News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: On Sidney Lumet
This week’s film was Sidney Lumet’s Network, a great movie that is so good and about so many things that one could talk about endlessly. But we have already talked about it a good bit, in a post from last year, and in a cranky review of a recent book about the movie. So with this post we will pull back for a longer shot, and consider Lumet as a seventies filmmaker.
Lumet is not typically placed in the pantheon of the greats, those who changed or challenged the form, or who, as writer-directors, produced a distinct body of major works that is easily associated with a singular, personal vision. Sure. And we’re not devaluing those criteria or qualifying our reverence for those who have scaled such heights. But Lumet had a hell of a career, and made lots of great movies. That counts too. Or, as François Truffaut reputedly said (professor alert—I could not track down a proper source for this quote, so code this a paraphrase of contestable provenance): ‘If I am lucky I will make thirty films. Ten of them will be good. But the important thing is that I will get to make them.’ And so the point is, Lumet made over forty feature films at least a third of which are worth a close look, passing what we might now dub “the Truffaut Standard.”
After getting his start in the 1950s “golden age” of live television dramas, Lumet’s feature film career began impressively with Twelve Angry Men, the first of a number of movies that showcased his gift from letting the performers shine (see for example Long Day’s Journey into Night), followed by three impressive entries that gestured towards the emerging New Hollywood: Fail Safe, The Pawnbroker, and The Hill. Then came the seventies films (remember, the seventies are 1967-1976!)—Lumet let loose with an impressive baker’s dozen in that decade, high points of which included The Deadly Affair, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. Serpico and Dog Day, appropriately, established Lumet as one of the great directors of intense, naturalistic, New York City cop dramas, a sub-genre he would revisit, and virtually own, over the decades that followed. From this group we favor Prince of the City, which, from 1981, is actually more of “seventies film” than 1973’s Serpico. (Why? Because as Roger Ebert explained, when you are watching Prince of the City, it seems like “a movie about cops, drugs and New York City,” but afterwards you realize it is “a much deeper piece . . . about how difficult it is to go straight in a crooked world without hurting people you love.” How seventies is it? “The movie has no answers. Only horrible alternatives.”
Lumet’s career spanned six decades (about which you can read more here and here, or check out the recent American Masters documentary)—but we are claiming him for the seventies: a cinema of character driven films which feature more questions than answers, set in a landscape marked by corrupt institutions, compromised protagonists and uncertain endings. Ethan Hawke explained why he and Philip Seymour Hoffman were so excited to collaborate with the eighty-something Lumet on Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (do yourself a favor and read A. O. Scott’s review): because they would be working with “one of our seventies heroes” making “exactly the kind of movie we wanted to spend our lives doing.” You know—a seventies film.
The Deadly Affair
Dog Day Afternoon
Prince of the City
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead