Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Appreciation: Sidney Lumet

After seeing last year's remarkably accomplished "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" by 83 year old filmmaker Sidney Lumet, I decide to conduct a comprehensive viewing of his lengthy and storied career. This is easier said than done. Eight films are not available in any form. A handful of others exist only in worn out VHS tapes and then the rest can be picked through on DVD. I did the best I could, driven by some weird cinematic OCD inside me, to track down as many as I could. Some were found on Amazon and many more were dispersed throughout local video stores. All told, I was able to eventually see 36 of his 44 films over the course of his 52 year love affair with filmmaking. Prolific yes, but Lumet is also an auteur... a director whose theater background clearly establishes itself through so many of his works. And while his output is decidely mixed (some really great and some really bad) I don't regret the time and energy spent over the past 7 months slowly accumulating a new Lumet film here and there. Part of the joy is in the hunt. Below is an overview of Lumet's films, categorized by year, applied with a star rating and brief critique. It feels kinda nice to (almost) complete this self-prescribed experience. But then what of the 8 films I haven't been able to see? That's another experience altoghether I suppose. Hopefully, the Lumet retrospective held at New York's Film Forum in February will provide the motivation for producing these works to a mass audience. And no, as compulsive as I am, the idea of flying to New York to view these films was not an option.

Updated 03/17/2015

Stage Struck ***- From its opening shot- a slow pan across downtown New York and Broadway, landing on the wide-eyed face of Susan Strasburg- this tells you everything one needs to know about what makes Lumet breathe as a director. The story, about a selfish and unrelenting young girl's push to be a Broadway star, is sentimental and sloppy at times, but Henry Fonda (as heavy producer) commands the screen. Strasburg is simply gorgeous at times as well. A nice debut.

12 Angry Men ***1/2- Well deserved classic status has been appointed to Lumet's sophomore effort. Even after all these year's, its still a smart and engaging tele-play that ratchets up the verbal tension economically.

The Fugitive Kind **- Marlon Brando does his moody schtick as "Snakeskin", a guitar playing drifter who upsets a small Louisiana town upon arrival. Lumet's play and TV work is still highly visible, but one can feel him beginning to stretch out in multiple settings and ensemble cast direction. Watchable, but not on par with the rest of his early work.

Long Day's Journey Into Night ***- The prototypical 'actors' film, handled with delicacy and no-frills direction.

A View From the Bridge ***- Features a terrific economy of images, including a hand up a skirt and two immigrants being handcuffed in front of a Santa Clause decoration. Based on Arthur Miller's play- and it feels stagey at times- but the feirce emotion comes to a boil at the end.

Fail Safe **1/2- The most memorable items from this paranoid cold war thriller is its disconcerting opening title sequence (where the title card suddenly flashes on screen in vivid black and white) and final images cut to black. While it's hard to not dislike anything about Lumet's tense, cold-sweat inducing close-ups and erratic editing style, its very hard to take this film seriously when you synchronize it in your mind with "Dr Strangelove".

The Pawnbroker **1/2- Part 60's social message and part European art film, it feels muddled and constipated. Rod Steiger is impressive as the solemn Holocaust survivor finally exploding after a few volatile days in modern Harlem where he owns a pawn shop, but so much of the psychology is obfuscated. I wanted to like it more than I did.

The Hill ***- Placed inside a military prison camp, the theater aspect of 2 settings is palpable. It was the beginning of a string of films Lumet made with Sean Connery and his sense of camera placement and inner psychology is riveting. Even after 10 years though, one can still sense the anchoring of Lumet's stage days.

The Deadly Affair **- Oh, probably the biggest disappointment on this list. After spending years tracking this one down, TCM goes and decides to play it last month. Sadly, the effort to see this film was more entertaining than the film itself. As drab and lifeless as the dreary Britain settings, Mason and cohorts mumble and politely sleepwalk through this film. Instead of crackling with intrigue, it fizzles out long before its climax.

The Group **- Bordering on soap opera, this ensemble film follows the ups and downs of eight graduated Vasser women as they make their way in high society from 1933 until the early 40's. Marriage, infidelity, breastfeeding, gossip... all the tropes of the women's melodrama are here and played to the hilt. The mechanics and look of the film are good, but the stories are a crushing bore. It is nice to see a young Julie Walters ("Arrested Development") though. Not on DVD.

Updated 9/15/10
Bye Bye Braverman **- One of the disappointments as it's been one I've been tracking down for years. Four men meet and travel across New York to pay respects to their dead friend. It's all very "new yawkish" and doesn't always translate well from its stage origins.

The Seagull **- Sadly, a very dull actor's film adapting an Anton Chekov play as a large family stages a weekend alongside a Swedish vacation home. The pedigree of the actors is strong, and Lumet is clearly reveling his stage days, but it unsatisfactorily translates to the screen as necessary viewing.

The Appointment ***1/2 - With its European financing and production, "The Appointment" feels like a transition period for Lumet. Gone are the stagey 1960's, opting for a more lush and cinematic approach. In fact, certain parts of this film mimic the works of Visconti or Antonioni.... and in a good way. Omar Sharif is a confused man to say the least. He meets, falls in love with and then steals beautiful model Anouk Aimee away from her fiancee and then spends the rest of the film destroying that relationship when he hears a rumor she may be a high class prostitute. Echoes of Russian literature blended with European art-film techniques carry the mystery a long way, none moreso vivid (or terrifying) than in one very long pan up from a field as the couple make love or the long pan down a hallway as Sharif walks away and two nuns go scurrying by. A forgotten, but very good entry in Lumet's career. Not available on DVD

Last of the Mobile Hot Shots *- Another Tennessee Williams adaptation, this one pits James Coburn, Robert Hooks and Lynn Redgrave in a large Louisiana farmhouse and has them shriek away at each other for two hours over the property. Redgrave's performance is truly horrendous- shrill and off putting. The story moves at a snail's pace and there's no room for Lumet to open up the drama and create anything other than a claustrophobic chore to endure. Not on DVD.

The Anderson Tapes ****- Trend setting heist flick that rounds up the usual Lumet crew (Connery, Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken's first role) as a rag-tag bunch of recently released cons who plan to rob a wealthy apartment building. When I say this is trend setting, I mean it. This film sets the standard for all other capers after 1971 and it also pre-dates alot of the paranoid 70's thrillers such as "The Conversation" and "Three Days of the Condor" in the way it places cameras and audio/video surveillance as a menacing, intrusive character. The final half of the film, featuring the actual heist, finds Lumet at the top of his game in editing, sound and camera placement. One of the unheralded gems of the 70's and long overdue for a DVD release.

Child's Play (1972) **- Starts off very strong and eerily, with a Catholic school bearing witness to muted, violent acts carried out by the young boys there upon each other. From there, it becomes heavily muddled as the paranoia and evil spread to the moral battale between two teachers (James Mason and Robert Preston) with new teacher Beau Bridges stuck in the middle. This is one hard film to find, never shown on TV and never released on home video. Probably for Lumet completists only. Not available on DVD.

The Offence **1/2- Four sets (police interrogation rooms and apartment) detail the psychological breakdown of a veteran Scotland Yard detective (Connery) when they bring in a possible child molester subject. Lumet's stagey film and the title itself refer to several different offences, but Connery is riveting as the central character broken by years of unresolved homicides and deaths. Financed and filmed in England, there's a bit of his Euro posturing left as subliminal cuts and disjointed sound and image try to make the whole thing a little more interesting than it really is. Never released on DVD.

Serpico ***1/2- After Connery, Lumet found his new muse in the guise of young, frenetic Al Pacino. In their first collaboration together, "Serpico" begins to refine the theme of Lumet chiseling away at the complex beaurucracies that would become his agenda, on and off, for the next 6 or 7 years. Also the first film in his series on police corruption. As the title character, a cop who turns away from the bribery and corruption of New York blue, Pacino solidifies himself as the great new young actor of the 70's.

Lovin' Molly **- A love triangle blooms between two brothers (Beau Bridges and Anthony Perkins) and a girl (Blythe Danner) over 40 years in Lumet's attempt to adapt Larry McMurtry. The problem with this film is that Danner's performance does very little to incite the idea that so much passion and whoopla is deserved. With that aside, it's a nice looking picture going through the usual motions. Not on DVD.

Murder On the Orient Express *1/2- Stuffy and almost sleep-inducing star bonanza that probably felt revolutionary in its day, but tired now. The stuff of parody.

Dog Day Afternoon ***1/2- The second Lumet/Pacino effort, this one just as grimy and involving as "Serpico". The tables are turned though and the hero light is cast on Pacino as a bank robber. His various speeches to the Brooklyn masses outside the bank ("Attica! Attica!") have been looped endlessly as classic moments. Still, "Dog Day Afternoon" is a tense, expertly edited and photographed film that examines a bank robbery from all angles.

Network ****- Pointless to place more accolades on this film, but Paddy Chayefsky's script is electric, the acting is bravado and Lumet cuts everything close to the bone. The ultimate satire on television.

Equus *1/2- I imagine it's pretty hard coming down after the success of "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon", but "Equus" is truly the epitome of a career slump. His next three films are not good at all. Based on Peter Scahffer's dense, odd play about a boy obsessed with horses, Richard Burton gives an extrenely hammy performance as the psychiatrist crossing mental swords with the troubled boy. Lumet tries his best to energize the film with lengthy takes of monologues, circling long takes and inventive lateral pans, but his technical aesthetic is drowned by the story's puzzling character motivations.

The Wiz *1/2- Updated version of Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross? Yea, hard thing to get through.

Just Tell Me What You Want *1/2- Obnoxious portrait of the battle of the sexes, this time between Randolph Hearst-like mogul Alan King and free-spirited Ali McGraw. The characters are unremarkable, the screenplay tries way too hard to modernize the screwball comedy timing of the 30's and 40's and the direction and editing feel like a true hack job. To make matters worse, I suffered through this on a worn out VHS copy.

Prince of the City ****- Lumet's undeniable masterpiece both in acting (Treat Williams) and as a piercing character study of a decent cop drowning in a sea of police corruption and self-doubt by turning state's evidence for New York. At three hours, it whizzes by even though it's a detailed and complex deconstruction of an elaborate system of bribery and look-the-other-way-brotherhood. In short, its a masterwork, standing as one of the best of the decade.

The Verdict ****- Paul Newman at his finest as a washed up ambulance chasing lawyer given redemption. This is the court room drama done with economy and hard-hitting realism. Every person in this film exudes a strong believability, none moreso than Newman whose cantekerous personality undergoes a universal change. One of Lumet's very best, and a final scene that gets me everytime.

Deathtrap ***- I probably shouldn't like this as much as I did and the twists and turns portrayed by Michael Caine as an exasperated playwrite willing to commit murder for a best seller feels like parody (especailly after it has so much in common with Caine's other one-setting mystery a few years earlier called "Sleuth"), but there's something inherently watchable. Christopher Reeve shows up as the possible victim and Dyan Cannon shrieks her way across the screen. Go into this one cold, and it could be highly entertaining.

Daniel ***1/2- Fictional retelling of the Rosenbergs (here portrayed by Many Pantinkin and Lindsay Crouse as the Isaacsons) trial for espionage. The crux of this film is not in the procedural details of the trial itself (which would seem normal for Lumet), but the emotional devastation imprinted on the couple's two children over the course of three decades. Timothy Hutton is very good as the adult Daniel and his quest to find out the truth about his parents. There are some strong supporting performances from Ellen Barkin, Amanda Plummer and Ed Asner as well. A highly underappreciated Lumet film not on DVD.

Garbo Talks ***- Surprisingly effective 'weepie' starring Ron Silver as a desperate accountant trying to appease his mother's dying wish- for her to talk to reclusive film star Greta Garbo. I wasn't sure what to expect from this one, but Silver and Anne Bancroft turn in marvelous performances and the whole film has a nice whimsical feel to it. The long shot, with Bancroft spilling her guts on her deathbed, is a heartbreaking scene. Not on DVD.

The Morning After *- One of the very bad ones. Jane Fonda plays a drunken, over-the-hill actress who wakes up in the morning after a bender next to a dead man. Jeff Bridges is the ex-cop who falls for her and helps her unravel the mystery. The pacing is very uneven, the performances hokey and badly constructed, and the resolution just as clunky.

Power ***- One of the more interesting films about the inner mechanics of the campaign trail, "Power" stars Richard Gere as a political strategist running simultaneous campaigns around the U.S. If this type of thing bores you, then you probably won't find much to spark your interest, but Gere strides through confidently even if the whole thing amounts to less than meets the eye. I was expecting a grand finale, but instead it ends with a whimper. Still highly involving and, yes, I find the inner workings of the campaign trail quite fascinating.

Running On Empty ***1/2- Revisiting his pro-hippie slant of "Daniel", this story follows two war activists (Judd Hirsch and a wonderful Christine Lahti) as they run from the law fourteen years after bombing a napalm plant and accidentally maming a janitor. But the real burden of this crime lies on the shoulders of their young sons (the older of the two played to riveting perfection by River Phoenix). This is a film full of gentle relationships and warm, seemingly improvised moments such as a birthday party that morphs into singing and dance, all captured in observant long takes by Lumet. If nothing else, see this for the perfectly rendered friendship that forms between Phoenix and a young Martha Plimpton.

Family Business *1/2- Mob comedy (which felt so prevalent in the late 80's) that re-teams Lumet with Connery filling out a family of thieves (Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick). It walks an uneasy line of comedy and melodrama, and never achives the quaint charm of later mob comedies, such as his own "Find Me Guilty".

Q&A **- The third film in his police corruption trilogy, this one features Timothy Hutton chasing the wayward and illegal Nick Nolte. Hutton doesn't quite live up to the serious leading man role like Pacino and Williams before him, and the whole film feels seriously out of touch with race, gender and homosexuality. Plus there's an awfully contrived relationship between Hutton and the now-girlfriend of mob boss Amand Assante. Lumet does keep his track record of featuring a future "Sopranos" star though, this time its Uncle Jr. (Dominik Chianese) who played supporting roles in other Lumet ventures.

A Stranger Among Us **1/2- Nowhere near as bad as I was led to believe, Melanie Griffith is miscast as a cop who goes undercover to solve the murder of a diamond dealer in New York's Hassidic community but her performance, oddly, begins to make sense after awhile. Pure early 90's cheeze, but not terribly unwatchable. There's some sizzle between Griffith and Orthodox Jew Eric Thal and you have to give Lumet credit- he doesn't leave any nook of New York unnoticed. A very young (and slim) James Gandolfini even makes an appearance.

Guilty As Sin *1/2- Director Lumet certainly went through an artistic lull in the 90's, and this is another one of them. I'd forgotten just how sexy De Mornay is, and she exudes a certain charisma here, but the story (manipulating pretty boy Don Johnson sets up an elaborate judicial game of cat and mouse based on a possible murder) is handled with little flair or intelligence. Add to that a laughable, over-the-top finale and "Guilty As Sin" ranks as a true misfire.

Critical Care ***- James Spader is terrific in this dark comedy about a professional 'virgin' med student being exposed to the malicious and beauracratic devices of the medical field. For once, Lumet doesn't take the subject matter too seriously and manages to weave together a touching and humorous expose.

Night Falls on Manhatten **- The same contrivances that plagued "Q&A" (a clumsy relationship between two central characters and an uneven leading man) also threatens to sink any believability in this 1997 effort, which finds Andy Garcia rising to the ranks of New York's district attorney while fighting police corruption, which may or may not involve his father (Ian Holm) and partner (a wonderful James Gandolfini). With a script written by Lumet himself, it begins to soar when his script again tackles the vagaries of NY blue, but ultimately gets mired in too many inconsistencies and a leading performance from Garcia that feels as if he's in over his head.

Gloria *- Why did this need a remake? Pretty terrible on every level, and I paid full admission to see this turkey in the theater. Note to self, ANY Cassavettes remake cannot be good.

Find Me Guilty *** - Vin Diesel turns in a surprisly charming leading role, and it seems Lumet needs a nifty comedy every now and then to clean his palatte. Not to mention, this film is littered with great Italian faces and character actors.

Strip Search *1/2- Didactic and obvious. Yes, we all know we do bad things during times of war, but this short film about the confinement of two people (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Jacobsen) on seperate sides of the world adds nothing to the conversation.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead ****- "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a stunning return to form that feels like one of his early Tennessee Williams family-meltdown pot-boilers, complete with cheating wives, vain brothers and the nuclear family in complete disarray. Throw in a botched robbery, drug abuse and Marisa Tomei baring it all in virtually every scene she's in, and you've got a magnificent downer of a film that pulses with dread and defeatism.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bob Turnbull said...

Wow, great post Joseph...Lumet has done some of my favourite films (two of my top 5 - 12 Angry Men and Network) and I've always been curious about the rest of his work. But the last two of his I've seen were quite awful...I couldn't stand "Find Me Guilty" actually - I just didn't find Diesel's character likeable in the least. And TCM recently showed "Stage Struck", but even with some decent back stage theatre stuff and some good supporting performances, the lead character also annoyed me to no end.

You got me damn curious about The Anderson Tapes though.

Joe Baker said...

Thanks, Bob. You owe it to yourself to track down a copy of "The Anderson Tapes". If you're dissatisfied, I'll refund your money!