Sidney Lumet’s films never sat right. That’s probably why he never won an Academy Award, but the world is richer for it. Like those great artists whose significance wasn’t fully appreciated until after their death, Lumet, who passed away Saturday at the age of 86, leaves behind a deep, rich legacy that will resonate for decades.
Be it classics like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network” or lesser-known works like “The Pawnbroker” and the recent “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Lumet seemingly took pride in rough edges, spiraling conflicts and imprecise outcomes. Few, if any, of his films felt smooth and complete. A master artist content to leave undone those parts of his story that real life would leave empty as well, Lumet created a discomfiting brand of drama that allowed even his fictional works to resonate as reality.
Three profound cases in point are “12 Angry Men,” “Network” and “The Verdict.” All three may appear at times contrived and far-fetched to the casual viewer, but they were epically prescient. Practitioners in the legal, journalism and medical professions routinely cite those three films (respectively) as veritably incisive and influential: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has spoken of being inspired by “12 Angry Men,” and there’s hardly a news anchor or commentator in America who hasn’t seen and doesn’t constantly quote “Network.”
Along with Robert Altman, Lumet was perhaps the greatest American director to never win an Academy Award (though he was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2006). Even aside from that, a comparison to great contemporaries like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen is simply going to be off the mark because Lumet never tried or wanted to make films that way.
While Spielberg poured hundreds of millions into CGI productions and Scorsese and Allen rehashed their tried-and-true formulas a million times over, Lumet was constantly on the search for new conflicts and stories to understand, weave and convey. The result wasn’t always perfect — indeed, there were several downright bad films — but it was always a fresh product and an ambitious production.
While he became known for his love for the courtroom drama, no two of Lumet’s movies are even remotely similar in execution. Thematically, they may all share his fascination with human fallacy and hypocrisy, but never did Lumet tell the same story twice. Whether working from a screenplay based on real events (“Serpico”) or classic fiction (“Murder on the Orient Express”), Lumet brought energy, inspiration and a willingness to try something new.
At 83, he made his final film, released in 2007. In many ways, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” was also his most complicated film — juggling multiple viewpoints and timelines to tell a sickening story of family conflict. It was Lumet at his finest, not only for the themes explored, but also because he had found a new challenge and executed it perfectly, at an age when most would be content to sit back and reminisce upon a remarkable career.
Having left behind at least five or six films that will be considered true classics, and a sizable lifetime canon that speaks to his commitment to the capturing the changing face of reality, even in fiction, Lumet’s place among the greatest of all time is unquestionable. Just watch “Night Falls on Manhattan” or “Prince of the City.” I’m sure you will agree.