Summary: France's vaunted La Cinemateque Francais is in the midst of a Sidney Lumet retrospective. Lumet, who's 83 and still working, has had his share of misses, but when he hits, he tends to score big
Like many of directors of his day, Lumet honed his craft working on early television dramas. He broke into film in 1957 with "12 Angry Men," a magnificently acted -- if overly earnest -- drama set entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse. Lumet went on to direct such landmark films as "The Pawnbroker (1964) and "Network" (1975), but for me, his greatest achievement involves the way he captured the gritty essence of New York City, often focusing on the town's disposition toward institutional and personal corruption.
In a towering trio of movies, Lumet has shown the ways in which authority tends to bleed into its abuse. His characters often occupy worlds dominated by moral relativism and get-along, go-along pragmatism. In such a climate, the line between good and evil blurs and characters constantly face perilous losses of direction. None of Lumet's urban movies are particularly preachy, yet a strong ethical core resides at the heart of each, a call to the audience to acknowledge the conflicted horrors of systems that seem to be spinning wildly and perhaps irrevocably out of control.
Beyond that, Lumet qualifies as an actors' director, having obtained great and important performances from any number of actors, inlcuiding Peter Finch and Fay Dunaway in "Network" and Paul Newman in 1982's "The Verdict." The following examples serve to prove the rule: Lumet inspires actors. Here, I list three Lumet movies I very much admire. In order of preference, they are:
1. "Serpico" (1973). Al Pacino, in perhaps his third best performance after "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II," portrayed crusading New York City cop Frank Serpico. A searing portrait of police corruption in New York City, "Serpico" holds up to this day, partly because it teems with realistic portrayals of life for New York police officers during the tumultuous 1970s. Pacino, by the way, gave another memorable performance in Lumet's 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon," but in "Serpico," the then-rising star found a character whose obsessive idealism, social adaptability and mounting rage made for a perfect match between character and actor.
2. "Prince of the City." (1981). Another look at a cop (Treat Williams) under crushing pressure. Williams plays Daniel Ciello, a detective who's pressured into becoming an informant as part of a deal in which the Internal Affairs department agrees to overlook Ciello's own moral lapses. Set during the 1960s, "Prince of the City," like "Serpico," is based on a true story. The movie was adapted from a book by Robert Daley about Bob Leuci, a New York City cop. Long, sprawling and full of riveting scenes, "Prince of the City" never loses touch with the central drama that pushes Williams' character way out on a limb.
3. "Q & A" (1990) Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as another corrupt detective, this one a murderer and hard-core racist. Nolte's Michael Brennan is a brutal, rule-bending cop who attracts the attention of a young assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton). Largely overlooked when first released, "Q & A" stands as a solid entry into the turbulent urban arena where Lumet has done some of his most enduring work. And Nolte? He imbues Breenan with a raw and terrifying physicality, as if a side of beef had learned to walk and talk.
A final note: Some critics may view Lumet as a less distinctive stylist than a master filmmaker should be. It seems to me that this asks too much of a director who has managed to create comprehensive portraits of whole chunks of society. I don't know if Lumet will pass muster as a master when future film historians assess his work. But his movies should remain invaluable to those who want to see how characters react when their ideals confront the most brutal realities. There's also something to be said for a craftsman who knows how to create movies that feel as real as the characters who populate them.