Rogue 10: Ten Classic Films From the Late Sidney Lumet

Monday, 11 April 2011 14:12 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue 10: Ten Classic Films From the Late Sidney Lumet

On Saturday, director Sidney Lumet died in his Manhattan home at the age of 86.  By now, you've surely seen innumerable tributes to the filmmaker, but the fact of the matter is the no amount of ink could properly express the power of his very best films.  His work stands in marked contrast to what we're used to these days, not only in the restrained, location-based style, but more importantly, in the willingness of his films to provoke, to upset, and to challenge us as an audience.  So today, we present ten movies directed by Sidney Lumet, not as a ranked list, but simply as a group of films that will deepen your appreciation not only of the director, but of the medium itself.

The Pawnbroker

In 1964, it wasn't an awards season truism that films about the Holocaust were surefire prestige pictures.  In fact, The Pawnbroker was one of the first movies to deal directly with the Holocaust and its effects.  Rod Steiger stars a withdrawn, willfully lonely Holocaust survivor running a pawnshop in Harlem; through flashbacks, we see the brutalities he has endured, and from his perspective, we see the parallels between those brutalities and modern callousness in depressed urban settings.

Equus

Odds are, you're familiar with Peter Shaffer's stage play because a few years back, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe appeared nude in a revival, but Lumet's 1977 adaptation nailed the difficult material with an actor who played the young lead over 1,000 times on stage.  Lumet's rigorous rehearsals helped create two indelible performances from his leads Peter Firth and Richard Burton, playing a young man with a psychosexual-religious equine obsession and the psychiatrist investigating the boy.

Prince of the City

Lumet's longtime fascination with police corruption and the vagaries of institutionalized justice is on full display in Prince of the City, a police drama based on real events, starring Treat Williams as a narcotics cop who cooperates with an investigation into his fellow officers in order to save himself.  The film is largely a reaction to the similarly themed Serpico, and there are those who argue that Prince of the City is superior to its more famous sibling.

Murder on the Orient Express

In this Agatha Christie adaptation, the director juggles a dozen suspects and a complex investigation taking place within the limited confines of a train, yet never lets the material or his famous ensemble slip away from his control.  Lumet's knack for coaxing just the performance from his actors is evident in the deliberately over-the-top turns from the likes of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, and Albert Finney as the legendary Inspector Poirot.

Serpico

In easily Lumet's most famous take on police corruption, Al Pacino portrays real life New York cop Frank Serpico, a virtuous officer surrounded by crooked cops who don't take kindly to his uprightness.  Serpico is, in many ways, the locus classicus of Lumet's resume, featuring many of his recurring themes and trademarks, such as never-better location shooting in New York.

The Offence

Another look at modern policing and moral equivocation.  Here Lumet examines not police corruption, but the aggregate effect of two decades spent in direct contact with the very worst of humanity.  Twenty years of repressed disgust and rage are uncorked when a veteran detective, played by Sean Connery, interrogates a suspect he believes is a child molester. 

The Verdict

Paul Newman starring and a script by David Mamet is really all you need to know.  A chance for Lumet to explore justice as an institution, with Newman pushing an easily settled medical malpractice suit to trial out of self-interest, then finding that he is inadvertently doing the right thing.  This is a prime example of Lumet's ability to handle unwieldy themes without sacrificing an ounce of entertainment value.

Network

No hyperbole, this scathing satire is straight up brilliant.  You're not going to find many films produced 35 years ago that are more relevant to modern American culture than this one.  Directed from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, the film stars Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a freshly fired television anchor whose indignant, impassioned on-air screed turns him into a commodity for an amoral network, which markets him as "the mad prophet of the airwaves."

Dog Day Afternoon

A true story that combines mistrust of the police, a heist gone wrong, a fickle media, and a New York location?  Sounds like Lumet's bread and butter.  Al Pacino and John Cazale play would-be bank robbers who are suddenly smack in the middle of a hostage situation.  A sly sense of humor, and a mounting sense of dread – along with superb, surprising characterization – are among the reasons that this is my personal favorite Lumet picture.

12 Angry Men

In his very first feature film, Sidney Lumet played with many of the thematic ingredients that would define his filmography, in particular the human fallibility at the center of the justice system.  Henry Fonda is Juror #8, the lone holdout in a jury that is convinced of a young man's guilt in a murder trial.  Lumet takes one sweltering room and twelve well defined characters and makes a riveting drama that holds up perfectly 60 years later.

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