This past Sunday saw the passing of a legend. A director whose streetwise influences are blatantly apparent in much of the inferior crime drivel that litters our contemporary theatres every year. Sidney Lumet’s career, while not without its faults, was one of eclipsing landmarks.
Throughout his career, he directed one of the best scripted films of all time (12 Angry Men), one of the best cop dramas of all time (Serpico), one (actually, probably the) best bank robbery films of all time (Dog Day Afternoon), one (actually, probably the) best show business films of all time (Network), one of the best courtroom dramas of all time (The Verdict), and the best modern crime film in years (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).
When a cinematic innovator dies, my first instinct is to rush and try to watch as much of their work as I can. But time is a wastin’, so instead of offering thoughts on films I’ve only seen once, here’s what I think of a slew of classics, all, rather incredibly, directed by one man.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Twelve guys in a room deliberate on an open-and-shut murder case. One guy isn’t convinced. What follows is motion picture bliss. 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece; it’s brilliantly executed on every level of the cinematic medium. The sneaky camera work, the tricky screenplay, and, oh yeah, there’s some good acting in it too. The first time I saw this film, I marveled at how well it deceived and guided me, feats it continues to do today. It’s a flawless work of art, one of the best film directing debuts in history.
Running off the coattails of his Godfather success, Al Pacino plays real life cop Frank Serpico – who was harassed, preyed upon and nearly executed for exposing corruption within the NYPD – with the standard, innocent appeal of his young self. The star (and his performance) ultimately outshined the overall film, but that matters little. Serpico is a well-paced, multifaceted cop drama that never dare lets the tension break.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
A cast of superstars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins, to name a few) worked for pennies to bring Agatha Christie’s crime mystery to the screen. The result is a teasing, twisting, turning film that keeps you guessing up until Finney’s epic closing monologue. I’ve seen this flick several times, and can never accurately predict the outcome.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Honestly, what’s to say? The best bank robbery film of all time tells the true story of two well-intentioned chums who execute a robbery so poorly, that we can’t help but sympathize with him. Al Pacino, in the finest performance of his career, is utterly magnetic as Sonny. His desperation practically bleeds through the screen, it’s that genuine. His aimless partner in crime, played by the remarkable John Cazale, is equally as convincing. The fact that there may be people reading this post who haven’t seen this film is, well, rather disheartening. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my top ten films of all time. Get crackin’, folks.
From its defining “As mad as hell” rage onward, Network is a surefire masterpiece. It details the horror, obsession, idolization, and lunacy of show business better than any other film to date. Its performances are unblemished (it won three acting Oscars, a record matched only by A Streetcar Named Desire), its directing is frenetic, its Paddy Chayefsky-penned screenplay is ingenious, and its legacy is untainted. There just isn’t a whole hell of a lot I can say that does a film like this fair justice.
The Verdict (1982)
In The Verdict, Paul Newman gives what may or may not be the best performance of his career (for my money, it runs a close second to his work in Cool Hand Luke). Just watch his first scene. Newman – portraying a down and out, alcoholic lawyer – stands at the foot of his favorite pinball machine, located in his preferred dive bar. He plays slowly, methodically, without saying a word. The man is acting… with his shoulders. The simplicity of the scene grabs you right away, and the conviction of the rest of the film keeps you.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Skip ahead a few decades and you’ll find one hell of a pulverizing family crime drama. The film – which chronicles the setup of a jewelry store heist and its disastrous fallout – was revered by critics and commercially ignored. Why? Its narrative is original as all hell, its acting is gritty and raw (namely by a never-better Philip Seymour Hoffman), and it’s script is so cleverly jarring, that it’ll leave your jaw dropped. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is endlessly appealing in its subtle brutality; a great swan song for one of America’s finest auteurs.