Sidney Lumet was a master moviemaker in every sense of the word. Take a look at your all-time top ten, and he’s mostly likely got at least one spot on it. Serpico, Network (my personal #2), Dog Day Afternoon, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and a list that continues (and logic-defyingly includes The Wiz) until the paper runs out.
Maybe you’d like to experience more movies by the man, or maybe you’d like to introduce yourself to him after his unfortunate passing. Maybe your goal is to post up on the couch and watch Lumet movies all day. Well, you can, and we’ll be right there with you.
Here are just 7 of his movies that you can watch immediately through Netflix.
The Group (1966)
Lumet crushed it right out of the gate with Twelve Angry Men, and he’d made ten movies before The Group, but if you’ve already fallen in love with the tension and drama he builds in his directorial debut, this is a great counterpart to it. Instead of a single room, The Group focuses on several young women who have just graduated from a private school during the Depression who are trapped in very different ways. This was another early example of Lumet’s skill of creating as much entertainment as possible before the audience even realized there were deeper levels of social and ethical commentary bubbling below strong performances from Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, and Hal Holbrook. Plus, it was the second ever film appearance of Jessica Walter (who played Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development (and who is pictured second from the left)).
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
There’s nothing that says true love like robbing a bank so you’re honey bunny can get a sex change operation, and there are few directors who can take a hostage situation as absurd as the one in Airheads and turn it into something funny, poignant, frightening, and intimate. This flick was based loosely on a magazine article titled “The Boys in the Bank” which detailed a real-life bank robbery gone awry. Oddly enough, the original article described the main robber as having the “broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.” Of course, Pacino got the role, but he dropped out briefly, and Hoffman was offered the spot. Try, for a moment, to imagine Dog Day Afternoon with Hoffman playing Sonny. It would probably still have been great, right?
Not content to simply make a great film and then work on something mediocre, Lumet made Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Equus back-to-back-to-back-to-horse-back. It’s difficult to talk about the genius of Network because it’s just that damned good. It goes above and beyond the usual language meant to describe movies.
Peter Finch plays news anchor Howard Beale who announces on air that he plans to kill himself during a broadcast. The ratings spike, and he continues to keep them up with his insane ramblings (sound familiar?). He and William Holden’s Max Shumacher represent the old way of doing things that’s being left in the gutter on the streets of the 70s while Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen and Robert Duvall’s Frank Hackett (another character that seems to love the smell of napalm) represent the calculated, heartless modernity that predicts the rise of bottom-feeding reality television and S&M as entertainment. A lot of credit here goes to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, but the film is also superbly directed by Lumet. Feel free to poke your head outside your window right now and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m going to take this anymore!”
Lumet handles the iconic play as only Lumet can. Richard Burton takes on the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart as he investigates six horses that have been blinded by a shy stable boy, played with what I can only describe as nuanced over-the-topness by Peter Firth. The play and the film might be infamous for featuring full frontal male and female nudity (in front of the horses no less), but the real impact of the story comes from Lysart and stable boy Alan Strang mirroring each other. Alan is the abyss that Lysart stares into, and Lumet does the tough work of transforming “Equus” the play so that it becomes truly cinematic while maintaining its gut punch power.
The Verdict (1983)
If you’re keeping score, this list is now in the third decade of Lumet’s mastery (and it would have been fourth if Twelve Angry Men had been available instantly). In The Verdict, Paul Newman grows a conscience just in time to defend the meek against the powerful in court. He plays Frank Galvin, a pee stain of a lawyer who, through his personal conduct, has become the human equivalent of 5 o’clock shadow. He gets handed an easy case, but instead of following the lazy path, he puts his all into it – resting his reputation and his life on what twelve strangers have to say. As you might be able to tell, this is a spiritual counterpart to Twelve Angry Men, and watching them together (in any order) is highly recommended.
Running On Empty (1988)
Exploring characters on the edge of change yet again, Running on Empty focuses on a family that’s been on the run for years. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play two Vietnam protesters who detonate a bomb at a napalm plant and decide to get the hell out of Dodge before they can be sent to prison. Smart move, but now their son Danny (played by River Phoenix) has melted into love with a girl named Lorna (played by Martha Plimpton), and he has to choose whether to put down roots with her or keep running with his parents. It’s coming-of-age set in the most extreme of circumstances, and as usual, Lumet excels in presenting a character study that’s complex, frustrating, and tragically humane.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the last feature film Lumet made, and it was clear that he was still at the top of his game at the end. It’s a fitting final film, though, because it deals with a lot of the elements the director seemed obsessed with (or haunted by): botched crimes, complex relationships, the cruelty of human beings, nudity, and fantastic monologues. He was 83 years old when he made it, which shatters the myth of younger directors claiming retirement because they are burnt out. Maybe other filmmakers (even the brilliant ones) lose it in middle-age, but Lumet didn’t. He was that rare blend of creative genius in the body of an unblinded workhorse. Here, he draws out stellar performances from Ethan Hawke, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and Amy Ryan in the story of two brothers who try to rob from their parents’ store.
There’s a ton of Lumet films to fall in love with or fall in love with again. You can even watch Family Business just in case you were wondering whether a genius can make something very un-good. Do some planning, put it in your queue, and you can top all of these fantastic films off with Michael Jackson as the scarecrow.
Lumet will be truly missed, and we should all celebrate him by digging into his work, sharing it with others, and quoting Serpico as often as possible.
What were your favorite Lumet flicks?