Last year if you were watching the Academy Awards, you may have seen a slightly short and aged director receiving an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement and dedication towards motion pictures. That man was Sidney Lumet, one of my favorite directors. Unfortunately Lumet hasn’t received the attention of many other directors from his era like Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick. Lumet is widely considered an “actor’s director” and has directed 17 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. Still it is Lumet’s patient style and the intriguing topics he explores that wins me over. Anyway, here are my top five Lumet films that no film aficionado should go without seeing.
5. The Pawnbroker (1964)
Groundbreaking and bold for its time (it actually was the first film to show a nude woman), The Pawnbroker casts Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor now living in New York. Haunted by his dark past, he starts to have horrifying flashbacks as he realizes the New York ghetto where he lives and owns his pawn shop is ruled by the same bullies and criminals (only now in the form of robbers and organized crime) who ruined his earlier life. Chilling but amazing to watch, The Pawnbroker is a must see for film fans.
4. 12 Angry Men (1957)
This totally character driven masterpiece is so brilliant it is hard to believe that this was Lumet’s first motion picture. Lumet brings out genuine performances in each one of the jurors, particularly Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. With no scenery, action or effects Lumet created a film that is still thrilling to watch today. In a skillful and subtle move, Lumet used camera lenses with long focal length to make the tiny juror room appear to be closing in and becoming more claustrophobic for the actors.
3. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
This wonderful character-driven film about two bumbling bank robbers Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) hopping to get money to finance the former’s boyfriend’s sex-change operation is one of the greatest examples of 1970’s anti-establishment cinema. Lument amazingly induces comedic events over the overall feeling of impeding doom for the two robbers to give the film an uncharacteristic mood. Nothing beats Pacino simple, but amazing powerful verbal attack against the police that have gathered to arrest him – “Attica! Attica!”
2. The Verdict (1982)
This is the best movie made about lawyers, period. The Verdict tells the story of down-and-out ambulance chaser Frank Galvin played by Paul Newman who decides to take a medical malpractice case to court in an effort to finally “do the right thing.” This often-overlooked film provides Newman’s greatest and most moving performance. However what makes The Verdict so great is Lumet’s ability to capture the underlying tensions going through his main character’s mind as he sits in the musty offices and bars of Boston in winter. Of course, one of the greatest open-ending shots in film history doesn’t hurt things either.
1. Network (1976)
Ah, yes the movie that gave you the expression: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” But seriously, Network belongs in the upper echelons of American film. Lumet’s film, written by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky, provides the greatest commentary, criticism, and warning on television ever developed. The story follows the mental breakdown of news anchor Howard Beale (played to perfection by Peter Finch) and the parasitic network that plays of his rantings to increase ratings instead of giving him help. Lumet wisely shoots the beginning of the film in dark, tonal colors to make it appear like an actual news story but then uses more color and light as we discover the actual fiction of television. However, nothing is more effective and unnerving than the realization that this so called parody, is reality in today’s world of attention deficit disorder media.