Sidney Lumet is perhaps the best Director you’ve never even heard of. While his films have garnered almost fifty Oscar nominations, they’ve only earned six. None of these six were for Best Director, but he was nominated at least four times over his long and distinguished career. One of the reasons most people aren’t familiar with his work is that the heyday of Lumet’s best works was in the 1970’s. During this decade, his films garnered the vast majority of Oscar nominations, as well as all of the Oscar wins (in a three-year period). While his career has spanned six decades, most of his films aren’t recognizable, despite his prolific filmography. Many of these films are critically acclaimed, even to this day. This week’s two films highlight some of the best that Sidney Lumet’s directing had to offer.
Dog Day Afternoon
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours
In 1974, Lumet directed Murder on the Orient Express, a film that garnered the most Oscar nominations to date for one of his films. With six nominations, only Ingrid Bergman’s performance managed to snag a win, the first for a Lumet-directed film. One year later, Dog Day Afternoon would pull the same feat, with six nominations and one win for Best Original Screenplay. One of these nominations was for Lumet’s directing, which was his second overall at the time. Many will recognize that Al Pacino helped to cement this film in the history of popular culture. Perhaps his inclusion in this film was in part due to his iconic portrayal of the eponymous Serpico in the Lumet-directed film from two years prior. If anything, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon show that Sidney Lumet can direct Al Pacino to be on either side of the law.
While Serpico has Al Pacino portray an honest cop of the same name, Dog Day Afternoon goes in the opposite direction, allowing him to portray bank robber Sonny Wortzik. Sonny is new to this crime game and botches his first robbery at the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. Soon the cops have been called and only two of the original three robbers are left to hold the bank hostage. Sonny is able to get the public on his side by letting a security guard go due to an asthma attack but also riling them up by yelling about the recent Attica Prison riot. It is eventually revealed that the reason for the failed robbery was to pay for Sonny’s girlfriend to finish gender reassignment surgery, earning him more sympathy points. Realizing that the whole fiasco is a bust, Sonny just wants to get him and his partner, Sal (John Cazale) out safely. The negotiators oblige, but Sonny and Sal end up getting a bad deal in the process.
Length: 121 minutes / 2.02 hours
Right from the start, Sidney Lumet’s skill at directing was easily recognizable. His first film, 12 Angry Men (1957) is considered by many to be the epitome of the courtroom drama, even if the courtroom is rarely seen at all. Earning three nominations, this film garnered Lumet his first nod for Best Director. 25 years later, he would bookend with another courtroom drama and earn his fourth and final Best Director nomination for The Verdict (1982). His most-nominated film, however, was Network (1976), which racked up an impressive ten nominations. Lumet was nominated for Best Director, but it was the Original Screenplay and the acting talents of Peter Finch (Best Actor), Faye Dunaway (Best Actress) and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress) that brought home the gold that year.
Anger is front and center on Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) Evening News segment after he learns that he will be fired due to poor ratings. As luck would have it, his un-anchor-like actions push the ratings of his show through the roof. Meanwhile, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) realizes the potential to morph the “mad as hell” anchor into an entertainments show instead of a news-oriented one. Now that Beale has a new-found power as a prophet of the airways, he decides to take on the Saudi Arabian conglomerate who is poised to buy out his studio. This gains the attention of the head of the Communications Corporation of America, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who takes Beale aside and shows him the financial sense of the world. As a result, Beale is told to tone it down and this leads to a slide in the ratings for The Howard Beale Show. Only one option remains for the network, and it’s a win-win situation for them.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous Sidney Lumet movies
Bacon #: 2 (The Manchurian Candidate (2004) / Robert W. Castle -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)