Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

I forgot to write Elizabeth Taylor and Farley Granger posts, so here's my Sidney Lumet tribute before he's too dead to bother.
One of the last active American filmmakers who began his career in the 1950s is gone. Lumet was never in my top tier of favorite directors, possibly because he was more of a studio craftsman than the obsessively personal filmmakers I'm drawn toward. He made some bad movies, and he wasn't the most visually distinctive director, with some notable exceptions. He was a great storyteller and director of actors, enthusiastic, youthful, not pretentious, sharp, interested in people. His best films, though, were personal and visually distinctive, in addition to their other virtues. Dog Day Afternoon is one of the finest films of the 1970s and one of the best movies about America and American desperation. Even in Lumet movies I find lacking, great moments poke through. Running on Empty has a certain ordinariness to it that can sometimes push it toward TV movie territory, but the teenage romance between River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton is sweetly honest and affecting. Lumet just watches them and lets it happen without condescending to the characters or the audience. Treat Williams gives a hysterically overblown performance in Prince of the City, but Lumet manages to create a chilly atmosphere of pervasive corruption and paranoid fear and matches that emotional geography with a compatibly physical one. Jerry Orbach's very good in that movie when he's not ducking Williams' scenery-chewing. I also like that Lumet went out on a high note with two of his most critically acclaimed movies after a long string of mediocre ones: Find Me Guilty and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The penultimate film was a commercial flop, but his last movie put him back in the spotlight.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Serpico (1973)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Network (1976)
The Verdict (1982)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Recommended, with reservations or for nostalgic purposes only:
The Wiz (1978)
Prince of the City (1981)
Running on Empty (1988)
Guilty as Sin (1993)

I need to catch up with some of his other films. He made a lot.

No comments:

Blog Archive