Pete Hammond Remembers Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet wrote the book on making movies. Literally. His fascinating and wise 1995 career memoir/handbook Making Movies is unlike any other film book I know. He meticulously takes you through the process in a way even the greatest pros can learn from. It’s a must reference to have, but even greater is the remarkably fine filmography he has left behind.

Although his movie career actually stretched back to 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year, when as a teen actor he made his film debut in  …One Third of a Nation…, throughout the 1950s he was a leading director during TV’s Golden Age — and most significantly in 1957 with his feature directorial debut, 12 Angry Men. This ultimate courtroom drama knocked it out of the park. It “explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite,” as the ads said. And it established Lumet’s gritty New York-based style while winning Oscar nominations for Screenplay Adaptation, Best Picture and Best Director. David Lean and The Bridge On The River Kwai won, instead.

But it represented the first of only four nominations in that category for Lumet. That’s an underwhelming number when you consider the rich variety of movies he made that weren’t recognized by Oscar: The Fugitive Kind (1960), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962 – DGA nom), A View From The Bridge (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965 – DGA nom), Fail Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), Serpico (1973 – DGA nom), Murder On The Orient Express (1974 – DGA nom), Equus (1977), Prince of the City (1981 – although he did deservedly get a writing nom for it),  Daniel (1983 – one of his personal favorites), The Morning After (1986), Running On Empty (1988), Q&A (1990), Night Falls On Manhattan (1996), and his final grossly overlooked gem, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), released when he was 83.

In addition to his film debut, the three other directing Oscar nominations he received came in his own golden period between 1975 and 1982, and they were masterpieces all: Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982).

For me the one unforgivable loss was Network, a movie as relevant, important and prescient today as it was when it was made 35 years ago. It earned 10 Oscar nominations, the largest single total for any Lumet film, and won four including for Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant original screenplay predicting a new media age run amok, and lead acting awards for Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway, and supporting actress Beatrice Straight. It was wickedly funny and knowing, a perfectly written, acted, and directed film. But it ran smack into the Rocky juggernaut that year and probably also divided votes with extremely strong competition from the other Best Picture nominees, All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory and Taxi Driver. That’s a tough year in which to make a masterpiece.

The Academy went with its heart in awarding Rocky the big prize. But it should have split the bounty and recognized Lumet as Best Director over Rocky’s winner John Avildsen. Perhaps Network was perceived more as a movie of words, but, as he has proved again and again, Lumet was a master of turning that brilliant dialogue into compelling and unforgettable pictures, too. Another beautifully constructed Network-like film, The Social Network and its director David Fincher, ran into the same wall this year. But classics and movies way ahead of their time live on, and Lumet has gone to his grave knowing he made more than a few.

Also take a look at The Verdict today. (I recently saw it again on the big screen). With The Hustler and Hud, it represents Paul Newman’s greatest work. And you will be stunned that it (and E.T. for that matter) could have been an also-ran to Gandhi in the Picture and Director races of 1982.

At least the Academy rectified the Lumet oversights by awarding him an Honorary Oscar in 2005 at age 81, “in recognition of his brilliant services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture.”

A common thread in everything you will read about Lumet in the days to come will indeed be his service to writers and actors, as well as to New York City, a location he used many times in the more than 40 films he directed. Gritty. Unsparing. Unsentimental. Tough. Those words are often associated with Lumet and his movies. Actors gravitated to him. He worked with the best, giving them some of their best performances: Newman, Brando, Fonda (both Henry and Jane), Steiger, Connery, Pacino, Holden, Finch, Dunaway, Burton, Finney, Caine, Bancroft, Bergman, Nolte, Hepburn (Kate), Woodward, Magnani, Bridges, and many others right up to Vin Diesel, who certainly benefited from the association in 2006’s Find Me Guilty. Lumet was the actors’ director, perhaps because that is also where his roots lay originally.

I am sure there will follow a bevy of Lumet retrospectives and tributes, but I hope they will include not just the acknowledged masterpieces and successes but also movies that are often completely overlooked in the Lumet oeuvre. True, 1966’s The Group was somewhat soapy but a real guilty pleasure now, as is 1980’s wickedly funny Just Tell Me What You Want, which features a great Alan King turn and even a bearable one from Ali MacGraw. Despite her Oscars for other films, I don’t think Jane Fonda was ever better than in the criminally underrated The Morning After opposite Jeff Bridges. I personally loved Anne Bancroft in Garbo Talks (1984), Sophia Loren in That Kind of Woman (1959), James Coburn in Last Of The Mobile Hotshots (1970), and Sean Connery in the terrific heist flick The Anderson Tapes (1971). Pity that 1964’s Fail Safe was lost in the praise for Dr. Strangelove in the same year, but it is worth a revisit as a still-chilling look at the world on the brink of nuclear castastrophe.

Although there are so many critical successes associated with Lumet, there were the failures that can’t be ignored today, including a misguided 1999 remake of Gloria and the dreary A Stranger Among Us (1992), with a laughable performance from Melanie Griffith (one of the few actors not to flourish under Lumet’s direction). Lumet even tried a musical, The Wiz (1978), which didn’t really work despite everyone’s best efforts. But it did feature one memorable final screen moment for his then mother-in-law Lena Horne as well as represented Michael Jackson’s only real feature film acting gig.

Still, despite a miss here and there, Lumet was about as consistent as they come. And when he really connected with script and actor, it was instant classic time. From Pacino chanting “Attica, Attica” in Dog Day Afternoon or staring down New York’s corrupt cops in Serpico, to Peter Finch shouting “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” in Network, or Rod Steiger’s anguish in The Pawnbroker, and all those other unforgettable moments we have had in the dark watching a Sidney Lumet film, it’s sad to remember not just Lumet on the occasion of his death — but also that studios certainly don’t seem to be interested in making Lumet’s signature kind of movies nowadays. But he was always an independent in a very dependent business, a Hollywood outsider who managed to thrive anyway. It’s fitting that his final two films were right on point: Find Me Guilty (2006), a courtroom drama to bookend his first film 12 Angry Men, and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), a character-driven crime drama. Both vintage Lumet movies to their core.

Even in his 80s, Lumet still found the key to keep “making movies” his way, the Lumet way. That’s a lesson that wasn’t in his book, but one that hopefully, for the sake of the “art of the motion picture,” future filmmakers will remember.

  1. No mention of DEATHTRAP? Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve were absolutely hilarious and Lumet’s direction was superb.

  2. Sidney Lumet and his father, teacher and actor, Baruch Lumet, were among Camp Kinderwelt’s finest! They were admired and always considered part of our camp family. We send our condolences to the Lumet family; we are proud to call Sidney “one of our own.”

  3. Now that’s the way to live and work, work and live. One of the greatest American film directors ever; he didn’t just change the form, Lumet helped create it.

  4. And with the push and encouragement of Al Pacino, he cast John Cazale in one of the most memorable roles in cinema. Don’t forget Cazale.

  5. Granted, Melanie Griffith wasn’t very good in A Stranger Among Us but give her some credit for trying to go undercover as a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn–it wasn’t Amish country

  6. Just a awesome film maker superb in almost every way of film, but the best way that shows how immortal he will be is the comment everyone including myself says, “Oh he did that, I loved that film”

  7. What a nice tribute. Kudos. I’m glad you mentioned THE MORNING AFTER 1986. Sidney Lumet gives great commentary on the DVD who directed Jane Fonda to a best actress Oscar nomination.
    Also, thanks for mentioning NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN 1996. Andy Garcia’s best work in my opinion. A throw back to Lumet’s 1970’s grittiness. I love that film. Rest in Peace Sidney Lumet. You will be missed.

  8. No mention how that rat Armond White trashed Lumet’s entire career to deny him a lifetime award at the NY Film Critics? How White called him a “Hack” and none of the critics shouted him down for fear of upsetting Armond? Thus no lifetime award for Lumet. The Oscars is a mysterious voting body. Armond White’s hit job is just disgusting and undeserved.

    1. Armond White did that? What a classless degenerate he is. How Armond White maintains relevancy is a miracle to me. As a critic, this guy just seems to be contrary for contrary sake. Didn’t another guy who fits this motif — Glenn Beck — just get the well-deserved boot?

      I wouldn’t shed a tear if Armond follows suit. I agree with you 100 percent, Frank Tien. Spot on.

      RIP Mr. Lumet, and thanks for all of your wondrous and enduring art.

    2. If it’s any consolation, Lumet will be remembered forever. Armond White (who I’m sure no one knows outside of NYC) will be forgotten by this afternoon.

  9. There will be other tributes to Lumet but none better written than this one. I have seen (and loved) many of Lumet’s films but never knew about “Daniel” and look forward to tracking it down.

  10. Comparing “Network” to “The Social Network” is like comparing an H-Bomb to a wet firecracker.

  11. Sorry to be a pedant but apart from a 5 sec scene at the end when the verdict is announced none of the movie takes place in the courtroom but the jury room. That’s what makes it the perfect movie.

    1. The title is 12 Angry Men after all so it should take place in the jury room. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. That and Network and The Verdict.

  12. Two things: where are these type of films today? When Dog Day Afternoon and Network only got nominated for Best Picture cos they lost out to Cuckoos Nest or Rocky. What rich pickings we had as cinema goers in the 70s compared to now.

    “The Hill” is my favorite of Lumet’s under rated classics. Ian Bannen and Michael Redgrave were outstanding in their secondary roles.

  13. I found Mr. Lumet’s death strangely affecting because I’d never spent any time thinking about him, hadn’t really connected, hadn’t quite gotten that all these movies were from the same guy. Then reading the obits it dawned on me as I scrolled through the movies (He did that, and that, and that?) that this man made me think and made me reexamine and formed my mind to a surprising degree.

    I feel like an asshole for barely knowing the name of a man who was that important to me, and to whom I owe that much. And now it only dawns on me when he dies. It’s like someone gave me a fortune and I never quite realized it or acknowledged it or said, thanks, man. It’s a bit late for a fan letter now, and not that he needed one, but I think for our own peace of mind we should sometimes make an effort to thank artists who do that for us.

  14. Great loss to filmmakers, writers and movie fans everywhere.
    Any new filmmakers who don’t know who this great director and man and artist is…you need to learn about the past.
    Sidney did so much with vast talents around him that his own talents could’ve easily eclipsed their own.
    I could go on and on. But just watch…

    12 ANGRY MEN…so much in one major interior locale, that indie filmmakers have no reason not to do their own stuff without needing bug budgets.

    NETWORK…far, far ahead of its time and right on par with A FACE IN THE CROWD as to how life threatening the power of information can be in the wrong hands.
    Need I mention Cairo and Libya via a little cell phone?
    But even more so, NETWORK in Sidney’s hands, shows again how a great story doesn’t need major stars and big budgets all over the place. Ned Beatty’s speech at the end?

    DOG DAY AFTERNOON…again…majority of 1 major interior locale; great story; great acting. Just think if it was made in today’s current climate…how butchered it would be?

    Gonna miss ya Mr. Lumet.
    Thanks for going your own road and influencing me on my own.

  15. A wonderful tribute to the great man. Lumet could direct anything and he always put story and character first, he wasn’t too concerned with being an “auteur”. His track record is certainly up there with Billy Wilder’s

    1. Maybe bigger than Wilder’s. Lumet’s vision of New York City is unsurpassed, especially in THE PAWNBROKER. Even Woody Allen’s films about the City seem insular by comparison. Lumet didn’t have Wilder’s troubling cynicism. FAIL SAFE is a brilliant and virtually forgotten film, probably since it was a contemporary of DR. STRANGELOVE. The cast in FAIL SAFE consisted of many extraordinary New York actors, the cinematography was superb, reminiscent of Dreyer. Lumet’s strength was letting the material dictate the style and his ability to adapt his technique to the material. It’s curious that his best work isn’t considered on a par with some so- called ‘greats.’ SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON can easily be considered at the top of the ‘Pantheon.’ Many other films have already attained epic status. It may be that Lumet’s lack of pretension hurt him a bit in the eyes of some critics. Much of Lean, Kubrick, Coppola, and other regarded directors are somewhat overblown in relation to the human scale of Lumet’s best work. Lumet tapped into the more truthful nature of New York cinematic talent, actors, cinematographers, technicians much as Scorsese did in his best work, but a half a generation earlier. A great deal of Lumet’s work surpasses almost everything being done today. If it were done today, it would probably be ignored because that film (not movie) audience doesn’t exist anymore. That’s our lost legacy.

  16. In today’s Hollywood it is rare for a director to make one good film; Lumet never made a bad one… and most were great. Why is that?

  17. As somebody about to direct their first movie, I agree with Pete Hammond’s comments about Lumet’s book “Making Movies”, which I dip into regularly. I’ve had this in my library for nearly 15 years, and bought several copies for friends with directorial aspirations. It’s a little gem, and — beyond his body of movie work — a fitting gift to the world of cinema.

  18. What a wonderful tribute you wrote Mr. Hammond.

    Maybe everyone knows this already but I did not.

    The phrase “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” comes from an Irish drinking toast:

    “May your glass be ever full.
    May the roof over your head be always strong.
    And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

    And this really fits that movie.

  19. Shame on AFI for never honoring Mr. Lumet. Is there a story behind that?

    “Prince Of The City” is my personal favorite. I think of it as an epic.

    Super tribute, Pete.

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