Sidney Lumet, the veteran filmmaker who helped define the cinema of the 1970s, passed away at his home in New York City on Saturday evening from lymphoma. His final location was fitting, for the 86-year-old had spent much of his life making films in and about the city's various boroughs and their denizens, including Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Pawnbroker, Prince of the City and Q&A.
There was 50 years between Lumet's first feature (1957's 12 Angry Men) and his last (2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), and the breadth of his career speaks to the unique place he held in the American cinema – he started out directing Henry Fonda and finished with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and in between he worked with a raft of leading actors.
Lumet (pronounced loo-MET) was never as famous as his contemporaries. One reason was that he was somewhat older than them. Lumet was cutting his teeth directing live productions on the fledgling medium of television – literally hundreds on a tight schedule – when the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were starting high school in the early 1950s. He never stood for a generation or a movement, and his first reaction to most organised bodies he depicted was one of careful suspicion.
Alongside that separation, his visual style would adapt to the material, often being reined in to allow the actors to express the story's themes with their performances; memorable scenes in Lumet movies took place in dingy motel rooms, crowded restaurants or courtrooms, with the camera unobtrusively capturing what was unfolding. “Good style, to me, is unseen style. It is style that is felt,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Making Movies.
There was also the up and down nature of his career. Lumet liked to work and he valued being on set over tending to any perceived legacy of his career. He directed 12 pictures in the 1970s, with the very best – Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon – bona fide classics that stand in obvious contrast to the workmanlike (The Anderson Tapes), the staid (Murder on the Orient Express) and the failed (The Wiz) titles that surround them. He didn't always shape the source material as well as other filmmakers, with his desire to get into production sometimes getting him into trouble.
Sidney Lumet was born on 25 June, 1924 in Philadelphia. Both his parents were actors in the Yiddish theatre and the son of immigrants followed them onto the stage from the age of four, eventually appearing in several Broadway plays as a teenager. Lumet returned to New York after serving as a radar technician during World War II and gave away acting for directing. He made the move to television in 1950, and by the mid 1950s was a leading director of original telemovies and stage adaptations that were broadcast nationally live.
One of the approximately 200 productions he oversaw was 12 Angry Men, the story of the struggle, both logical and emotional, within a jury room during the deliberations over a teen charged with murder. In 1957 Henry Fonda, who intended to star in and produce a feature version, hired Lumet to direct, commencing his motion picture career. The resulting black and white feature, which grows increasingly claustrophobic as the unnamed participants challenge each other and their assumptions, was a critical and commercial success, launching Lumet's career.
He continued to do television, screening works adapted from sources as diverse as Alexandre Dumas and Tennessee Williams, but by the middle of the 1960s he'd found his calling as a filmmaker, following his powerful 1962 version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson, 1965's The Hill, a tale of institutionalised brutality at a military prison that showed then 007 Sean Connery in a new light, and 1964's The Pawnbroker, where Rod Steiger gives a deeply felt lead performance as a Holocaust survivor who has only disdain for humanity.
In the 1970s Lumet memorably documented New York's strange and often cruel undercurrents. He drew two career high performances from Al Pacino, as a clean police officer surrounded by endemic corruption in 1973's Serpico, then as a novice bank robber in over his head in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet didn't just use New York locations, he captured the then city's decaying spirit and capacity to surprise.
1976's Network, with a blackly satirical script by Paddy Chayefsky, foretold television's future while tapping into American disenchantment via newsreader Howard Beale, whose on-air rants – “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore” – became popular culture touchstones. The film, along with 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and 1982's The Verdict, a redemptive legal drama headlined by an outstanding Paul Newman, all drew Academy Award nominations for Best Director, although Lumet never won. In 2005 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award.
The craftsmanship never waned, but Lumet struggled to match his best output after The Verdict. He did good work with the 1988 thriller Running on Empty and 1990's Q&A, a return to New York police malfeasance centered around Nick Nolte's crude, corrupt detective, but 1993's Guilty as Sin was a forgettable Don Johnson B-movie, while remaking John Cassavetes' Gloria in 1999, with Sharon Stone replacing Gena Rowlands, was ill-advised.
The four times married Lumet slowed down slightly this century, but he still worked again in television while directing several features. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, with Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney, proved to be a fitting final feature, returning to New York for the story of a pair of flawed brothers whose criminal machinations mask familial anger.
Sidney Lumet leaves behind him a vast body of work, including more than 40 features. It's hard to imagine that any filmmaker again will enjoy such a long, varied and productive career. He loved making movies, and audiences loved many of his movies.