Sidney Lumet at the 2007 Toronto International...

Lumet in 2007. Image via Wikipedia

Sad news came early Saturday morning when it was announced that film director Sidney Lumet had passed away.

Lumet was one of the foremost filmmakers in Hollywood at a time when the Director was King and given unprecedented control and room to experiment. His specialty was in gritty dramas set in New York City, potraying the most famous city in the world as it was rather than how it was glamorized by the fantasy world of Hollywood.

Lumet started his directorial career with one of my favorite films, “12 Angry Men,” which featured classic performances from Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, and of course Henry Fonda. It also set the tone for the rest of his career, as it was the first of many productions that were theatrical in nature, which doesn’t always translate well to the big screen. “12 Angry Men” in particular was a stunning achievement: it all takes place in a single room, yet the movement of the characters and camera work make the confined space seem like a vast and exciting landscape.

Though he explored other areas and genres, from the boardroom to broadcast news, Lumet continued to make dramas and black comedies that were rooted in real world dynamics, explored concepts of social justice, and featured protagonists struggling against larger institutions, organizations, and social mores. His films weren’t fantasy but were still fantastic. Realistic, but enthralling. Gripping, yet grounded.

He was also one of the few directors of his era (along with luminaries such as Robert Altman) that remained artistically relevant in the twilight of his life and career, with many film enthusiasts and critics such as Jeffrey Wells pointing to later work such as “Find Me Guilty” and 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” as some of his best.

His films put a focus on issues that appeared on the surface to be contemporary, but in hindsight are revealed as explorations of timeless struggles and truths. At times he was even clairvoyant. “Network,” one of his more famous works, used contemporary concerns with the business of network news to provide a glimpse into the future and programmed punditry such as Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News. Such as in this scene featuring a Howard Beale monologue that isn’t as famous as the iconic “Mad as Hell” speech early in the film, but is far superior and more indicative of the modern era of cable news infotainment.

Lumet’s passing comes at a bad time, one where reflection and restraint is all but outlawed by an audience that demands to be led by the hand and be given immediate gratification, creating and encouraging the Zach Snyders of the world and giving them blasphemous labels like “visionary.” Meanwhile, directors who take chances and stumble, like Lars von Trier, are forever cast as overrated and pretentious for daring to venture outside of expectations and audience demands.

Lumet came from a simpler time and background, but to call his work “simple” or “straight forward” is to overlook the genius in his execution and how uncompromising he was in his work. He could have spent the last two to three decades of his life making blockbusters with extended action sequences or flying men. Instead he remained true to himself as an artist and left behind a body of work that is wondrous to behold and will, hopefully, inspire future generations to return to a time when film was something more than a conduit for a multimedia property franchise.

Lumet was 86, and he is already missed.

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4 Responses to Sidney Lumet, dead at 86 but still telling our story

  1. Jay Bobbin says:

    A superb tribute to one of the outstanding craftsmen in the history of American film to date. Without “Network” and “The Verdict,” my list of 10 all-time-favorite movies would look much different.

  2. If this tragic event had happened the day before, I would have asked Peter Bogdanovich during his Q&A what he thought of Lumet. Because he was quite forthcoming about his feelings about Robert Altman.

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