Monday, April 11, 2011

RIP - Sidney Lumet

A legendary filmmaker passed away over the weekend; Sidney Lumet died at the age of 86 after a battle with lymphoma. Lumet was one of the great American directors, having been behind such classics as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict.

Mr. Lumet was born in Philadelphia in 1924. His parents were veteran performers of the Yiddish stage. His father Baruch was an actor, director, producer and writer, while his mother Eugenia was a dancer. As a young boy, Lumet began making appearances on stage, and soon made his Broadway debut. He had a successful career as an actor on stage, which continued up until World War II began.

Returning from military service in 1946, he joined the newly created Actor's Studio and created a theatre workshop. it was at this point he began his directing career. He started doing some Off-Broadway and summer stock work, while also teaching.

In the 1950s, he began working in early television, gaining a reputation as one of the most proficient and brilliant young directors in the medium. He directed episodes of Danger, Mama, You Are There, Playhouse 90, and Studio One. In 1957, he directed his first feature film, an adaptation of a teleplay that had been produced for Studio One. The film was set almost entirely within a jury room during the deliberation of a murder case. Henry Fonda played the lone juror who votes to acquit the accused, and the story follows his attempts to sway the votes of the others. The cast was one of the all-time great collections of character actors ; Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsalm, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and John Fiedler to name just a few. The film was a critical triumph, and was nominated for 3 Oscars.

From there, Lumet returned to television, and also began directing feature films in earnest. He was incredibly prolific, completing a film per year throughout the 1960s. Not all of them were successful, but during this time Lumet made several classic films such as Long Day's Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, and The Hill.

But it was the 1970s where Lumet had his greatest successes, both commercially and artistically. He started the decade with some minor successes in the form of The Anderson Tapes and The Offense. But, in 1973, he directed Serpico, a film that was a huge success in every way, and helped secure Al Pacino as a major box office draw. Lumet capitalized on that success with a remarkable run of films that were both commercial hits, as well as some of the best films of the decade; Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Equus.

Lumet began the 1980s with strong, challenging work. He released Prince of the City, Deathrap and The Verdict, all of which were successes. But the rest of the decade proved mixed for Lumet. He made some flawed films with moments of greatness, such as Power, Running on Empty, and Q&A, but there were more weak films than he ever had previously.

In the 1990s, he continued to make films, but they were smaller in scale. Some remain hidden gems well worth checking out, such as Night Falls on Manhattan. In the last decade, he seemed to find his footing once again, releasing two films that rank among his best, Find Me Guilty and the stunning Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The latter would be his final film.

Lumet was a director who favoured a naturalistic or realistic style, preferring a technique that didn't call too much attention to itself. He was a master of combining social commentary into films without making them preachy or distracting from the story. He was highly regarded for his speed, as well as for his versatility in taking on all kinds of genres. He was also renowned for his ability to collaborate without ego, as well as his genuine love for, and rapport with, actors. This explains why so many actors he worked with went on to be nominated for or win major awards for their work in his films.

Sidney Lumet surely must be counted among the greats of American film making, even if his modest ego never permitted him to blow his own horn too loudly. He was nominated for an Oscar five times, four for directing (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict) and once for writing (Prince of the City), but he didn't win an Oscar until 2005, when he was presented with an Honorary Award. But it's his body of work that is the true measure of his skill, and few filmmakers can boast the sheer amount of classic work that Sidney Lumet produced. He will be missed.

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