Sidney Lumet – a director who made social justice his movie motif

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

With the death this past weekend of director Sidney Lumet, NYC has lost one its most ardent advocates. Oh, there are others. Woody Allen springs to mind, of course. Martin Scorsese perhaps. But Lumet ranks right up there, with the Big Apple admirers, directing movies like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

Lumet was 86, making him part of that generation of movie men who felt social injustice deeply and reflected it in their pictures. He was also not a native New Yorker, having been born just down the road a bit in Philly. But his ardor for his adopted city was boundless.

Lumet was a child actor in the Yiddish Theatre and made his Broadway debut as on of the Dead End Kids. After serving in World War 2, he got involved off-camera with the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s.

Maybe it was his stage background — or maybe that background in early TV. Whatever it was, Lumet always focused more on the story and the actors than, say, an arty deep focus shot. That’s probably why Andrew Sarris so famously dissed him in his 1968 book about auteurs.

Lumet was famous for being fast. And being consistently good. He left theartsiness up to the writing, the theme and the performances.

He made his first move in 1957 — an adaptation of the stage drama 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda. About 30 years later, he would direct Fonda’s daughter, Jane, in THE MORNING AFTER (Yes, as in the, um, unforgettable song).

In between, he did a little bit of everything: more plays made into movies, like LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, with Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Katharine Hepburn. EQUUS with Richard Burton. And THE WIZ, a urbanized musical version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, which was huge flop. These days, it’s mostly notable for the rare opportunity to see Michael Jackson, who plays the Scarecrow, with his original, hair, skin, color and nose.

Lumet could make flashy, fun films, like his all-star MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, with everyone from Albert Finney (as Hercule Poirot) to Richard Widmark, (as the victim) and an array of suspects ranging from Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman ( who won an Oscar) to Sean Connery and Tony Perkins.

He could also make grim little gems like THE PAWNBROKER, starring Rod Steiger as a man haunted by his memories of the Holocaust.

In all, Lumet made over 40 films and was nominated for an Oscar 4 times. He was finally handed the “consolation prize” of a Lifetime Acheivement Award.

But the work was consolation enough for him. Work and more work. “There are so many different reasons for doing movies” he said once. “Maybe the most fundamental reason is I just believe in working. I don’t believe in waiting for the masterpiece”

As far as I’m concerned, Sidney Lumet didn’t have to wait for a masterpiece. He made ‘em.

Some of my favorite Sidney Lumet Movies:

A few I’ve already mentioned: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, with its ghostly ending.

DOG DAY AFTERNOON with Al Pacino Working a bank robbery as if it were some sort of protest-demonstration/vaudeville, whipping the crowd outside the bank where he’s holding some hostages into a frenzied chant of Attica! Attica!

THE VERDICT is one of the best movies Paul Newman ever made—and he had a few top-notch ones in his resume, too. As a disgraced alcoholic lawyer trying to pull himself together for an important case, Newman makes you feel the flop-sweat in his gut.

JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is a little-known, underrated acerbic comedy, starring Allan King as a Hollywood-style mogul and Ali McGraw as his bright, beautiful mistress who knows him inside out and still loves him. But who may move on to a smart sexy writer played by Peter Weller—yes ROBOCOP himself.

THE HILL is a scrappy little British film with a military setting, starring Sean Connery when he was at the height of the 007 madness and could’ve done anything he wanted. He chose this..and Lumet.

A lot of actors chose Lumet.

Just listen to the cast of one of his best and most famous movies, NETWORK: Robert Duvall, William Holden, Ned Beatty Faye Dunaway, who won BEST ACTRESS as well as created a stereotype of the coolly ambitious, drop-dead gorgeous professional woman who would do ANYTHING to get to the top..including getting on top…. and Peter Finch, one of the few performers ever to win best actor posthumously.

And it was Finch, of course, who shouted one of the most famous lines in the history of cinema; “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going take it anymore.”
Paddy Chayesky wrote the line, but Sidney Lumet helped Finch deliver it.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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