#315. Sidney Lumet

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
Dog Day AfternoonYear: 1975
Rating: R
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.

Year: 1976
Rating: R
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)


#155. Juries

A key element of the judicial system of the United States is that of a trial by jury. Not only is this right called forth in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution (in more than one Amendment), but it can be a key element of courtroom dramas. While the obvious conflict in a courtroom is between the prosecution and the defense, oftentimes there are conflicts within a jury that are just as dramatic as the trial itself. As is the case with any group of people, certain personalities will clash, and most people won’t agree on everything, even if the choice seems obvious. These group dynamics make for some interesting drama, especially when they are forced into a small room and cannot leave until they all agree on the verdict. This week’s two films examine what life is like as part of a jury behind closed doors.

12 Angry Men12 Angry Men
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

One of the keys of a jury is to gather together a set of people that represent a diverse section of the populous. However, in order to get a representative sample of the population, rarely will all jurors agree with each other. When a trial requires a unanimous verdict, these conflicts can often drive the plot of a film. After all, if the defendant’s life is on the line, there must be an agreement of all parties to sentence them to life in prison, or even death itself. Much like a firing squad is given mostly blanks to ensure that the members of the squad can be relieved of the guilt of killing a man, if an entire jury agrees to sentence a man to death, the guilt is usually alleviated by distribution amongst the jurors, as well as their conviction that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The key is to be absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons.

A common problem with juries is that they feel the defense must prove the defendant’s innocence, instead of holding that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Even with a large amount of evidence brought to light by the prosecution, a jury cannot claim the defendant is guilty unless they know beyond reasonable doubt that it’s true. This is the point that Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is trying to convey while deliberating over a death sentence for an 18-year-old accused of stabbing his father to death. As this juror holds his conviction, more jurors join his side as they start to see that the evidence brought forth is mostly circumstantial. Unfortunately, some jurors are stubborn and have their own, selfish reasons why they want the boy to be guilty, and it takes a long day in a hot and cramped room to eventually change everyone’s minds.

Runaway JuryRunaway Jury
Year: 2003
Rating: PG-13
Length: 127 minutes / 2.12 hours

When it comes to jury selections, the fact that we are all human comes as a double-edged sword. On the plus side, when our backgrounds, biases, and moral systems are combined with those of twelve different people, a fair trial can result. However, since a jury is selected from a pool of individuals, a verdict could be swayed by the selection of the right kinds of people with the right kinds of backgrounds and biases. Fortunately, this is called “jury tampering” and it is illegal. Unfortunately, if enough money is riding on the verdict, a defendant might put forth a fraction of that money to ensure they would not have to pay the full sum. This is why trials involving multi-million dollar corporations or celebrities must be examined with extra scrutiny for jury tampering. The judicial system only works if it isn’t being manipulated. Otherwise, nothing would be fair. Nothing would be just.

Based on the book of the same name by John Grisham, The Runaway Jury is just one of his 21 novels set within the legal genre. As such, his experience in writing taut courtroom dramas has been proven over the last 25 years. And while the plot of the film is slightly different from that of the book, it was only the defendant that was changed due to the plot of a similar movie (The Insider (1999)) which was released four years earlier. In the film version, Vicksburg Firearms has been brought to court by the widow of a workplace gunman. She is demanding a large cash sum from the company based on a claim of gross negligence on the behalf of the gun manufacturer. The real drama comes when an offer is made to sway the verdict to the choice of the first bidder, an option that intrigues the gun corporation, but is a suspicious proposition to the attorneys.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 just juries

#154. Henry Fonda

Few families have spanned the majority of film quite like the Fondas. With Bridget Fonda, who is the daughter of Peter Fonda, who is the son of Henry Fonda, this dynasty of a film family has been on the silver screen since 1935. That’s nearly 80 years! Plus, the patriarch of this family, Henry Fonda has even appeared on the screen with his daughter, Jane Fonda (sister to Peter), in the film On Golden Pond. The simplest statement of Henry Fonda’s acting came after his death by former actor, Ronald Reagan, “a true professional dedicated to excellence in his craft. He graced the screen with a sincerity and accuracy which made him a legend.” Even if he didn’t receive much recognition during his life, we all know his name now. This week’s two films examine some roles that made Henry Fonda a legend.

The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath
Year: 1940
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

For someone who is a well-known actor, it is surprising that Henry Fonda didn’t win more awards. His first nomination for acting was fairly early in his career for his role of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. 41 years later, he finally won that Best Actor statuette for his performance in On Golden Pond, one year after he accepted a Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy. Unfortunately, On Golden Pond was his last film, as he died the next year in 1982. And yet, his portrayal of Tom Joad is so widely recognized as a piece of American popular culture that the American Film Institute placed this character at #12 of the top 50 heroes of cinema. That’s not to mention that the film itself has ranked as high as #21 on their list of the top 100 films created in the last 100 years (#21 in 1997, #23 in 2007). In comparison, it was ranked much higher than 12 Angry Men, which placed at #87.

When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is released from prison, he heads home to Oklahoma, only to find that he no longer has a home to return to. It seems that the sharecroppers were all being forced off of their farms by the land owners. This is why, when Tom finally finds his family, they decide to head to California in the hope that there will be jobs for them there. During their travels across the states, not only does Grandpa Joad (Charley Grapewin) die, but Grandma Joad (Zeffie Tilbury) too. If these deaths didn’t get the family down, the reports that there’s no work in California are liable to dash their spirits. And yet, they continue on with a small sliver of hope. They eventually find it, just as Tom accidentally kills a man, getting scarred in the process. This causes the family to pick up and keep trudging along in hopes of a brighter future.

12 Angry Men12 Angry Men
Year: 1957
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

Much like James Stewart, Henry Fonda enlisted in the armed services so that he could fight in World War II. In fact, he worked with Stewart to help raise funds for the war effort. He felt that his duty as an American was to serve in the Navy instead of acting in a fake war for a movie. Another duty all Americans share is that of Jury duty. Henry Fonda more than likely served his duty there as well, but we know that he also portrayed a juror in the film 12 Angry Men. For whatever reason, the Academy Awards he was nominated for (in this case, Best Picture) have to do with anger, considering his nomination in the aforementioned The Grapes of Wrath. Once again, Fonda’s performance in 12 Angry Men was so memorable that the American Film Institute placed his character of Juror #8 at #28 of the top 50 heroes of cinema.

In New York City, 12 jurors are deliberating on the fate of a teenager who was accused of stabbing his father. Because of the homicidal nature of the trial, a guilty verdict would be linked to a death sentence for the teen. Even though a lot of the evidence was damning, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) still feels there is some doubt that the kid is guilty and thus keeps the jury from a unanimous decision. From this point, Juror #8 proceeds to break down all the evidence presented in order to show everyone that perhaps the defendant is not guilty. Over time, many of the jurors switch their votes as their reasons for voting “guilty” are shown to be based on faulty thinking. Even so, there are many jurors holding onto their “guilty” votes based off of their personal prejudices and experiences. Will Juror #8 be able swing an almost unanimous “guilty” to “not guilty”?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 furious Fonda roles

Bacon #: 2 (Rollercoaster / Steve Guttenberg -> Diner / Kevin Bacon)