craig Zobel (Filmmaker, Great World of Sound)

"There was Dave Mamet's first script, the one that had been deemed so in need of 'fixing' by the studio folks. Of course, this is the version Lumet wanted to make." -- Craig Lucas on The Verdict

--"I was actually born on the Dog Day Afternoon: August 22, 1972. Of course, I didn't get to know about the crime-of-queer-passion or the Lumet film until much later, but when I did see the film I was blown away by the fact that something so socially taboo could be at the heart of such an aggressively entertaining work. It kind of inspired me to believe that a balance between 'outsiderness' and commercial viability could exist. Much of Lumet's work has reaffirmed this for me." -- Rajendra Roy (Chief Film Curator, Museum of Modern Art)

--"Really really really really really without a doubt -- Dog Day Afternoon!" -- Jennie Livingston (Filmmaker, Paris is Burning, Who's the Top?)

--"My favorite unsung Lumet film is Bye Bye Braverman, a mordant 1960s black comedy about four Jews trying to make it to their friend’s Brooklyn burial. Here’s a great New York time capsule and -- a year before Easy Rider -- a great road movie where the action is confined pretty much to the wilds of pre-hipster Williamsburg. Of the official classics, Serpico holds up extremely well, less as a social problem drama than as a character study -- and it’s not clear if the main character is Pacino or New York City. The Hill is great -- one of the few films where Sean Connery is really acting. As for my favorite Lumet, it’s a toss-up between his first movie, 12 Angry Men, and his newest, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead." -- David Schwartz (Chief Curator, Museum of the Moving Image)

--"Of all the many moments in Lumet movies -- and I think he's made a ton of great films -- two stand out for me. One is the classic scene when Jerry Orbach tips the desk over on weasely prosecutor James Tolkan in Prince of the City. It's a truly cathartic moment in this great film, and is one of Orbach's best onscreen performances.

"The other is the final scene in Lumet's criminally underseen The Hill, in which Sean Connery and some other brutalized Brit prisoners procedd to beat the living shit out of one of their sadistic guards. They've been complaining about bad treatment for ages, and have finally gotten the ear of the commandant, but that doesn't seem to matter; their frustrations spill over into violence. But as they're beating the guard, one of their own (I forget which actor) screams at them: 'Don't! We've won! We've won!' But that doesn't stop them. It's a bleak ending to a bleak, brutal and brilliant film." -- Lewis Beale (Film journalist, Reeler ranter emeritus)

--"What amazes me about Lumet is his enduring intellectual vigor. While most of the other lions of the '70s were taking paychecks for commercial flotsam in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lumet was still making movies with social ambition: Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan. He made his share of clinkers –- A Stranger Among Us leaps to mind –- but he never stopped looking for stories about flaws in the human condition. Few have mastered the medium as well as Lumet, and here’s the best part: he ain’t done yet." -- Jack Mathews (Film critic, New York Daily News)

--"Lumet took two of the most shocking, absurd moments in '70s cinema, presented them in an matter-of-fact, almost blasé manner and made you buy them. The first was in Dog Day Afternoon. Well into the comedy-of-errors robbery, we learn that Sonny (Al Pacino) is doing it to get money for his male lover's sex change operation. We get no hint of this until a call from the man in question, Leon (Chris Sarandon, in perhaps the most spot-on portrayal of an old-school Brooklynite or pre-op transsexual ever put on film). Their rapport is so natural and reminiscent of any bickering married couple that, once the few laughs subside from the initial surprise, you quickly accept it being as real as the true story that inspired it.

"Really really really really really without a doubt -- Dog Day Afternoon!" -- Jennie Livingston

--"The next came the following year in Network, in the penultimate scene where TV execs (Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall among them) sit around and calmly discuss the final solution to get rid of their out-of-control anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). By the time you reach those scenes late in each film, Lumet has brought you so completely into the world and point-of-view of the main characters that you understand and accept it all. He's one of the few directors who can blur the line between the everyday insanity we encounter and the over-the-top possibilities of drama, showing that there's not always a difference.

--"And yet he couldn't turn a 33-year old Diana Ross into a convincing Dorothy in The Wiz. You win some, you lose some." -- Gregg Goldstein (Journalist, The Hollywood Reporter)

--"Though he’s made films in Europe and Hollywood, Sidney Lumet is the heart and soul of New York City filmmaking. It’s telling he chose to shoot The Wiz as the first major production at the reopened Astoria studios, where he had appeared as a teenage actor in One Third of a Nation 40 years earlier. And I greatly respect that he’s almost always made movies for audiences, not for the critics. It’s almost heretical to say so, but in some ways Fail Safe holds up better than the similarly themed Dr. Strangelove, which was also released in 1964. And has any filmmaker ever made a movie as scarily prescient as Network? I think not." -- Lou Lumenick (Chief film critic, New York Post)

--"After all these years and all these movies, the thing that is the most special about Lumet is his taste. He finds the most extraordinary writing and then gets actors who will be challenged to do career-best work in it -- really image-changing work from Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Treat Williams, Nick Nolte, Faye Dunaway, Bill Holden, Ned Beatty, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Vin Diesel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and many others. And that doesn't touch the simply amazing performances and ensemble work in films of real substance that he has chosen to make." -- David Poland (Editor, Movie City News)

--"I think Dog Day Afternoon changed my life. Or, at the very least, it disabused me of the art school notion that the '70s American New Wave was mostly an awful lot of superficially macho bullshit. But the Lumet retrospective is most exciting for me as an opportunity to catch up on some of his lesser-known genre films. When it comes to those New York crime movies, Lumet's the only director I can think of who can actually make pure efficiency thrilling. I'll definitely be at the double-feature of The Anderson Tapes and The Deadly Affair on the 20th -- ––the former because I've wanted to see it for a long time and have never gotten around to it, the latter because I just don't really have the self control to say "no" when it comes to James Mason." -- Karina Longworth (Editor, SpoutBlog)

--"For some reason I rented Dog Day Afternoon when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was just getting into film, and I probably read about it in the Leonard Maltin movie book. I remember watching it late one night with my little brothers, who would have been about 8 and 10. It really rocked our worlds. It wasn't a typical bank robbery movie. There was something weird about it. We cared about everyone. They seemed like real people. I continue to revisit that one every few years, always impressed by it, and always learning more from it." -- Joe Swanberg (Filmmaker, LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs).

Comments (17)

Yeah! Awesome! A bunch of mumblecore douchebags get to comment on the entire LIFE'S WORK of Sidney Lumet! God, I love 2008!

Thanks for the constructive feedback, um, "Harvey." The even *better* thing about 2008 is that you can drop in and make this totally about yourself in 25 words or less! Now *that's* a tribute to Lumet.

Sidney Lumet has been my favorite film director for at least thirty years, and I doubt that anyone else will soon supplant him. He is the master of cinematic pressure-cooking; in 12 Angry Men, Failsafe, The Hill, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, and on and on, he takes his characters hostage, placing group of particular people under duress in a confined space as the clock ticks -- always with a surprisingly cathartic result. And, as it has been stated above, the man is still working. Amazing!

yea sidney's a pretty good director. he's made like 1 great film since the 70s, but he had a nice run with pacino and co. back then.

"Prince of the City" and "The Verdict" are 2 of the best movies ever made. Lumet defines brilliance with his direction.

I work in the film business in Toronto. Mr. Lumet has shot a few films up here. I have never been lucky enough to work with him, but a camera assistant I know has. He mentioned that Mr. Lumet shot pretty much only 8 hour days. He also finished ahead of schedule. He's that good, prepared, and professional. I love it when great artists are also organized and clear about what they want.

Reluctant as I am to give Armond White any credit, the man is dead-right about Sidney Lumet.

Like so many other things relating to the film world, Armond White is very wrong about Sidney Lumet. It's almost shocking how arrogant and insipid White sounds when trashing a filmmaker like Lumet. Armond White panned Before the Devil Knows You're Dead yet found something profound in the movie Hitman. The guy should be fired. Seriously. Fired. He's an ass-hat.

Great to read all these tributes. It kills me I have to work the day Film Forum is showing not only THE HILL, but also THE OFFENCE, one of Lumet's most underrated movies. Probably Sean Connery's darkest performance ever. However, I do have off they day they're showing THE SEAGULL, which is great, since it's never been made available on video or DVD.

Serpico is the best film I've ever seen.
I can relate to that film so much. Everytime I watch there's something new I find in it. A critic up there said the main character seemed to be either Pacino or New York City ; I have to agree on the two. Bit of both.
Amazing film.

The Hill might be the best movie ever made.

Just so everyone knows.

Lumet has long been my favorite director, but although I passionately adore Network, Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men (among other "big" ones), I continue to find Running on Empty to be the most profoundly beautiful film I've ever seen. And what a tragic shame it is that no one mentions Long Day's Journey Into Night -- with its arresting black & white photography and startling performances. The idea that a 3.5-hour yawn of a play (which is how it's perceived, although I disagree) could be translated into such a visceral film is still surprising.

...and don't forget that Armond White also put "War" (an utterly forgettable Jet Li-Jason Statham clunker) on his 2007 10-best list. (Oh yeah, Arm: it's sooo much better than "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"!)
totally agree about "The Offence" being one of Lumet's unsung masterpieces (and Connery's never-better performance).
sure hope that "The Sea Gull" finally makes it to dvd someday...the cast alone (Redgrave, Signoret, Mason, et al) has always made me salivate.

I was first exposed to Sidney Lumet (and David Mamet) at age eleven; my parents took me to see "The Verdict", and I loved it. I've watched it numerous times since, and it's still as good as I remember.

Lumet made it into my dvd-collection with 5 titles: 12 angry men, Fail-safe, The pawnbroker, Dog day afternoon and Network. With The verdict on the background, which I bought for an amazingly cheap 5 Euros.

On his left side in my collection stands Stanley Kubrick. I regard Lumet kind of the other side of the coin from Kubrick, watch:
- They’re obviously the same generation filmmaker; Lumet started out in tv, Kubrick started out as a photographer.
- Kubrick’s approach of filmmaking leaves us just 12 feature films. Lumet’s approach leaves us 43 feature films (if I counted correctly), not counting all his tv- and documentary-work, as wel as his short film. Right now still working on another feature.
- Kubrick’s approach is one of extreme control, like a chess-player. Lumet’s approach is one of improvisation, like a jazz-player.
- Lumet’s a favourite amongst actors, while Kubrick was notorious amongst actors.
- And of course there’s the whole thing with Dr. Strangelove being the parody released earlier than the serious Fail-safe.

Kubrick made my collection with 7 movies. Guess which. Anyway, both men also hold opposite hit-miss ratios. If I like Before the devil knows you’re dead enough though, they just might end up with the same absolute result, as far as I’m concerned. On his right-hand side we then find Mike Nichols and Martin Ritt.

So, if anyone can show how Lumet and Kubrick are not kind of each other’s mirror-opposites, I’ll be very interested.

so it is true: whenever lewis beale puts his name on something, instant comment thread.

I can only hope that some of these highlighted films being presented by Film Forum will now find a home on DVD. I'm currently going through an obsession of tracking down all of Lumet's films, and I'll be damned that I can't find "Bye Bye Braverman", "A View From the Bridge", "Last of the Mobile Hot Shots", "The Deadly Affair" "The Sea Gull" and "Child's Play".

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