Monday, April 11, 2011
The first time I ever visited New York City, relatively recently in 2003, my very first impression was that I had finally found the place where I belong. There was an energy coursing through my veins as I climbed up the stairs of Penn Station and onto a noisy Eighth Avenue. I didn't need a map. I knew how to get around (admittedly, Manhattan's geography is fairly easy), and more than that, knew where the neighborhoods, even specific buildings, business establishments, and places of interest were located. My education had mostly come from all of the New York films directed by Sidney Lumet. "If a director comes in from California and doesn't know the city at all," he said, "he picks the Empire State Building and all the postcard shots, and that, of course, isn't the city." Lumet was arguably the finest filmmaker to have ever captured the feel of the city, beautiful in its griminess, alluring yet, at times, frustratingly deadly.
Lumet had the enviable fortune to start and end his prolific career with two of the finest films in American cinema history. His first film (after a healthy career in television) was the powerful courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men (1957). His last film was the intense crime story of a heist gone wrong, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). And 42 motion pictures in between. Of those only about a dozen were not set primarily in New York.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) made the strongest impression on me. Lumet cast stars Al Pacino and John Cazale as bumbling bank robbers trapped in a hostage situation growing out of control, mostly due to the involvement of the media. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the way Lumet gets the viewer to buy into these two actors, Pacino and Cazale—both coming off of the most iconic performances of their career in The Godfather series—as a couple of inept, yet dangerous, criminals. Cazale had just played dumb Fredo, who "...couldn't hurt a fly," in The Godfather Part II, and here he was, dead-eyed, silently stealing the show as the more lethal of the pair. Pacino, so commanding in his stoicism as Michael Corleone, was as twitchy as a junkie, sweating with the desperation of a man over his head, as he tried to figure his way out of a mess of his own doing. Lumet, who also had a theater background, was able to utilize the dynamic range of the stage-trained young Pacino while still keeping him from lapsing into the histrionics he has often been prone to in his old age. Lumet imbues Dog Day Afternoon with the same dynamism as its lead. The tonal shifts from fatally serious to jittery, from darkly comic to surprisingly rousing—"Attica! Attica!"— are masterfully executed by the director.
Such jarring transitions would serve Lumet well in his acclaimed follow-up, Network (1976). Here, Lumet would zero in on the media he briefly lampooned in Dog Day Afternoon, and pull it to the foreground. Actor Peter Finch would steal the show as the raving Howard Beale, an evangelical news anchor who raises the ratings for a struggling TV network with his mad diatribes. Lumet's blocking of Finch's scenes, his framing, and the performance he elicited from the British actor all look prescient now, a fact borne out by anyone who has watched Glenn Beck's show on the Fox News Channel. Still, despite positioning star Faye Dunaway and the late Finch for Oscar wins, what I'm most impressed with is Lumet's directing of Beatrice Straight and William Holden. In the midst of all of Network's sturm und drang, Straight is quietly devastating in her one scene in the film, in which husband Holden admits to her that he is having an affair. The scene garnered Straight an Academy Award. At just under 6 minutes, it is, to date, the briefest performance to ever have won an Oscar.
In the coming weeks, I'll be revisiting Lumet's work, mostly his NY police procedurals. They always held the most appeal for me (I was a double major in college: Motion Pictures and Criminology). I plan on writing one of them up for an upcoming DVD column for Wide Screen, likely the underrated Q & A (1990). Lumet was at his strongest when observing the macho code of honor of police culture in conflict with the corruption prevalent throughout the criminal justice system. As the title character in Lumet's Serpico (1973) says, "The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry - it just gets dirtier." Lumet knew how to amplify Serpico's characterization of his police force into an indictment of society in general, with the most beloved melting pot in the world as the ideal microcosm for such an inquiry.
He died Saturday at the age of 86.
Recommended Films - 12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Q & A, Guilty as Sin, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead