Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sydney Lumet, 1924 - 2011

It just doesn't stop - just over a week after Elizabeth Taylor's passing, another true cinema great has passed away.

While Sydney Lumet's name is not necessarily associated with the cinema of New Hollywood - as is, for instance, Arthur Penn's or Hal Ashby's - Lumet was nevertheless responsible for some of the most remarkable films of that period, many of which - such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and especially Network - have since rightly become American classics.

Not only has Network always been one of my favourite Sydney Lumet films, but it actually is, in my own opinion, one of the best and most significant, films ever - period. For those who don't know it, I'd strongly advise to go and catch the DVD. Hopefully, following Lumet's passing some cinemas across the world will have the common sense to run a retrospective of Lumet's films.

Considering that Network was released in 1976, it is a film that was much ahead of its time. Watching it today, it doesn't in the least come across as dated and, in fact, seems as fresh and relevant as it did then. With Network, Lumet anticipated many other films (for instance Broadcast News, to name but a one) that tackled the topic of television and its corrupt and cynical goings-on behind the scenes and the effect it has on society at large. Lumet and his screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky crafted a screenplay so meaty, so alive, so full of cynicism and - most of all: humour - making Network a film that grabs you from the start, a unique blend between social criticism, drama, thriller, and satire. It won Faye Dunaway a much deserved Academy Award for her role as the twisted, unsound, TV producer Diane Christensen, a signature role and widely believed to be one of the most iconic and most important parts written for an actress in the 1970s. Hence, like the film as a whole, Dunaway's character is a role that was quite unusual for its time as Diane Christensen is a woman in power who does not shirk from anything to stay there. She only thinks in ratings and, of course - cold, hard cash. Yet, Lumet and Chayefsky were way too clever and subtle to portray Christensen as a one-dimensional, evil, bitch but rather as the product of a society which raises its off-spring on a constant diet of TV and all its glittering promises which it fails to keep. Christensen is as power-ridden as she's hell-bent on success. Yet she's also vulnerable and in need of male companionship. However, unforgettable is the scene when while making love with William Holden all she's able to think about are next day's TV ratings.

Sydney Lumet was a true master of the art of film-making. He's also published a book to that effect where he discusses his craft and his approach to making movies. Having read many a book about film and practical film-making, I can safely that I have read few which are so comprehensive and insightful, so easy to follow, and so logical in the way Lumet explains what film-making - to him - is all about. For all those who intend to break into movie-making, I'd also strongly recommend reading Lumet's book - aptly titled Making Movies - and in between watching some of his films!

His best are:

1. Network
2. Serpico
3. Dog Day Afternoon
4. The Verdict
5. The Pawnbroker
6. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
7. Garbo Talks
8. Running on Empty
9. 12 Angry Men
Also recommended are Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz, and The Morning After, in which Jane Fonda plays an alcoholic accused of murder.

I'm finding it difficult nowadays to name a director whose whole body of work I admire, but Lumet has always been one of the few. That's kind of strange, because there are few directors who worked in so many genres and who were as versatile as him. Nevertheless, the quality of Lumet's films never suffered and was, in fact, almost persistently top-notch. He excelled no matter which genre he tackled. Even in his last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Lumet was at the top his game, coming up with a thriller the likes of which I hadn't seen in a while. Sadly and unfairly, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead went mostly unnoticed, yet it is a masterpiece in tight, edge-of-your-seat, story-telling which will leave you gaping - if you haven't seen it already!

Faye Dunaway as the TV producer from hell, Diane Christensen, in Network

Al Pacino as the cop, who single-handedly decides to take on NYPD in Serpico

Al Pacino robs a bank to pay for the sex-change of his boyfriend in Dog Day Afternoon

Sydney Lumet directing Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict

Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor who can't forget the past in The Pawnbroker

Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men