Six underrated films by master director Sidney Lumet
by Tony Dayoub
One [year] ago, cinema lost director Sidney Lumet, "a leading American realist," according to David Thomson in his essay, "The Fugitive Kind: When Sidney Went to Tennessee." Thomson describes Lumet as "a master of complex working situations, of limited time and space, of plot intrigue, of real-life settings and natural drama." I'd add that Lumet was fascinated by iconoclasts and how they confronted injustice. In movie after movie, his heroes often found themselves at odds with societal norms despite the fact that they tended to stick to a moral code that society had itself established. Whether it was Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda) in 12 Angry Men, the eponymous cop (Al Pacino) of Serpico, or producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) in Network, the protagonist demanded fairness while ensconced in a corrupted system that had long ago abandoned the notion. One finds this recurring theme in some form or another in all of Lumet's films.
In a career bereft of the usual stylistic flourishes that distinguish the auteur from the simple journeyman director, Lumet could legitimately claim to be both. After directing Off-Broadway, and with over 70 screen directing credits spanning television (the former child actor contributed many of the theatrical adaptations that marked the Golden Age of Television) and film, Lumet would stand out for his ability to draw award-winning performances from a wide range of actors. And Lumet's habitual use of New York City as a setting — indicative of an affection for the city that might be surpassed only by Woody Allen's — served to further distinguish Lumet from the average filmmaker, inspiring other New York directors like Spike Lee.
Over the past few weeks, a fair amount of tributes have concentrated on Lumet's best-known pictures, movies like Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City and other films mentioned earlier. But the prolific Lumet's filmography was deep and wide, its aesthetic preoccupations easier to pin down in hindsight than in the director's lifespan. Call them atypical, uncharacteristic, or underrated; here are my picks for six of Lumet's most offbeat — and in some cases underappreciated — films.
The Fugitive Kind, 1960, The Criterion Collection
Lumet adapts Tennessee Williams' flop, Orpheus Descending. It stars Marlon Brando as the virile "Snakeskin," a modern-day troubadour whose innate vitality awakens the long dormant passions of a Southern town's women (Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton). The putrefying old men (Victor Jory, R.G. Armstrong), hate-mongers all, retaliate with intimidation designed to run him out of town.
Brando's and Magnani's acting styles are mismatched. Brando's seems to emanate from deep within, while Magnani's seems borne out of desperation, clutching competitively for whatever form of inspiration the superb (and surprisingly low-key) Brando deigns to offer her. In interviews, Lumet blames Magnani for the film's unevenness. She refused to participate in the extensive rehearsals the stage-trained Lumet found so valuable. But Brando and Woodward, though the latter spends less time on-screen, are transcendent. Each glows from within in this unusually (for Lumet) impressionistic film. Much of this is a credit to the collaboration between Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman, both of whom decided to light the film with some inventive theatricality, raising and dimming spotlights on each of the actors at the most incandescent moments in their performances.
The Criterion DVD is one of the last of the label's recent releases to fail to make it onto Blu-ray. But it includes a frank interview with Lumet (quite the raconteur), a doc on playwright Williams, and one of Lumet's early television hours, a program of three one-acts written by Williams.
The Pawnbroker, 1964, Artisan Entertainment
Lumet's searing portrait of an elderly Jewish pawnbroker is possibly the first mainstream American film to address the Holocaust from a survivor's perspective. The cynically detached Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) walks like a zombie through his daily routine, passively submitting to a local crime boss (Brock Peters) who uses Nazerman's shop as a front. But stinging moments when the moral decay creeps too close to the old man (such as a controversial scene in which a young hooker tempts him by baring her breasts, an early shot across the bow of the archaic Production Code) reawaken memories of Nazerman's time at a concentration camp, where he was forced to watch his wife prostitute herself to German soldiers before her eventual execution.
Steiger's blistering temperament is harnessed by Lumet to great effect. "Rod came to you pouring 10 quarts of water into a five-quart pail. There was always too much," Lumet told Robert Osborne in a 2005 interview for TCM. "There was always too much thinking, too much emotion. Too much! And that, by the way, is a much better problem for a director than an actor who doesn't bring you enough. Because then all you have to do is suppress it, and when the actor is as talented as Rod, when you suppress it, you're just putting it into a better pressure cooker. It doesn't disappear."
Kaufman's cinematography is as gritty here as his work for The Fugitive Kind was lyrical. The dark shades color the inner-city locations with the same ashen complexion that characterizes many of the locals, including Nazerman and the hopeless souls who constantly angle to get the best return for the goods they pawn at his shop. Future mega-producer Quincy Jones composes the first of several musical scores for Lumet, a stunning bit of syncopation that runs counterpoint to the grim, subdued proceedings of the movie.
More than any other films from Lumet's early period, The Pawnbroker is a forerunner of the type of "New York" movie that he would become known for in the 1970s and '80s. It speaks to how much I like this film that I recommend the DVD despite the fact that it's only available in an open matte transfer that reframes the movie to reveal more picture than Lumet originally intended. No extras either, a major deficiency considering Lumet was more willing than most directors to provide anecdotal contributions.
The Group, 1966, Fox Home Entertainment
A women's picture by Sidney Lumet? The director displays his versatility in The Group, an addictive ensemble piece (based on the 1963 bestseller by Mary McCarthy) that follows the popular young graduates of a an East Coast women's college. The catty in-fighting among the group of girlfriends and the movie's frequent shift from one protagonist to another is reminiscent of the soapy TV miniseries of the early '80s that focused on the travails of rich females, like Lace or Bare Essence. But it's much smarter. The Depression-era setting allows The Group to explore the beginnings of feminism through its characters' individual experiences with issues like alcoholism, contraception, homosexuality, infidelity, political activism, psychoanalysis, and the rise of socialism among other things.
Many in the cast are either making their film debuts or are in the early days of their careers: Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Jessica Walter, James Broderick, Larry Hagman, Hal Holbrook, Richard Mulligan. Shirley Knight is the standout as the quiet lab assistant Polly, who secretly carries on an affair with Holbrook's wishy-washy publisher. Meanwhile, she must contend with her father's bipolar disorder after he leaves her mother and moves in.
Available on DVD-R as part of the manufactured-on-demand MGM Limited Edition Collection put out by Fox, The Group is about as bare-bones as you can get; there's not even a menu screen. For a non-anamorphic DVD, the transfer (cinematography by Kaufman again, this time in color) looks fine.
The Anderson Tapes, 1971, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Am I the only one who thinks of Mark Romanek's video for Beck's "Devils Haircut" when I see this Lumet film? As Romanek does in the end of that video, Lumet increases the paranoiac tension by punctuating nearly every scene with a zoom into some eavesdropping device recording criminal activity. In this case, the crimes are perpetrated by a paunchy, balding Sean Connery, continuing his campaign to bury the Bond persona by playing another loser for Lumet in this, their second outing after 1965's gritty The Hill. (Did you know Connery collaborated with Lumet in five films? Yeah, me neither.) Here, Connery plays a recidivist — just out of jail — who plans on robbing an entire Upper East Side apartment building in one shot. His gang includes a flamboyantly gay Martin Balsam and a young, pretty-boy Christopher Walken, "introduced" in this film.
A fair amount of the movie is ahead of its time, with a sharp focus on surveillance technology that preceded its significance in pop culture, which, one could argue, would begin years later with the Watergate scandal. But the equipment used is quite dated, a quality inadvertently enhanced by composer Quincy Jones's passé use of synthesized sounds to telegraph the appearance of yet another device. Needless to say, Jones' score for The Anderson Tapes is far less successful than his music for The Pawnbroker. The subtle shifts from comedy to drama, though, are handled effectively by Lumet and, in that respect, Anderson serves as a template for satirical Lumet films like Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Find Me Guilty.
Though the movie looks excellent on DVD (what Sony disc doesn't), the silly extras (cocktail recipes) promoting this as one of Sony's Martini Movies are beyond stupid.
Q&A 1990, Fox Home Entertainment
This might be Lumet's most underrated film. The title refers to a routine interview conducted by Timothy Hutton's Irish ADA to corroborate the recollection of a sketchy shooting by a well-regarded cop (Nick Nolte). Years ago, Connery played a similar cop for Lumet in The Offence (1972). But where years of working in slimy, sleazy conditions lead to Connery's crack-up, the Q&A character played by Nolte (darkened hair, walrus mustache, and burly silhouette nearly identical to Connery's in the earlier film) simply gives in to the depravity; he has a penchant for transgendered prostitutes and bullying fellow cops with threats to their heterosexuality. Nolte's performance is likely his best ever.
Equally as good as Nolte is Armand Assante, whose tendency for hamming it up is reined in by Lumet, and directed to fleshing out a noble Puerto Rican gangster, Bobby Tex, who wishes to leave his criminal life behind. Tex is a proto-Carlito Brigante (Carlito's Way), a stretch I admit, except when one takes into account that both characters were created by the same author, former New York City judge Edwin Torres.
The DVD is long out of print and difficult to find (this entry nearly didn't make it into the column because of how difficult a time I had locating a copy) and again, it includes no extras. But the transfer is sharp enough and the film is significant enough to warrant seeking it out.
Find Me Guilty, 2006, Fox Home Entertainment
Lumet's penultimate film doesn't look so promising at the start. It's shot on video and looks it. And it casts Vin Diesel (in a horrible toupée) as the complicated real-life mobster Jackie DiNorscio. Jackie Dee, as he was known to his associates, is serving out a lengthy jail sentence when he's offered a chance at freedom if he turns against his buddies in an organized crime trial. Instead, Jackie decides to join his friends on the stand and defend himself in what would turn out to be the lengthiest criminal trial in US history. Lumet coaxes a performance of great pathos, humor, and sensitivity from Diesel, an actor better known for his action chops.
Find Me Guilty melds Lumet's usual tropes — one man fighting against systemic corruption, a satirical look at true-life events — with the kind of courtroom drama he was known for at the start of his career. And he turns what are initially perceived to be deficiencies — Diesel and the cinematography — into strengths that grant the film a documentary-like immediacy that Lumet had sought, not always successfully, since at least as far back as Serpico, if not further.
The DVD looks great and includes a short question-and-answer session with the director.
This retrospective was first published on 5/11/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.