Sidney Lumet: 10 essential films

As his raging TV satire Network turns 40, we celebrate the brilliant dramas of Sidney Lumet, from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon.

Thirza Wakefield
Updated:

Network (1976)

Network (1976)

“I can’t write,” Sidney Lumet told Peter Bogdanovich (then a reporter) in 1960, adding, “and I have such respect for writers.”

Lumet was not a director who believed, as did his French contemporary Marguerite Duras, that cinema ought to cast off its attachment to text. Instead, he said: “I am a great believer in words in films,” and considered such talk of cleansing film of dialogue a “temporary fad”.

This allegiance to writing shows in his work; a great script is as typical of a Lumet film as a New York City setting. Over the course of a career spanning 55 years, Lumet partnered with some of the industry’s most talented screenwriters – Waldo Salt, Jay Presson Allen, Frank Pierson and David Mamet – and directed adaptations of important stage-plays, including Peter Schaffer’s Equus and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Sidney Lumet on the set of The Wiz (1978)

Sidney Lumet on the set of The Wiz (1978)

To this material, Lumet brought a command of the camera obtained during intensive training in television. Over a formative four years that would inform his mordant TV satire Network (1976), Lumet directed live telecasts for numerous anthology series, from CBS’s You Are There, specialising in historical re-enactment, to Danger, which dealt in murder mysteries. By the time of his making his first film, Lumet considered himself a meticulous technician. Reflecting on his debut 12 Angry Men, he maintained: “in 385 setups there was not one single technical error”. How Lumet must have railed at Pauline Kael’s discovering “technical crudities” in Serpico (1973)!

The Verdict (1982), The Pawnbroker (1964), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) – so many of Lumet’s movies prevail by their central performances, which is not to absent him from their success. These three films have in common a profound interest in masculinity, and along with Prince of the City (1981) and the earlier Serpico, make allowance for a great many modes of maleness, each with their paradoxes. Lumet put a woman front and centre of a film less often, but when he did she was a force to be reckoned with, and not necessarily likeable. What the different women of Network, Garbo Talks (1984) and Lovin’ Molly (1974) have in common is none will bend or relent; all know their minds.

On the 40th anniversary of the New York premiere of Network, we celebrate the variety of the late director’s work, with a look back at 10 of his greatest films. 

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

“Nice bunch of guys, huh?” says Edward Binns’s Juror 6 to Henry Fonda’s Juror 8. “They’re about the same as anyone else,” Juror 8 returns. Well, exactly – a fair jury should hold up a mirror to the community it represents.

The drawing of names by lot is how these dozen men wind up debating reasonable doubt and whether to send the juvenile defendant to his death. Following a near-unanimous first-vote in favour of finding him guilty, Juror 8 starts up the long road to rousing his co-jurors to concede the possibility that the accused is innocent.

Consistent with Lumet’s insistence that you “cast your camera the way you cast an actor,” the energetic camera of 12 Angry Men moves about the locked room as would a 13th juror, only with more prescience, anticipating (by holding on the empty air above a juror’s head into which will extend a tentative arm) a not-guilty vote before it’s given.

The strangers having shambled out of the deliberation room, the camera pans along the length of the table about which they had gathered and whereon lies the debris of democratic process: the newspapers, ashtrays, tissues, and the switchblade knife.

Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe (1964)

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Dan O’Herlihy’s General Black tells his wife. “You wouldn’t do very well,” she kids, adding, “There’s no chance of that, is there?” “None at all,” he soothes, with pacifying kiss. 

That is unless the US government should inadvertently instigate thermonuclear war with the Soviets, putting fiery end to the insecurities of wives worldwide, and all of humankind to boot.

1964 was a big year for the nuclear-war film. This one, a thriller, was hamstrung by the prior release of Dr. Strangelove, a satire. Non-satirically, Fail-Safe imagines the possibility that we be pushed over “the brink of eternity” (to borrow from the film’s tagline) by some technological blip, or a pilot’s fulfilling his training to the letter. In the words of old-style flier Grady: “These kids, you open them up, you’ll find they run on transistors.”

Formally experimental, music-less like Lumet’s debut, it’s a hard film, dark, compressed; a far cry from, say, Dog Day Afternoon. (How much looser in style is that later film with its montage-opening of a colour, business-as-usual New York, and Elton John’s ‘Amoreena’ on the soundtrack?) Where Dog Day Afternoon and Fail-Safe are alike, however, is in being bottom-heavy, the larger part of the film given over to the efforts of its principal characters to repair the cock-up of the film’s beginning. Both films censure not the men at their centres, who throw themselves full-tilt into mending the mistake, but the systems – of government, of law – that dwarf and overawe them.

The Hill (1965)

The Hill (1965)

“Morning, sir. Heat exhaustion,” are The Hill’s first words of dialogue, spoken to a medical officer, who will see worse cases than this one.

In a British army detention camp, seething in the desert, there is a hill, man-made. Obeying Staff Sergeant Williams’ orders, five new prisoners stagger up and down its sides, gasping for breath. As the commandant bids good morning to still another whore, Alfred Lynch’s Stevens, losing consciousness on the hill, is doused with water. Thrown from four corners, it forms an X of wet sand – darker, like overturned earth – and Stevens is immobile in the middle of it.

Lumet’s TV work must have come in useful when choreographing The Hill. The persecution of its five main players takes place in the busy prison yard, traversed by the camp’s other details, marching double-time. Evocatively shot by Oswald Morris, a favourite of director John Huston, it seems likely that it was an influence on Claire Denis’s Djibouti-set Beau Travail (1999). The flagpole shot in The Hill – with the camera positioned low, close to the base of the mast, and pointed skyward – finds its twin in the washing-line shot in the later film.

As usual, Lumet brings out outstanding performances from his cast, but especially from Ossie Davis (as King) and Sean Connery (as Roberts), whose characters’ carrying on and sassing their superiors has its source in exhaustion and despair.

Serpico (1973)

Serpico (1973)

The roast beef roll controversy at Charlie’s sums it up. “It’s all fatty,” Frank murmurs, staring down at his order. A patrolman new to the job, Frank is confused; there was lean stuff in the cabinet. “Don’t be fussy,” warns his colleague, “We give him a break on double parking.” But Frank can’t let it go: “Couldn’t I pay for it; get what I want?”

Frank is principled – an honourable officer – but to his NYPD associates and the district attorneys he obliges with his testimony he is “uniquely unique” (meant as praise) and a “weirdo cop” (an aspersion). Long before raising hackles by refusing to ‘collect’, he arouses the suspicion of conservative co-workers by his hippie hair, his jeté-ing in the precinct, and with petting a white mouse in his cupped hand – his “partner”, he jests.

Lumet communicates Frank’s perseverance by a series of humiliations, his heroism by his total isolation. Arthur J. Ornitz’s camera keeps its distance. The canteen-scene at the film’s beginning – beef roll as harbinger of direr corruption to come – is both typical of its painting of Serpico as putz, and couldn’t be more New York.

Pacino is extraordinary as Frank, having to press his seriousness through the beard and plainclothes disguises. The break-up scene with Laurie, for instance, has to be – and is – affecting, notwithstanding Frank’s being dressed in an ochre corduroy smock with elastic sewn into the wrists.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

In what is perhaps Lumet’s masterpiece, two hard-up friends botch a robbery of a Brooklyn bank. Immediately, we warm to Sonny (Al Pacino), an unnatural leader. He has a plan, but not a great one. He runs helter-skelter in front and behind the teller line, setting fires and attempting to spray-paint security cameras, though he hasn’t the reach.

This twitchiness is endearing, as is Frank’s gentle manner with the hostages. Lumet liked John Wojtowicz – the man on whom Sonny is based and whose story was printed in Life magazine in 1972 – because, in Lumet’s words: “he keeps going for results”. Certainly, Sonny is stubborn, and yet, in his tone when he tells bank manager Mulvaney “I know a lot about a lot of things”, is regret for his unused potential, and a fatalism that has us suspect Sonny never fully trusted he could pull this off.

Pacino is outstanding (“his talent is just blinding”, said his director), but so, too, are Chris Sarandon, John Cazale and the supporting cast, from the women cashiers played by Carol Kane, Penelope Allen and others, to the pizza-boy, who takes a bow after fulfilling his delivery.

Edited by the first-rate Dede Allen, the film switches between perspectives, adopting the points of view of the partners-in-crime, the marksmen on the roof, detective sergeant Moretti stationed at the barbershop across the street. The film is packed tight with people, and the prevalence of uniform in any given frame serves to show how outnumbered are the “squeezed out” Sonny and Sal. And still, consistent with Lumet’s career-long eyeing of the NYPD, it’s hard to say which is the more disorganised: the harried Moretti, who’s losing his voice, or Sonny, who’s extemporising.

Network (1976)

Network (1976)

Network’s was a different sort of screenplay to those Lumet was accustomed to working with. Dialogue in his films had tended to be pithy; this script, by Paddy Chayefsky, whom Lumet called a “rager”, had in it a wealth of long, monumental monologues. It being necessary to direct his principals in their delivery of these tirades, Lumet’s vaunted ability with actors was brought out in this movie that cannot make up its mind: is it a comedy or a horror?

Lumet had it in for TV – or, more accurately, the TV that TV was becoming. That ‘becoming’ is the worry at the hard heart of Network, which begins with UBS anchor-man Howard Beale (Peter Finch), lately fired, announcing live on air his plan to commit public suicide.

Scenting a hit in Howard’s psychological unstoppering, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming, hard-sells The Howard Beale Show to her UBS superiors: a new format of evening news, with Howard, as host, speechifying to a studio audience downstage of mock stained-glass.

Diana gets her wish, and “the mad prophet of the airwaves” performs CPR on the network she calls “an industry joke”. Not that Diana is interested (initially) in the content of his outpourings, but Howard delivers some home truths to the square-eyed masses: “You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here… In God’s name, you people are the real thing; we are the illusion.” In time, the network owner sits him down to a jeremiad delivered from the tapered-end of a corridor of banker’s lamps; thenceforward Howard sings a different tune. 

Women characters are rarely at the fore of Lumet’s movies. Network is remarkable for winning both best actress and best supporting actress awards at the 1977 Oscars – for Dunaway and Beatrice Straight respectively. Doubtless, Dunaway’s performance as the affectless Diana informed Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, editor of Runway magazine in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and, for that matter, all subsequent female authority-figures liable to address their lessers as “you people”.

Prince of the City (1981)

Prince of the City (1981)

The way Frank feels on being presented his detective’s gold shield in Serpico is about as Carla Ciello (Lindsay Crouse) feels on being deposited in front of her dream house. She and her young family are to be relocated there and watched over by 18 men in the wake of her husband’s testifying against police corruption: “It’s everything I ever wanted, just not this way,” she cries.

The prolific Jay Presson Allen, the female screenwriter with whom Lumet collaborated three times, produced so economical a script that within the first five minutes of Prince of the City we understand perfectly the freedoms and esteem enjoyed by Danny Ciello’s narcotics division.

Danny has his virtues: his knowledge of New York is second-to-none, and he’s good to his ‘stoolies’, seeing to it that they get their junk any hour of the day or night. These qualities aside, he’s a lousy cop. But that stands to change when he agrees – under the aegis of assistant DAs Cappalino and Paige – to wear a wire.

So why another movie about the New York Police Department? Well, simply put, there’s a world of difference between Serpico and Ciello. Ciello has friends, and is liable to lose them, and his fear of this coming to pass is the whole picture. “I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners,” as Danny puts it. In the eight years that separated the two films, Lumet’s style had matured. Prince of the City is the more sophisticated film – in its treatment of time, for instance. In Serpico, its passing is measured in moustaches and such; things inessential to story. The passing of time in Prince of the City is implied by Ciello’s becoming agreeable to the DAs calling him “Dan”, or in his snatching at the shaving foam after trying again to tease the tape painlessly from his chest, in which small gesture is contained his mounting commitment to informing.

That Lumet completed the nearly-three-hour film so quickly and brought it in under budget is astounding. No amount of preparation allotted to another director could have produced a movie of this level of detail or one so faithful to New York. Prince is a triumph of instinct, rather than of time or of money.

The Verdict (1982)

The Verdict (1982)

To call this a courtroom drama is misleading, since so little of it unfolds in court. That’s as should be for a film about a lawyer who is court-shy; who has taken only four cases in three years, and lost them all.

The film opens on Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) playing pinball in a bar, an image which is interfered with by the red blackletter of the credits. Silhouetted against leaded windows showing onto a Boston winter, Galvin wears his coat inside. The windows are hung with tinsel. (Is it Christmas, or did the barkeep forget to take down the decorations?)

Some years before, Galvin was laid low by a betrayal both personal and professional, and all remaining chapters of his life look likely to fall in with this traumatic one. A medical malpractice suit he’s pressured into pursuing by friend and mentor Morrissey (Jack Warden) is Frank’s last chance saloon; a case against the archdiocese whose doctors wrongly administered anaesthetic to a woman in labour, leaving her brain-damaged.

Newman’s performance is as quiet, as unobtrusive, as it’s possible for a performance to be; soft as the sought-after verdict comes in softly. Is a man this listless interesting to watch? Not in the way Newman’s Reggie Dunlop was interesting, cool in a suit of butterscotch leather, the inverse of Galvin with verve enough to buoy a team of downcast hockey-players in Slap Shot, but right for this movie nonetheless.

Garbo Talks (1984)

Garbo Talks (1984)

Garbo Talks won’t be to everyone’s taste; it certainly wasn’t to Roger Ebert’s. But it is, undoubtedly, among Lumet’s funnier films, and epitomises a side of the director not otherwise represented in this list.

The film opens on Anne Bancroft in bed: we watch her character Estelle watch her idol Greta Garbo play Marguerite in Camille (1936) on television. “This is for life, Marguerite,” utters her suitor Armand, then perceives her body gone limp in his embrace, life-less. Estelle mops her face of tears, and now, with gusto, sings – bom, bom, bom! – along to the orchestral end credits. A quick recovery, for the death is a fiction, and Garbo will come to life for her again and again and again in the movies.

Lumet’s film takes its title from the tagline of Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930). Audiences had to wait some 30 minutes before Garbo spoke in that film, and this one, likewise, is a waiting game. In imitation of Anna Christie, perhaps, a half hour passes before Estelle, learning she has a brain tumour, is given six months to live and her grown son Gilbert his mission: to grant Estelle’s last wish that she get to meet Garbo in person.

By this point, we are well enough acquainted with the doughty Estelle that we share her disbelief at the doctor’s prognosis: “Estelle Rolfe. Not Estelle Rolfe. I know everybody’s gotta die, but I really thought I was gonna be the first exception.” Estelle has spent her life taking a stand (“since I was six”, bemoans Gilbert), and now, in her 60s, risks jail and would pay $500 bail for the sake of a 64 cent rise in the price of lettuce, and rides a scissor lift to a scaffolded roof to rebuke a dozen construction workers for heckling a woman in a fox fur: “Who wanted a girl to sit on their face?” The life in this woman!

But it’s the life and the death that is this film’s subject, revealing, in the figure of Estelle’s ex-husband (an exceptional Steven Hill), the past’s keeping pace with the present; revealing that, just as we go to the movies, the movies may also, if we wish it, come to us.

Running on Empty (1988)

Running on Empty (1988)

Arty and Annie Pope blew up a napalm lab in 1971, blinding and paralysing – though they hadn’t meant to – a janitor who was in the building.

When we join them, they and their kids – Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry) – are fleeing the FBI, a context the viewer must infer for herself, piecing together by increments the fugitives’ routine. The frugality of Naomi Foner’s script has us pay close attention to dialogue, lean in, as if the screenplay, like the Popes, were also to be cautious, lest it blow the family’s cover.

Since Danny was two, the unit of four has moved about the country, vacating a place when word gets back they’re being tracked, or – in spite of regular dying of hair – have been recognised. At a new school in New Jersey, where Danny goes by ‘Michael’, the boy impresses his music teacher, who talks him into auditioning for a place at Juilliard. Juilliard wants him and would take him; all that stands between Danny and college are his school records, which are scattered all over like dandelion spores. This conundrum, and Danny’s falling in love, throws the family for a loop.

Running on Empty is a lovely film, more understanding of its lovers than are most young-love narratives, but also painful, as we witness the actions and activism of the parents visited upon the child.

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