No Concessions: The Unsung Sidney Lumet

Written by Film, No Concessions

Bob Cashill takes a look at some of the less familiar chapters from a storied career.

What’s the best way to memorialize someone? That’s a question I’ve wrestled with over the two or three years. At my blog I used to write up anyone of significance who passed away, a quick review of greatest hits (and misses), but I found that unsatisfactory, and as the numbers increased I felt like a gravedigger, picking up the shovel every day or two. And of late (so to speak) it has been every day or two–it’s only early April and already 2011 has been terribly depressing, with many losses. It’s all I can do to throw up a tweet or a Facebook entry and commune with friends over the passing of so many inspiring personalities.

At Popdose I’ve been moved to write about sudden or tragic losses, those who went too soon, like Natasha Richardson or, at the risk of repeating what I said above, Jill Clayburgh. Or pop out a little clip show, as with Dino De Laurentiis. With Sidney Lumet, however, some other treatment seems in order.

For one thing, by the time you read this you’ll have read, or at least skimmed, a thousand Lumet obits. And all of them will have mentioned the same familiar highlights. The assured debut, 12 Angry Men (1957); the somber nuclear thriller Fail-Safe (1964); The Pawnbroker (1965), with its shattering Rod Steiger performance; the great run of dirt-under-the-fingernails New York movies, Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975, my favorite of his films), Network (1976) and Prince of the City (1981); the hugely successful all-star confection Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which, with the flop musical The Wiz (1978), was a glossy odd man out in a closer-to-ground career; an ebbing Paul Newman slowly gathering strength in The Verdict (1982); a last rattling of the cage with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). See them. (Turner Classic Movies is dedicating April 21 to his memory, which is one way to catch up; his “Private Screenings” episode is one of the series’ best. Or enjoy the war stories from his fine autobiography, Making Movies.)

No need for me to recount these highlights further. I think the best way to salute such a formidable talent is to give back, by shedding light om some of his lesser-known credits. He worked a lot (not always wisely: Melanie Griffith undercover as a Hasidic Jew in A Stranger Among Us? A remake of Gloria?), enough so that some worthwhile films have receded over the decades. I’ve picked six. Look for a bit of commentary about some of them in this excellent interview with Glenn Kenny.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962):  Lumet was an enthusiastic and often skillful adapter of stage shows, though his choices could be erratic. (The Wiz, at least, preserves the likes of Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne, his one-time mother-in-law, in the pink of health, though I’m surprised to have come across a lot of web love for 1982’s Deathtrap, maybe because I’d seen the superior play.) This, though, was The Big One, four hours of Eugene O’Neill at his most turbulent and tormented, and Lumet and a sterling quartet–Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nominee), Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell–did his final masterpiece justice. I shiver just thinking about it.

Bye Bye Braverman (1968): I call Lumet the “king of the MOD directors,” not as in “hip,” rather as in “manufactured-on-demand”: those DVD-R initiatives, from Warner Bros., Sony/Columbia, Fox/MGM and Universal, that are emptying their vaults of flops, curiosities, and unheralded gems that haven’t seen the light of a marquee since forever. While I wait for the Warner Archive to get to 1968’s The Sea Gull (with a magnificent Vanessa Redgrave performance) there’s this trenchant comedy, which Lumet professed not to like. He felt its story of Jewish intellectuals in Manhattan who get lost, literally and figuratively, on their way to a colleague’s burial didn’t “rise”–but thanks to a constantly amusing cast that includes George Segal, Jack Warden, Alan King, Godfrey Cambridge (as a Yiddish-speaking cabbie), and a scarily judgmental Joseph Wiseman it hardly falls, either. Poke around these archive programs and you’ll also find, among others, The Group (1967) and another King comedy, 1980’s Just Tell Me What You Want…what I want is a disc, a tape, anything, of Lumet’s gone-missing Child’s Play (1972), so if anyone has one, drop me a line.

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The Offence (1972):  The knock on Lumet is that he wasn’t a “visual” director, but this bravura sequence (from another MOD title) should silence doubters for a few minutes (and it may not be work-safe, unless you toil in a crime lab or asylum). Lumet and Sean Connery are an unheralded star/director combo (five credits) and this is their strongest collaboration, a bleak play adaptation with the actor grasping the end of his rope as a police detective whose brutal interrogation of a suspected child molester (Ian Bannen) becomes a self-inquiry, as we see in this so-called “memory montage.”

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Running on Empty (1988):  Lumet considered this a reworking of Daniel (1983), a stark, somber failure. Letting the light in on a drama about a teenager whose parents, Vietnam-era radicals, live one step ahead of the law is a great performance by River Phoenix, matched by Martha Plimpton as a fellow student who is worth the risk of putting down roots. The 64-year-old director brought out the best in his teen co-stars, one gone far too soon.

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Q&A (1990): I have a soft spot for 1997’s Night Falls on Manhattan, which falls apart due to script issues. This engrossing police procedural, his last outstanding one, goes the distance, thanks to what you can see is Nick Nolte’s outsized-in-every-way portrayal of a rogue cop unbalanced by his own suppressed desires.

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Find Me Guilty (2006): Momentarily redeeming himself with a loose and funny performance (maybe it was the hair) was Vin Diesel, in the true story of  a mob guy who presided over the circus of the longest Mafia trial in history. Warming up for the Old Testament-like zeal of the brutal Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead Lumet gives law-and-order themes a more playful spin than usual, with a gallery of fine actors (Raul Esparza, Peter Dinklage, etc.) in support. The filmmaker was never guilty of letting performers go to waste.

 

 

 


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