During a career that spanned more than half a century, American film director Sidney Lumet, who died on Saturday at age 86 from lymphoma, gave crime-fiction fans more than a few films that became classics. Those pictures, with titles such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Verdict (1982), remain beloved by any fan of the genre, often setting the gold standard.
The Verdict, for example, remains one of the best legal procedurals ever, with its performances by Paul Newman and James Mason, and a script by David Mamet. It’s a film filled with guilt and doubt but--perhaps most importantly--belief in the legal system that elevates it beyond its genre trappings. Like its fluffier-but-still-entertaining brethren of the Grisham School (The Firm, A Time to Kill, The Client, Runaway Jury), The Verdict is a movie you can start up when you want to watch something entertaining and familiar, albeit with a bit more weight through Lumet’s craft and the performances on display.
Hidden within Lumet’s filmography, however, are a number of lesser-known films that anyone looking to honor the director might want to check out. Lumet directed dozen of pictures, many of them dealing with themes such as corruption, violence, and crime, but I’d like to highlight just a few of my favorites.
Running three hours and seven minutes, Prince of the City (1981) is a companion piece to Lumet’s earlier film, Serpico, but ... longer. Here, the cop (everybody’s favorite Colorado doctor and star of Deep Rising, Treat Williams) is corrupt from the get-go. He’s no shining scion of truth and justice like Al Pacino in Lumet’s earlier film--and so the audience travels with him on his “spiritual awakening,” as he eventually agrees to inform on the men he considers brothers. (One of those cops is played by the late, great Jerry Orbach, whose performance is among this picture’s best.) By the end, like The Godfather, Prince of the City swells beyond its genre trappings to become the stuff of classic tragedy, accompanied by bleak and oppressive cinematography. In dealing with the collision between political maneuvering and morality (a common theme for Lumet), parts of Prince almost play like a precursor to The Wire.
Lumet wasn’t just content to deal with the moral turpitude of police work, though. Many of his films focus on the justice system as a whole. While Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) lacks the obvious fireworks of some of Lumet’s other pictures, it is still a fascinating, nuanced look at the New York City prosecutor’s office through the eyes of recent law school grad Sean Casey (Andy Garcia). When his cop father (Ian Holm, excellent as always) is shot, the Powers That Be insist that Casey lead the prosecution opposite a tenacious, Alan Dershowitz-esque defense attorney played by Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss’ character opts to put the entire police force on trial, claming his client was acting in self-defense. It’s a marvelous, showy role for the actor, and there’s a terrific scene in a sauna that will remind viewers just how good Dreyfuss can be. Supported by a jazzy score by Mark Isham, Night Falls on Manhattan is filled with memorable performances, including a young James Gandolfini, and captures a city in transition, from the rowdy 1970s and ’80s to the post-Rudy Giuliani and Disneyfied era of today.
Lumet’s last film was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a low-key thriller from 2007. Like, oh, pretty much every film he made, this one provides great performances, and Lumet is content to set his camera up and let them play. And like so many of his other movies, this one deals with crime and its effects--in this case, focusing on two brothers who decide to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Except it’s never that easy, which means we, the viewers, get to watch as Phillip Seymour Hoffman embodies slimy, craven greed and evil; Ethan Hawke gives us desperation and self-loathing; Albert Finney summons a quiet, familiar rage; and Michael Shannon does what Michael Shannon does best: be weird.
It’s a shame Sidney Lumet is no longer with us, and we no longer have more of his works to anticipate. But as a friend pointed out, so much of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead feels like a young man’s picture, full of life and vigor and a passion for the material. He could have picked far lesser films to go out on, and he left a rich legacy behind for generations of movie fans and crime-fiction devotees to discover.
READ MORE: “Sidney Lumet Made New York City Star of His Films,” by Kirk Honeycutt (The Hollywood Reporter); “Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011: He Made Movies for Grownups,” by Matt Zoller Seitz (Salon); “The Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft of Sidney Lumet,” by Shlomo Schwartzberg (Critics at Large).