Sidney Lumet’s first and last films: 12 Angry Men and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

What changed, and what stayed the same, during Sidney Lumet’s 50-year career as a director? As Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is added to BFI Player, we tackle the bookends of a great filmography.

9 January 2024

By Brogan Morris

The first: 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

“If you asked me specifically, ‘When you did 12 Angry Men, were you interested in the justice system?’ Absolutely not. I was interested in doing my first movie.” So says Sidney Lumet in the 2015 documentary By Sidney Lumet, though he is, surely, exaggerating. Over a 50-year filmmaking career, Lumet, with workmanlike regularity, turned his hand to a great number and variety of projects, but he returned most often to the subject of law and order. He investigated the justice system on every level, taking the perspectives of cops and lawyers, criminals and victims, examining crime scenes, cop shops, courts and prisons – and, to begin with, the jury room in 12 Angry Men.

Adapted from a 1954 Reginald Rose play originally staged for CBS’s Studio One series, 12 Angry Men, appropriately for Lumet, had both theatrical and televisual roots. A former New York stage actor and off-Broadway director who became a TV director-for-hire in the early 1950s, Lumet carried the influence of those early roles through all his features, though arguably never more clearly than in his first. Set almost entirely in one room, where an all-male jury debates an apparently open-and-shut murder case, 12 Angry Men unfolds largely in real-time in a precise, economical visual language that Lumet had learned directing hundreds of hours of (mostly live) television.

In his 1995 book Making Movies, Lumet would write: “Good style, to me, is unseen style.” The director favoured a robust, unshowy classicism, and while Lumet’s hand isn’t entirely invisible in 12 Angry Men – he occasionally throws in sweaty close-ups of the jurors’ faces that are closer than is typical, or comfortable – ultimately the film’s visual style is in service to the play and its players. Unusually for a Hollywood filmmaker, Lumet arranged for two weeks of rehearsals prior to shooting 12 Angry Men to explore the script with his actors (a process the director would repeat on all his subsequent films), and so much of the final film’s energy can be found in the subtle character shading, natural interplay between performers and nuance drawn from Rose’s dialogue by the cast.

12 Angry Men (1957)

From his first film through to his last, Manhattanite Lumet would keep returning to New York stories, the best of which would bottle the atmosphere from the time of the movie’s making. 12 Angry Men doesn’t leave the New York County Courthouse until its final seconds, but it takes the city’s temperature through its characters – among them a cocksure ad man, an unfeeling stockbroker and an immigrant success story – and their combative discourse on the state of things circa 1957. In 12 Angry Men, New York is on the boil, simmering with tensions between classes, generations and ethnicities. As would be the case in all of Lumet’s best films set in the Big Apple, the city is not just the city but a place where Lumet can also speak of the wider America – and maybe even humanity itself.

12 Angry Men centres perhaps the most decent of all Lumet’s characters in Henry Fonda’s Juror 8, initially the only member of the jury to vote not guilty, and the kind of lone dissenting voice against the mob that would pop up again and again in the director’s work. Lumet would always side with outsiders like Juror 8, and with people of underprivileged and minority communities like the film’s 18-year-old defendant, only glimpsed at the beginning of the film but whose alleged crime – and whether or not he should go to the electric chair for it – is debated to the end.

The last: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Following 12 Angry Men, Lumet experimented stylistically – trying among other things expressionistic visuals in The Pawnbroker (1964), radiant Renoir-esque colour photography in The Sea Gull (1968) and some disorienting editing in The Offence (1973) – before soon settling back into the classicist groove of his debut. By his 44th and final feature, Lumet had, if anything, only further simplified his ‘unseen’ visual style, while he’d also long since moved on from studio sets of the like seen in 12 Angry Men to shooting out in the real New York. All the same, many of the director’s interests remained fixed up to his last film.

Another of Lumet’s character-driven New York stories concerning crime in the city, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead follows brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), as well as their father Charles (Albert Finney), whose jewellery store Andy and Hank try to burgle with disastrous consequences. Though this time we’re in the company of the criminals, and pretty reprehensible ones at that – if Juror 8 is one of Lumet’s most decent characters, Hoffman’s venal ‘mastermind’ Andy resides way at the other end of that spectrum – Lumet remains steadfastly sympathetic, still keenly aware of the social conditions that can drive people to break the law.

Echoes of Lumet’s first film can be heard all throughout his 44th. Far from the courthouse, and half a century on, men continue to dominate the picture: Marisa Tomei gives possibly Devil’s most nuanced turn as Andy’s neglected wife Gina, but Lumet can’t for long look away from his three volatile male leads, the director ever curious about how there can be the potential for both great compassion and great violence contained within a man. As in 12 Angry Men, characters wrestle with their consciences as they weigh their own wants and needs against what they know to be morally right. Finney’s Charles, meanwhile, takes over from Lee J. Cobb’s Juror 3 in the role of the domineering father grown distant from his children.

For all the ways Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead chimes with 12 Angry Men, however, Lumet’s last film is also notable for how unlike his first – and indeed all his other pictures – it is.

Sidney Lumet and Philip Seymour Hoffman on the set of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

An early adopter of digital, Lumet shot Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead using high definition cameras, scrubbing away the glamorous unreality of film for a verisimilitude not seen in Lumet’s celluloid pictures – the camerawork more or less as unfussy as it’s always been from the director, but with the details clearer, the action more immediate.

The film’s approach to time and perspective is new to Lumet, too, with screenwriter Kelly Masterson splintering the story in the style of Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), hopping back and forth in the narrative as the doomed robbery and its aftermath are alternately shown from the distinct POVs of Andy, Hank and Charles.

In his half-century of filmmaking, Sidney Lumet was remarkably consistent. His visual style characterised by a deliberate absence of character, Lumet’s chief concern through all 44 of his films could be boiled down to, in his words, the question ‘Is it fair?’ – something he asked most directly in the numerous films he made on the subject of justice (or lack thereof).

But Lumet was also, in his unassuming way, an adventurous storyteller, one who as well as crime pictures made comedies, murder mysteries, melodramas and a musical. This was a workhorse director who adapted to serve the material he landed, starting with a single-location court drama told in real-time and signing off with a scrambled neo-noir.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead arrives on BFI Player on 11 January 2024.

Other things to explore

From the Sight and Sound archive

Elaine May: laughing matters

By Carrie Rickey

Elaine May: laughing matters

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

By Henry K Miller

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema

By Tony Rayns

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema