Apr 10, 2011

On Sidney Lumet

The first movie that made me cry hot tears of outraged indignation was The Hill, by Sidney Lumet, an incredibly intense film with Sean Connery about the mistreatment of British soldiers by their superiors in a disciplinary camp in WWII.
I was probably no more than 12 years of age and I watched it with my parents on TV.
By the end, I was inconsolable about the inhumanity these soldiers suffered. The fact that they were being humiliated and abused, not by the enemy but by their own leaders, was traumatic to me. I can vaguely remember my parents' proud amusement at my strong reaction to this film but indeed it gave me, probably for the first time in my life, a sense that the individual is very much alone in his fight against "the system", against insidious forces that strive to quash human dignity, often under the guise of what's best for us.

Some of the best films of the incomparable Sidney Lumet have this quality of moral outrage that, contrary to many other movies with pious and hypocritical moral pretensions, always feels totally genuine and genuinely indignant. Lumet's films have an energy, a zest, and a saltiness that makes them unforgettable. They don't go for easy targets like Nazis, or Russians, or exotic foreign enemies. Power, corruption, prejudice: he knows the enemy is within.
As I read in his obituary today about his frustration at not having won a best director Oscar for several movies that certainly deserved it (he was duly recognized with a honorary Oscar in 2005), I wondered if the reason for these slights was that, one, he was a quintessential New York filmmaker; his movies have the grit and moxie of New York in spades, something that those complacent cynics in LaLaLand may not wish to have rubbed in their faces. And two, he liked to pick fights with the system and vigorously stir the pot, making people uncomfortable about stuff that Americans are very smug about, like our judicial system, "we the people", the purity of our motives, etc. My recollections of his films are visceral and highly emotional.  I remember them as pulsing with an enormously generous energy, like life bursting at the seams.

My favorite movie of his is Dog Day Afternoon, which I also saw when I was very young. It has such an urban energy, with these two bumbling bank robbers, Al Pacino and John Cazale, both unforgettable, basically fighting with what seems to be the entire bureaucratic infrastructure of New York. Just to think about these two scrappy, clueless but spirited (and gay) fighters, brings tears to my eyes. The movie is funny, bracing, violent, and devastatingly heartbreaking. This is one of my favorite movies of all time.

I saw Network in my teens. I was impressed by the sheer force of it, and I guess dimly aware of its paranoid conspiratorial bent (understanding that corporations are not necessarily angelic requires a certain jadedness). But Network struck me as a very harsh movie. I felt like Paddy Chayefsky was angry at me. I felt I was being punished for being so naive. I remember it as being very abrasive, a touch hysterical even.
Serpico. Pacino again. One man's righteous indignation against corruption, right on.

I remember Running on Empty, with the young River Phoenix playing the son of Weather Underground-like anti-Vietnam war activists, as a beautiful movie. Who would make a movie like that today? Who would make Daniel, based on the E.L Doctorow novel about the Rosenbergs? With Lumet, you always know which side of the divide he's on.  
Lumet made other movies that were more purely entertaining, and he was as good at that as he was about stirring indignation. Deathtrap (an adaptation of a play by Ira Levin) was pretty cool and I loved Murder at The Orient Express because I was an avid Agatha Christie fan (at the age of 10). I remember the emotional rawness of Jane Fonda's performance as an alcoholic in The Morning After. Lumet inspired actors to do amazing work. He got them many nominations.

Of his recent movies, I strongly recommend Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel, not driving a hot rod, for a change. A quintessential Lumet movie, with all his trademark spunk and unendurable heartbreak. His last film, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, didn't quite work, but it was wonderfully ornery. It had such a gritty urban authenticity in the character parts (always glorious character casting in his films), the Lumet bountiful affection for salt of the earth, rude New Yorkers, it was almost like a throwback to another era. Lumet's movies, whether perfect or flawed, never felt generic or paint by numbers. He made everything seem more authentic and more alive than it has any right to be.
Bless his spirit. It lives forever in his films.

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