A guide to some of the director’s most notable films
By Grayson Johnson
Earlier this month, Sidney Lumet, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished producer/directors, passed away at the age of eighty-six. After being in the business for over seventy years and directing over fifty films, Lumet left a giant body of work in his wake. His legacy is acclaimed with forty-six Academy Award nominations and a great deal of film history. With a strong focus on crime dramas with social relevance, his films remain some of the most intriguing, well-acted, and entertaining of their time. Roger Ebert calls him “one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors.” Since there is no better time to appreciate something than after it is gone, this is a look back at few films that highlight Sidney Lumet’s historical career.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Lumet’s first film, shot almost entirely in one room, tells the story of a jury deliberating the trial of a teenager who is believed to have murdered his father. After a quick vote the ruling comes up eleven favoring guilty, and only an endearing Henry Fonda contesting. Lumet’s reputation as the “actor’s director” begins early, as the cast’s impeccable acting carry this drama through to the end while raising issues like accountability and speculation that are still very relevant today. 12 Angry Men was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh
“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry. It just gets dirtier.” Al Pacino delivers an unforgettable performance as Frank Serpico, a die-hard New York cop who goes undercover to expose the deep-seated corruption within the department. Another fine example of Lumet’s character driven direction, the role of Serpico garnered an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe win for Pacino, inspiring future revivals of the character such as Charlie Kelly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “Who wants a piece of Serpico?”
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% Fresh.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Another amazing character for Al Pacino. Genuinely and painfully human, Sonny is a man at his wit’s end. With his friend Sal, played by the notorious John Cazale, he decides to rob a bank for the first time–but things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. At times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, at times poignant, Dog Day Afternoon tells the real life story of honest characters in a rough spot—characters who, by this time, Lumet has become notorious for bringing to life. Dog Day Afternoon was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Director and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Perhaps Lumet’s most praised film, Network chronicles the ups and downs of television personality Howard Beale as he works his way to influential public figure. In a world of MSNBCs and Glenn Becks, this film still packs a strong punch with cultural commentary while remaining entertaining throughout. In addition to being acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite film, Network was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Director and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% Fresh
The Wiz (1978)
Okay. So not Lumet’s best film, but damn if it’s not worth mentioning for the novelty. A Motown reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross as a strangely old Dorothy, a pre-Off the Wall Michael Jackson playing the Scarecrow (made from trash), and Richard Pryor as the Wizard. Complete with Poppy prostitutes and a sweatshop in the sewer, The Wiz is absurd and hilarious. And “Ease on Down the Road” is a great song.
Rotten Tomatoes: 37% Fresh
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Sidney Lumet’s last film. This brilliantly acted dark tale of desperation, betrayal, and failure was released when Lumet was 83 years-old. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and (Lexington native) Michael Shannon are among those he directed into amazing performances, albeit quite depressing ones as their criminal plans go awry and their family unravels on itself.
Rotten Tomatoes: 87% Fresh
“I don’t know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don’t know what my life is about and don’t examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at the moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.”