The best of Sidney Lumet

Watching Better the Devil Knows You’re Dead a decade ago, I thought, “Will he ever learn to put the camera in the right place?” and “Does he equate shouting with effective acting?” Sidney Lumet had been in the biz for almost fifty years, yet no facile notions about “craftsmanship” ever tainted the tackiness of picture after picture. Yet auteurism types are too hard on him. Year after year Sidney Lumet beat onward, bringing a TV vet’s understanding of pace and getting points that coincided with the gradual evaporation of the Production Code. His run of good films in the Nixon-Ford era are metropolitan pictures through and through. The occasional prestige picture (Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz) was beyond him. Even projects for which he had a hand in the screenwriting (Prince of the City) suffer from hamhanded melodramatics; at that point Hill Street Blues had more to say about big city rot. And I can’t forgive the contrivances in The Verdict, one of the few Oscar-baiting American films that contorts its dramaturgy for the sake of an unhappy ending.

Yet I wouldn’t change a damn thing about Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the best theater adaptation of America’s best family drama (he did less well by The Seagull). Later films like The Morning After, Running on Empty, and Night Falls on Manhattan, offer lived-in performances by Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges, River Phoenix and Christine Lahti, and Ian Holm and Ron Leibman, respectively. The films below, blemishes and all, have their moments.

1. Dog Day Afternoon
2. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
3. Serpico
4. The Pawnbroker
5. 12 Angry Men
6. Fail Safe
7. Q & A
8. Network
9. The Hill
10. The Fugitive Kind
11. The Verdict
12. The Group

7 thoughts on “The best of Sidney Lumet

  1. Jukebox

    This is perfect- “Does he equate shouting with effective acting?”
    I’ve always found this annoying in Lumet’s films As much as the current trend of “whispering dialogue lines” that seem to pervade some American films. The nadir of this “technique” is a terrible film: “A Beautiful Mind”, where I can barely believe Jennifer Connelly was talking like a real human being. It’s not the only example, but that got on my nerves especially.

    Terrific list. “12 Angry Men” or DOCE EN EL PATÍBULO as was known here was formative in my studies of American films.

    1. Jukebox

      Funny the whispering thing may be a reaction to Peter Finch screaming the hell out on NETWORK;)) I know filmmaking act as magnifying glass but there’s no need to go to the extremes!

      1. Jukebox

        True, no? Why is that they can’t talk or react like normal people? And I forgot about Duvall, Jesus! Lumet certainly led their actors to over-act. Either that or he was a lousy actor’s director. The amount of Oscar nominated actors for his movies certainly led to believe that was good. “Screams and Whispers”, American style.

  2. Aaron

    You make Dog Day Afternoon, you don’t need to suffer the opinions of small minds. Lumet was about ideas, ya’ll are about bitching and quibbling.


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