Legendary American filmmaker Sidney Lumet passed away today of lymphoma at the age of 86. Lumet has had a long and distinguished career directing films and television. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Lumet’s filmography is that he made good movies in nearly every single decade that he worked, and the time between his first film and his last film was exactly fifty years (1957-2007). Lumet, in short, embodied American film history from the 1950s to now.
Lumet started out as a child actor on Broadway. After returning from service in WWII, he started directing television programs like Playhouse 90 and Studio One, before making a television version of the play 12 Angry Men before turning it into his first feature film in 1957.
Much of Lumet’s career can perhaps be characterized as a series of firsts. For example, his film The Pawnbroker (1964) was the first studio film to seriously deal with traumatic memories of the Holocaust and with Jewish guilt, as well as the first to have significant frontal nudity. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) was one of the first studio films with an open homosexual as its main character. Lumet was known for challenging censorship and pushing boundaries throughout much of his career.
Lumet was also regarded as one of the great New York filmmakers, the city acting as a character in and of itself in many of his greatest films. His movies also stand now as historical artifacts recording the evolution of the city, as he gave his lens to New York throughout so many decades. While Lumet made a great variety of films, the genres he was best known for were perhaps courtroom dramas (12 Angry Men, The Verdict (1982), his penultimate Find Me Guilty (2006)) and cop dramas (Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981)). Lumet was one of our great master dramatists, and a versatile one at that.
Where many directors had their good decades and their bad decades, Lumet made strong films throughout his career, and even made some of the canonical works of New Hollywood even though he was significantly older than most New Hollywood directors, including directing Peter Finch to deliver one of the greatest lines ever filmed: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Some of my personal favorite Lumet titles include 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Network (1976), The Verdict, and his final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). Other films by Lumet include The Fugitive Kind starring Marlon Brando (1960), Fail Safe (1964) starring Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda, The Anderson Tapes (1971) starring Sean Connery, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) starring just about everybody, and Equus (1977) starring Richard Burton. He has said in interviews that he considers The Pawnbroker to be his greatest film. Lumet, who never won a directing Oscar, received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2005.
But perhaps the best way to memorialize Lumet is to do so in his own words. When asked by a New York Times reporter what he wants his legacy to be, Lumet said, in the no-bullshit manner that reflects the tone of many of his films, “Frankly, I don’t give a fuck.”