One of the most revered and imitated directors of recent memory, Sidney Lumet produced an extraordinary body of work that included some of New Hollywood's most seminal classics. While his best work was made in the 1970s, Lumet spent the previous decades earning a reputation as a consummate professional capable of drawing stellar performances out of his actors, some of whom won Academy Awards.
Lumet's career began in the 1950s and continued well into the next millennium. Along the way, he employed an economical visual style and a strong social consciousness to create thought-provoking films that were also commercial hits. Here are eight classic Sidney Lumet movies.
Having started his directing career off-Broadway and on television, Lumet made an auspicious feature debut when he helmed this adaptation of the successful 1954 live television production. Starring and co-produced by Henry Fonda
, 12 Angry Men
was shot on a micro-budget of about $350,000 in a single location using a variety of lenses to depict the growing tension between the jurors, who argue the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt” while deliberating on a seemingly open-and-shut murder case. Fonda played Juror Number 8, the lone not-guilty vote who triggers the clash of wills. The film received widespread critical acclaim, but was not a commercial success. Still, it stood the test of time as a classic movie and earned three Academy Award nominations, including Lumet’s first of four as Best Director.
This adaptation of Eugene O’Neill
’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork featured a stellar Katharine Hepburn
in an Oscar-nominated performance which ended a three-year leave of absence from the screen. The actress portrayed Mary, the morphine-addicted matriarch of a dysfunctional family wallowing in alcoholism, resentment and regret, a role considered to be one of the toughest for an actress to play. The film also starred Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as her ne’er-do-well sons, and Ralph Richardson as her pathetic husband, as all struggle to maintain their grips on reality and each other. Using the same one-location methods he developed in 12 Angry Men
, Lumet crafted an emotionally taut drama that unflinchingly depicted a family torn apart by addiction.
Even before his exemplary work in the 1970s, Lumet had developed a reputation for drawing stunning performances from his actors. In none of his films was that more true than The Pawnbroker
, which starred Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, a Holocaust survivor paralyzed by his guilt for having been the only member of his family to escape the Nazis. As he becomes increasingly bitter and withdrawn from the world, Sol discovers that his neglected pawnshop is a front for money laundering and prostitution, which forces him into an unwanted confrontation that ends with tragedy. Directed with an unusual flair for Lumet, who typically incorporated more documentary-like methods to enhance realism, The Pawnbroker
featured a top-notch performance from Steiger, who went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Starting with Serpico
, Lumet embarked on the most creative and commercially successful phase of his career that lasted for most of the 1970s. In fact, he maintained a extraordinarily high-level of quality throughout the decade and directed some of the most seminal films of New Hollywood’s second golden age. For Serpico
, Lumet cast Al Pacino
as an idealistic rookie cop whose integrity won’t allow him to accept bribes like his fellow officers. But when his superiors ignore his charges that other cops are on the take, Serpico goes public – an act that puts his life on the line. Lumet’s grittily realistic tale of innocence lost earned near universal praise and an Academy Award nomination for Pacino, while ranking among the finest work the director would ever produce.
After directing Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall
and Sean Connery
in Murder on the Orient Express
, Lumet returned to the gritty realism of Serpico
and reunited with Pacino for the second of his great 1970s films, Dog Day Afternoon
. Based on a true story, the documentary-like crime drama starred Pacino as bank robber Sonny Wortzik – Wojtowicz in real life – who robs a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for the sex change operation of his wife, Leon. A job that should have taken mere minutes turns into a 12 hour standoff with police that ends in a tragic showdown at Kennedy Airport. Dog Day Afternoon
featured Pacino at his finest and boasted outstanding performances from John Cazale as Pacino’s nervy partner, Charles Durning as a straight-talking hostage negotiator, and Chris Sarandon as Pacino’s pre-op wife.
MGM Home Entertainment
Lumet reached the height of his directorial powers with Network
, a brilliant satire skewering television that featured an tour-de-force performance from Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a faded news anchorman who lapses into messianic ranting on the air and becomes a huge ratings hit. Beale’s descent into madness turns him into a modern-day prophet who laments the lunacy of people’s reality being dictated by the tube while repeatedly urging them to turn off their TVs. Considered over-the-top by some critics at the time, Network
was uncannily prophetic of the direction television took over the 30 years and became increasingly more relevant over time. Written by legendary playwright Paddy Chayefsky, Network
was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including one for Lumet as Best Director, and received statues for Finch, Chayefsky, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight.
MGM Home Entertainment
Lumet followed Network
with this 1977 adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, which starred Richard Burton
as Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist with troubles at home trying to understand why a young man (Peter Firth) has been mutilating horses. As he digs deeper into the boy’s psyche and exposes the causes of his horrific acts, Dysart uncovers some disturbing secrets of his own. Though Equus
failed to measure up to the work Lumet had done earlier in the decade, it still featured a standout performance from Burton, which earned the actor an Academy Award nomination and was considered to be his last great effort.
20th Century Fox
After directing the disappointing musical The Whiz
and the critically praised, but commercially unsuccessful Prince of the City
, Lumet teamed with scribe David Mamet
and star Paul Newman on this tense courtroom drama that marked one the director’s last great triumphs. Newman was brilliant as a an alcoholic lawyer who seeks redemption by tackling a difficult medical malpractice lawsuit that rejuvenates his sense of justice. Exquisitely acted and directed, The Verdict
earned Lumet his fourth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Director and marked the beginning of a long spell of underwhelming films that was finally broken with 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
, the last film he made before succumbing to lymphoma
in April 2011.