Sidney Lumet, the epitome of the New York film director, died at 86 on April 9th. He had a remarkable career, hitting it big with 12 Angry Men (1957), his first feature film, and ending his directorial career on a damn good note with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), exactly fifty years later! Not many directors have enjoyed such longevity, and it surely is lucky that he ended with a winner, especially considering his number of turkeys strewn among his classics.
For me, his masterwork is Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a perfect melding of action and character, depth and suspense, humor and tragedy. And, of course, set in New York City! Many would cite Network (1976) as his greatest film, but don’t get me started on all the things I dislike about that movie, beginning with its smug, self-congratulatory tone and the fact that nearly every line of Paddy Chayefsky’s dialogue sounds so “written,” as if each character worked for days at perfecting (in advance) everything he or she was going to say. Guess I should do a separate blog piece someday on why Network, for all its impressive prescience on the future of our culture, is one of our most overrated classics.
I spent a good deal of time writing about Lumet in my book Tennessee Williams and Company: His Essential Screen Actors because Lumet directed two films based on plays by Williams. How interesting that he directed one of the best and one of the worst of the Williams films. Though a commercial and critical flop back in 1960, The Fugitive Kind (based on the play Orpheus Descending) is the most underrated of the Williams movies, a haunting black-and-white picture featuring two extraordinary performances from Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. (Unfortunately, Marlon Brando is the film’s one major disappointment.) Ten years later, Lumet directed The Last of the Mobile Hotshots, based on Williams’ The Seven Descents of Myrtle. It’s what is known as a disaster, one of those utterly confounding efforts, a spectacularly bad movie. But I’ll always be grateful to him for the beauty and artistry of The Fugitive Kind.
Lumet has the distinction of having directed what is a strong candidate for the American screen’s greatest dramatic performance by a female: Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). It was one of my selections (as was Magnani in Fugitive Kind) in my book 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t. In Lumet’s hands, Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play got a superlative screen version, most notably in the magnificence of Hepburn’s uncompromising—bravely ugly yet so unbearably moving—portrait of despair, one of the more complexly detailed breakdowns you’ll ever see on-screen. As Mary succumbs to her morphine addiction, Hepburn makes lightning-speed transitions through her character’s dark psyche, yet you don’t miss a beat of the logic behind her mood swings, from forced gaiety and nervous chatter to defensive paranoia and venomous anger. One of our fastest-thinking actresses, Hepburn soars on a rush of conflicting emotions. Ravaged yet ferocious, delusional yet stingingly self-aware, girlish yet hardened, she is incomparable in one of the most daunting roles of the American theatre. Thank you, Mr. Lumet, for this piece of greatness, which proved you were as outstanding in New England as you were in New York.