Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet, RIP

Various deadlines kept me from posting about the death of Sidney Lumet. He was a premiere chronicler of New York and of institutions large and small, which made him a premiere chronicler of America.

Few filmmakers have had careers like his, studded with so many memorable films. 12 Angry Men, which staggeringly was his first feature. His Big Apple crime dramas – Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, the magisterial Prince of the City. Network. The Verdict.

Lumet had a long and productive working relationship with Sean Connery that resulted in some of the actor’s finest work: for proof, watch the still deeply disturbing The Offence. Even the films of his that weren’t entirely successful always had something to recommend them. An awareness of an issue years before it hit the mainstream: the rise of political consultants in Power (1986), the harsh economics of medicine in Critical Care (1997). Unexpectedly strong performances brought about by Lumet’s abiding love of actors, like the ones by Nick Nolte and Armand Assante in the underrated Q&A or Don Johnson in Guilty as Sin. Or a brilliantly executed sequence, such as the opening of Night Falls in Manhattan in which a drug dealer exploits bureaucratic police confusion to escape.

Most impressive of all was that Lumet’s last efforts still had plenty of energy. 2006’s Find Me Guilty never received a full theatrical release, but it’s a rewarding off-beat courtroom drama with strong work from Vin Diesel. And Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead found Lumet embracing neo-noir and digital filmmaking with equal vigor.

Two more things about Lumet, and why he was such a huge personal favorite. One is his book Making Movies, as clear-eyed and rational a description of the process as you will find. The other is his 1982 film Deathtrap. It’s not a particularly well-remembered movie of his. But I watched it repeatedly while growing up, and still pop in the DVD at least once a year. It was the first movie I ever saw that I thought of as “sophisticated,” and that was Lumet all over. Sidney Lumet told stories aimed at adults, and he showed me that’s what I wanted to be.