Acclaimed director Sidney Lumet passed away Saturday morning at the age of 86. Lumet, whose career spanned five decades (1957’s 12 Angry Men to 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead), died of lymphoma at his home in Manhattan. Lumet made his big screen debut with 12 Angry Men, which was nominated for three Oscars and instantly threw Lumet into Hollywood’s spotlight. Join us after the jump as we look over some of the director’s finest films.
Sidney Lumet broke into the mainstream conscience in 1957 with his Oscar-nominated courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, which stars Henry Fonda as a jury member who begins breaking down evidence during an “open and shut” murder case. This film marked the first of four Best Director Oscar nominations, which would later include Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Network. 12 Angry Men proved Lumet could do a set-piece to perfection, and paved the way for another set-piece, also featuring Mister Fonda, in 1964’s Fail-Safe.
Fail-Safe, released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, covers nearly identical ground but in a much different way. While Strangelove was played for laughs and used a variety of sets and actors, Fail-Safe goes the opposite route, focusing on the President’s bunker and the deeply conflicted men inside. If you can handle a double feature, check these two films out, they are both amazing and walk the same story with remarkably different attitudes.
In 1973 Lumet chose Al Pacino, fresh off The Godfather, to play New York cop Frank Serpico (ironic, I know), who, unlike Michael Corleone, had a strong moral compass. The bearded whistleblower fought corruption in the NYPD despite the warnings of his fellow officers, and nearly gave up his life defending his beliefs. Lumet would work again with Pacino in the hostage-gone-wrong bank heist Dog Day Afternoon.
Only four years later, Lumet would turn out another classic with Network, starring Peter Finch as ex-newscaster Howard Beale, a has-been anchor who teeters on the brink of neurosis as he attempts to publicize his feelings about the changing TV world.
Lumet, not content to make like a dozen awesome movies, returned to the courtroom drama with 1982’s The Verdict. Paul Newman stars as washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin, who, rather than settling for a medical malpractice payout, attempts to salvage his career by taking on the evil powers-that-be in a difficult lawsuit case. The film differs strongly from 12 Angry Men by focusing on the man instead of the trial, making the courtroom take a back seat to Galvin’s attempted comeback.
Lumet’s last film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, is a tight, quickly paced, heartbreaking film about a botched robbery attempt and the toll it takes on a small family. Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman turn in brilliant and nuanced performances as two criminals who bite off more than they can chew. Lumet’s range is almost without equal, showing his deft touch at all things crime-related. Many of Lumet’s films, from delicate set-pieces like 12 Angry Men to high-stakes nuclear war dramas like Fail-Safe, draw the viewer’s attention to the central protagonist like few movies can. These strong, driven men (Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, Paul Newman in The Verdict) are often on a mission of discovery, and with Sidney Lumet at the helm, you are sure to find something superb.