Sidney Lumet

Serpico (1973, Sidney Lumet)

There’s a strange disconnect between director Lumet and actor Al Pacino on Serpico. The film, at least in how Pacino plays it, is a character study. Yes, it’s a character study of someone in a great deal of transition–Pacino’s cop, over twelve rather poorly paced years, goes from idealism to resignation at the corruption he encounters–but it’s still a character study. Pacino’s performance is all about how his character is changing. It’s an amazing performance.

But Lumet presents Serpico as something of a shortened epic. It runs just over two hours, which really isn’t enough for the epic study of political machinations and indifference, especially not since the first hour deals with Pacino becoming a hippie. The hippie stuff is practically enough for its own movie and is where Lumet seems to want to go with that character study feel.

And the first half has this sweeping music from Mikis Theodorakis, sometimes overwhelming the dialogue. The second half, when Serpico is all about the police corruption stuff (and it does move better in this half), is missing the music. It’s missing the lyricism. Instead, it’s all grit, which Lumet can do and do well–though Arthur J. Ornitz’s outdoor photography is nowhere near as good as his indoor–but there’s nothing to it. Pacino’s still going through this transformation, but no one else is along for the ride.

Excellent supporting turns from Barbara Eda-Young, John Randolph, Tony Roberts.

The film just doesn’t live up to Pacino’s performance.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas; director of photography, Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Richard Marks and Dede Allen; music by Mikis Theodorakis; production designer, Charles Bailey; produced by Martin Bregman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Serpico), John Randolph (Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Captain McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie) and Tony Roberts (Bob Blair).


Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)

Besides Al Pacino, there are other actors in Dog Day Afternoon. Some of them give fantastic performances too. But, even with those fantastic performances, every time Pacino is alone on screen, whether closeup or not, monologue or not, it feels like there’s no one else in the film besides him. He doesn’t command it or walk away with it… the film’s his performance and his performance is the film, right down to the last scene.

Some of the other particularly fantastic performances are, in no particular order, John Cazale, Penelope Allen, James Broderick, Charles Durning and Chris Sarandon. Okay, maybe I saved Sarandon for last so I don’t forget to mention the specifics. I had no idea it was Sarandon in the film. Never would I have imaged he could have given such a good performance (it was his first major film work).

Cazale’s sturdy. He’s great without being exceptional–the performance isn’t a surprise. Pacino, as good as he can be, is still a surprise here. He’s not in a movie star role and Pacino almost always does those (or has been since Dog Day); I’d forgotten the greatness of his performance here. It’s been… maybe fifteen years since I last saw the film. Since then, he’s been in a lot of lousy movies to cloud my memory.

I think this time is the first I’ve seen Dog Day Afternoon in its original aspect ratio. Lumet’s direction is so sublimely perfect, I can’t believe he doesn’t have more admirers.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Frank Pierson, based on the Life magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Dede Allen; production designer, Charles Bailey; produced by Martin Bregman and Martin Elfand; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Sal), Charles Durning (Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti), Chris Sarandon (Leon Shermer), Sully Boyar (Mulvaney), Penelope Allen (Sylvia), James Broderick (Sheldon), Carol Kane (Jenny), Beulah Garrick (Margaret), Sandra Kazan (Deborah), Marcia Jean Kurtz (Miriam), Amy Levitt (Maria), John Marriott (Howard), Estelle Omens (Edna), Gary Springer (Stevie) and Lance Henriksen (Murphy).


The Morning After (1986, Sidney Lumet)

The Morning After is an awkward combination of thriller and adult drama. As a thriller, with Paul Chihara’s enthusiastic and bombastic score, it’s frequently annoying. Jane Fonda can scrub a crime scene of every thread of evidence, but the simple things–like dropping a succeeding lie or leaving all her personal belongings for the police to find–escape her. Lumet’s direction, which makes full use of the frame in a somewhat unique three dimensional manner (Fonda hides on the right, out of sight from the pursuer on the left or hiding behind truck on the lower right, unseen by the pursuers above her), is competent while unsuccessful. It can’t surmount the script’s absurdities or that awful music.

There’s also the matter of the frequent extreme long shots, featuring Fonda walking from one side of the frame to the other, usually in front of a building. Those I can’t even begin to understand.

The adult drama angle of the film, alcoholic failed starlet Fonda finds the hint of a human connection with friendly bigot (he’s friendly in his bigotry) Jeff Bridges, works considerably better. Lumet’s direction of those scenes, when they aren’t doubling for suspense, is quite good and rather effective. I spent a lot of The Morning After marveling at Fonda’s ability to overcome the material. She and Bridges have a decent chemistry, but her drunk scenes are bleak and wonderful. One of the few things the script gets right is its detail to her (drinking-related) behaviors and the logic she operates under.

The script’s major conceptual problem (besides the wrong-headed–it’s got that L.A. corruption angle too–cobbling of two incompatible ideas) has to do with the script’s ambitions. The Morning After is practically a concept film–the opening titles only credit three actors, Fonda, Bridges and Raul Julia, and they aren’t kidding. It’s practically a stage play. It might even work better as a stage play, as the constraints would make it more interesting. But as a thriller, the constraints just make it weird. While the cops are after Fonda and she’s worried she’s a killer or there’s a killer after her, she takes the time to put on make-up and flirt with Bridges. The movie wastes about eleven minutes on this scene, which is only there for developing that adult drama aspect.

Another big problem is understanding what Fonda’s doing. The viewer can’t understand what she’s thinking because he or she is supposed to be considering the possibility Fonda killed someone, but it frequently gets to the point where her actions are baffling. Fonda’s character is a clumsy drunk; it’s always clear when she’s been drinking. So her relatively sober actions tend to make less sense than her drunk ones. A strange dichotomy.

But it’s worth watching for Fonda’s performance, even if Bridges is just along for the ride and Julia can’t make his poorly written character work. Fonda gets through all the absurdity, making it all palatable, and comes out great at the–similarly goofy–ending.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by James Cresson; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Joel Goodman; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Bruce Gilbert; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jane Fonda (Alex Sternbergen), Jeff Bridges (Turner Kendall), Raul Julia (Joaquin Manero), Diane Salinger (Isabel Harding), Richard Foronjy (Sergeant Greenbaum), Geoffrey Scott (Bobby Korshack), James ‘Gypsy’ Haake (Frankie), Kathleen Wilhoite (Red) and Don Hood (Hurley).


Equus (1977, Sidney Lumet)

The inevitable unpleasantness in Equus, which is promised from the second or third scene, manages to be more horrifying than I expected. At the beginning of the film, it’s possible to steel oneself for it, but by the end, it becomes a lot more like the sensation of striking one finger against the other. At the beginning, the viewer knows the finger is going to be struck, by the end, he or she is feeling it on both. Peter Firth’s amazing performance–and Firth really is amazing–contributes, but it’s also the script and the direction. The conclusion–Equus is described all over as a mystery, but it really isn’t: once the father makes his opaque confession, it’s all very predictable. And it played out exactly like it figured, but it was still exceptionally effective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sidney Lumet use violence in this way before.

But the end of the film isn’t that inescapable event. The event drowns the viewer, so he or she is gasping for air during the ending, more than a little distracted. And Equus‘s end is an end to a different film. A shorter one, focusing on Richard Burton. Regardless of Firth’s acting accomplishments here, his character isn’t particularly compelling. Obscured, he’s interesting. Even in the therapy scenes–which look, at times, enough like Ordinary People I wonder how many times Redford saw this one–he’s somewhat interesting. But Lumet does these flashbacks–with Firth playing the character at every age. It’s effective, but distracting from the main force of the film–Burton.

With his unbecoming, unkept hair and his tired face–and with Lumet shooting his bald spot every chance he gets–Burton is champion. As the psychiatrist, encumbered with an empty, unhappy life of his own passive design, Burton pulls off the impossible. He’s got six or seven scenes–from the play’s staging, obviously–speaking directly to the camera. This film is Burton’s, Burton’s story, Burton’s to succeed or fail with. And his performance is just wonderful. It’s so good, it’s worth rewinding to watch a speech again.

Lumet goes for a haunting close to Equus and it kind of works. It works well enough to smooth over the problems with Firth’s character’s close (given how much time’s spent on him, he gets the short end). The music–and the editing–and Lumet’s really odd camera angles for this one–all contribute. The supporting cast, particularly Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright, are great. Given Shaffer’s adapted his own play, odds were never good for a proper filmic refocusing, but it doesn’t matter. Even with the obese script, Burton and Firth and Lumet are all in top form… Burton better than.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by John Victor-Smith; music by Richard Rodney Bennett; production designer, Tony Walton; produced by Elliot Kastner and Lester Persky; released by United Artists.

Starring Richard Burton (Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason) and Kate Reid (Margaret Dysart).


Q & A (1990, Sidney Lumet)

Sidney Lumet’s awkward examination of political corruption and race in New York City hits some bumps it shouldn’t. One of the major problems–because the film, after all the minor problems, only has two major problems–is the ending. Lumet has a perfectly well-intentioned ending, but he doesn’t quite get it. There’s not enough groundwork for it in the film itself, just a few scenes and they really don’t add up to what the ending needs. The second major problem is the music by Rubén Blades. Not the score, the score is actually all right. But Blades–and Lumet, because I don’t see Blades listed as the producer or the executive–has a theme song for Q & A. Not surprisingly (the score is actually rather sparse and well-used throughout, mostly Lumet relies on a beautiful sound design, wind, rain and traffic), there’s no soundtrack release, but if there had been, I really think it would have been listed as “Don’t Double-Cross the Ones You Love (Theme to Q & A).” It’s a dreadful mistake.

The minor mistakes thrive. While Nick Nolte gives a scary performance as a dirty, bigoted cop, all he’s doing is giving a performance as a dirty, bigoted cop. He put on a bunch of weight for the role, but the weight doesn’t act for him. Timothy Hutton’s pretty good as a wide-eyed idealist, even maintains a hint of an Irish accent throughout, but the movie’s not enough about him. It starts about him, then it splits between Nolte and Armand Assante. Whereas Hutton and Assante make an interesting juxtaposition (with Jenny Lumet forming a love triangle), because of all the energy put into following Nolte, the juxtaposition never comes through. It gets hinted at, but never explored.

Assante’s performance is fantastic, the kind of flashy but substantive performance he should get credit for achieving. As a director’s daughter acting in a mob movie, Lumet does a really good job. Her character’s a lot more complicated than the movie ever gets around to examining, another mistake. The supporting cast is all excellent. Charles S. Dutton and Luis Guzmán, both great and they work beautifully together. But they get left out when the movie balloons too. As elder statesmen of varying morality but similar weariness, both Patrick O’Neal and Lee Richardson are good.

Lumet lets Q & A get way too big without ever making it absorbing. It’s a 132 minutes and it feels like them. It’s never mundane, it’s never boring, but the lack of a central protagonist and the mishmash of theses encourage detachment in the viewer, which is rather unfortunate. Q & A has all the ingredients for excellence and it’s very good; the missteps–particularly not getting the ending just right–hurt it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Lumet, based on the novel by Edwin Torres; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Richard Cirincione; music by Ruben Blades; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Arnon Milchan and Burtt Harris; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Brennan), Timothy Hutton (Al Reilly), Armand Assante (Bobby Tex), Patrick O’Neal (Kevin Quinn), Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomenfeld), Luis Guzmán (Valentin), Charles S. Dutton (Chappie), Jenny Lumet (Nancy), Paul Calderon (Roger Montalvo), International Chrysis (José Malpica), Dominic Chianese (Larry Pesch), Leonardo Cimino (Nick Petrone) and Fyvush Finkel (Preston Pearlstein).


Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)

Network lost Oscars. It doesn’t really matter what it lost them to, because the absurdity of the Academy Awards is summed up in that one statement. Network lost Oscars.

I’m not sure what shot is Sidney Lumet’s best in the film, because I’m remembering two of them from the last half. These aren’t necessarily the best shots in the film, but they’re memorable because I can’t quite remember ever seeing anything like them before. The first is for Ned Beatty’s big scene. It’s an amazing scene from Beatty, but Lumet’s composition, the lighting scheme, the cuts to Peter Finch, it’s a singular filmic moment. The second, unfortunately in some ways, summarizes the popular half of Network. It’s the network executives sitting around Robert Duvall’s office, deciding what must be done. It’s been about ten years since I’ve seen Network and I don’t know if I passively remembered the resolution or if, in those ten years, I’ve consumed enough media the resolution just became the most logical thing in the world. Lumet makes enough room for six people in his shot and lets the camera sit. Duvall might even walk into the shot. There’s only one close-up I can remember, otherwise Lumet just lets it sit.

The popular half of Network is the one where people remember the lines, the one acclaimed in modernity as a classic of 1970s cinema. Network is–and I’m only going to talk about this aspect for a second–more obviously true today than it was in 1976. The Saudis buying up America, for example, much more pertinent these days than then. The dehumanizing effects of television, much worse today than then… at least then, television wasn’t apathetic to suffering. It had yet to become the idiot box. It’s funny in that sad, tragic way how much acclaim the sound bits from Network get–the lip service. Makes one wonder if those giving the awards (the American Film Institute) watches the film.

The other half of Network is, much like the non-pioneering half of Citizen Kane, forgotten. And it’s, like Kane, the more important one. In Network, it’s the William Holden side. Holden’s performance–which, incredulously, he reportedly got due to The Towering Inferno–is astounding. Network wouldn’t work if any of the cast couldn’t hold with Holden or Finch or Faye Dunaway. Duvall’s part, in the first half, is the sketchiest, just because of the plot, but Duvall holds it and makes it work and it pays off big in the end. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting for less than six minutes. Easily deserved it. The combination of Lumet’s direction and Chayefsky’s script for scenes like Straight’s… it’s truly special filmmaking. Everything else aside, all of Finch’s hysterics aside (as well as the wonderfully absurd scenes, like the terrorists worrying about syndication rights), Network is a quiet film.

I could go on ad nauseam–I have not, for instance, discussed Dunaway’s performance or Chayefsky’ script the editing or the sound design–but it’ll turn into a list. Overanalyzing Network isn’t useful, it’s far too consequential.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Paddy Chayefsky; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Alan Heim; music by Elliott Lawrence; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Howard Gottfried; released by United Artists.

Starring Faye Dunaway (Diane Christenson), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beals), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jenson), Darryl Hickman (Bill Herron), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher) and Marlene Warfield (Laureen Hobbs).


The Hill (1965, Sidney Lumet)

The Hill is quite a few things–Sidney Lumet doing another stage adaptation, almost in real time, a la Twelve Angry Men, a prison drama, a race drama, a military drama, and an example of a decent Sean Connery performance (not a particularly good one, but a decent one). It’s incredibly contrived–desert British prison camp in World War II, new prison officer comes along the same day Connery arrives along with four other men, who aren’t split up. The guards heckle Ossie Davis for being black, get in to with Connery because he struck a superior officer, and tease the soldier who wants to go home to his wife. The other two new prisoners are just there to hang around. Over the present action of the film, a day and a half, one prisoner dies and the entire power structure gets threatened by all these elements brought conveniently together for a hundred and twenty minutes.

A good deal of the film is deceptively good, until it becomes clear the present action is going to take place in that practical real time. Lumet’s direction is fantastic as well. Starting the film, I thought how it’d be funny if it were Connery cast against leading man-type… unfortunately, it is and the film quickly descends into a common (relatively) innocent prisoner against sadistic prison guard, without doing anything more interesting than setting it in the British army.

All of the performances are quite good (except Michael Redgrave, who spends his screen-time looking confused)–Harry Andrews in particular–but when the film goes off track, fitting so many consequential events into such a short period, it’s impossible for it to recover. The screenwriter (who adapted his own play) doesn’t just have a dumb plot, he has incredibly careless dialogue–one of the men says goodbye to Connery and says something about suggesting they’d known each other for a long time… instead of thirty-eight hours or so.

Ossie Davis is the best in the film; he gets the most interesting action after a while–once the script turns Andrews into a caricature, after almost promising he was going to remain a character throughout–and many of Davis’s scenes are a joy to watch. Because Connery is visibly against type, intentionally against type, he doesn’t really have a character to work with. He needs to remain mysterious, to draw attention to himself for not being a leading man. The result is his performance not being as good as it could have been. He has some real potential in a few scenes, but again, the script’s more concerned with being a momentous condemnation of the British military mindset.

By the end, almost everything interesting has been drained from The Hill. Characters are presented, at the beginning, as being this sort of person or that and then later flipped around to get the film to the necessary conclusion. They don’t change, they aren’t revealed to have been deceiving everyone. They just flip. It’s the filmmakers are deceiving the audience, packaging their film as a social message as opposed to a narrative.

I do appreciate the film is without any musical score, but it’s not a surprise (I noticed at one point there should be one and there wasn’t), as Lumet doesn’t do anything wrong the entire time. Except, of course, not getting a decent rewrite on the script.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Ray Rigby, based on a play by Rigby and R.S. Allen; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Thelma Connell; produced by Kenneth Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sean Connery (Joe Roberts), Harry Andrews (R.S.M. Bert Wilson), Ian Bannen (Harris), Alfred Lynch (George Stevens), Ossie Davis (Jacko King), Roy Kinnear (Monty Bartlett), Jack Watson (Jock McGrath), Ian Hendry (Williams) and Michael Redgrave (M.O.).


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