Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Prince of the City (1924-2011)

Here’s another embarrassing thing that can be filed under Famous Movie People I Used To Get Mixed Up Because Their Names Were Somewhat Similar. Long ago I used to confuse directors Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. It gets worse. I further confused Sydney Pollack with Alan J. Pakula.

You probably don’t have that problem but, if you did, one place you could go to make a start at straightening Pollack and Pakula out would be here. As for Lumet, we will take that up here, as a way of paying tribute, as the man passed away on Saturday at the age of 86.

It is always an over-simplification to try to sum up a filmmaker’s work with merely a sentence or two—especially one who turned out scores of movies in the course of half a century. (There were exactly 50 years between his first feature film, 12 Angry Men in 1957, and his last one, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in 2007.) But that’s never stopped me before. The quintessential Sidney Lumet film was one in which one man goes through a grueling test of his personal principles, against the opposition of all those around him.

That certainly describes the Henry Fonda character in the aforementioned 12 Angry Men. That movie was originally one of his many productions for television before he remade it for theatrical release. If you are old enough (and American), you probably saw it in school as an aid to learning how the U.S. jury system works. My shorthand description also describes Al Pacino’s character in Serpico and Treat Williams’s character in Prince of the City and even Paul Newman’s in The Verdict. Heck, it can even describe Peter Finch’s character in Network, even though that guy was crazy. And Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon.

And, while not as closely identified with New York as a filmmaker (in the public’s mind anyway) as, say, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, Lumet loved the Big Apple and set and filmed much of his work there. As he liked to say, in his movies the city was often a character in its own right.

Lumet has always been described as a “social issues” director, and the movies we have mentioned so far certainly back that up. Add to the list his other films that had their finger on the pulse what was preoccupying society at the time: The Pawnbroker (the legacy of the Holocaust), Fail-Safe (dangers of the Cold War), Running on Empty (political radicalism in the U.S.), Critical Care (the health care system). The man was the nation’s conscience, right? Well, it’s interesting that, in his New York Times obituary, the paper reprinted a quote from an interview in which he insisted he was never a crusader for social change. “I don’t think art changes anything,” he was quoted as saying. When asked then why he made movies, he replied, “I do it because I like it, and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.”

While Lumet’s attitude was a welcome antidote to those who exaggerate the importance of art and artists, he wasn’t completely right. Although it probably cannot be proved one way or another, 12 Angry Men surely had a major effect on how baby boomers saw the justice system. Its story (by Reginald Rose) made for gripping drama, but it also set up a paradigm where virtually every defendant could be seen as not guilty if the jurors just took time to reason it out. In the best TV tradition, the heroic juror doesn’t just weight the evidence. He becomes a detective in his own right. And, surely, Fail-Safe—along with its source novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler—helped to form people’s attitudes toward the dangers of nuclear arms. Perhaps Lumet’s most lasting influence on our culture was Network and its amazingly ahead-of-its-time take, thanks mainly to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, on the mass media. People never quite looked at the major networks as news outlets quite the same again, and it primed succeeding generations for the explosion of information that would come a couple of decades later with the World Wide Web. Moreover, Peter Finch’s riveting performance (and his swan song, as he would not live to collect the resulting Oscar) was a sort of prototype for angry white men (on both the right and left) who have come to dominate cable news channels. We generally don’t remember exactly what Howard Beale was ranting about, only that he was “mad as hell” and that he wasn’t “going to take it anymore.” But we do remember how he was cynically exploited by empty suits for the sake of profits over anything else, including public safety and national security.

If Sidney Lumet had made no other movies than the ones discussed above, his place in film history, indeed cultural history, would be secure. So all the other ones can be thought of as a gift. They include movies that many of us forgot he had directed. They include his standard thought-provoking fare (Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, Guilty as Sin, Find Me Guilty). They include adaptations of plays (The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Sea Gull, Equus). They include suspenseful entertainments (Child’s Play, The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, The Anderson Tapes). They also include adaptations of some interesting novels (Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Wallace Markfield’s Bye Bye Braverman, Larry McMurtry’s Lovin’ Molly and E.L. Doctorow’s Daniel). And they include some delightful treats. Like the all-star Agatha Christie extravaganza Murder on the Orient Express, which included the likes of Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave. Like the amusing adaptation of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Like the lovely paean to mother-son bonds, Garbo Talks, with Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver.

And, unless you have been brushing up on Sidney Lumet bios and filmographies, I bet you forgot completely that he was the one who directed the film adaptation of the musical The Wiz. And you know what that means? It means that this very accomplished director not only worked with all the actors mentioned above—as well as the likes of Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, James Mason, Jane Fonda, Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, River Phoenix, Helen Mirren, Vin Diesel and Philip Seymour Hoffman—but that he also worked with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor.

Now that is one full career.

-S.L., 14 April 2011

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