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Sidney Lumet was the consummate film craftsman but more than anything else he will probably be remembered for his work with actors. His films gave many great actors their finest roles but also made moviegoers aware of the considerable talents of some actors who were not stars. He started out with amazing casting, and then got performances from leads down to the smallest speaking roles that enriched his movies with such distinctive, specific characters that are always integral to the story. A look at the highlights of a long and illustrious career of a director who made actors look very, very good.
12 Angry Men (1957)
In his first film, the 33-year-old veteran of stage and television, made a truly great film based on the oft-produced play about 12 male jurors battling it out in a claustrophobic jury room. Like the play, the movie never leaves that room as an apparent open-and-shut murder case does an about-face due to the persistence of one unconvinced juror played with calm bravado by Henry Fonda. Lee J. Cobb is his furious nemesis with memorable performances turned in as well by E.G Marshall, Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jack Warden and the rest of the cast.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Again it’s a film version of a famous play — Eugene O’Neill’s highly autobiographical account of the melodramatic fireworks within his wildly dysfunctional family. And again great, chewy roles for Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell
The Pawnbroker (1964)
One of the first films to deal with the impact of the Holocaust on survivors, the film made Rod Steiger a star and earned him his first best lead actor Oscar nom. It also featured the first film score by Quincy Jones.
The film came out just after Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which seemed like a parody of Lumet’s movie and killed its box-office chances. Yet the film does capture the pessimistic Cold War view by many that a nuclear mistake was completely possible. A superb cast again headed by Henry Fonda and featured the film debut of Dom DeLuise.
The Anderson Tapes (1971)
Wa-a-a-ay ahead of its time in its depiction of surveillance cameras and security obsession, the film is both a heist picture and a meditation — three years before Coppola’s The Conversation — on evesdropping. Every scene is filtered through surveillance videos, electronic devices and hidden mikes. Sean Connery used this film to move far, far away from his Bond image.
The first film in the astonishing four-year run of six superb films Lumet made back to back finds Al Pacino as a New York undercover cop, who blows the whistle on corruption within the force, a theme Lumet would return to more than once.
Lovin’ Molly (1974)
The film version of Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne covers four decades as two farm boys (Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges) pursue the title character, played by a luminescent Blythe Danner.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
A lark, but a delicious one, as a dozen characters, all played by stars, parade before Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot as suspects in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
It keeps getting better with age — and everyone thought it was a classic when it first came out. Possibly Pacino’s finest performance — well, it’s worth making the argument — and great roles for John Cazale, Charles Durning and Chris Sarandon.
A film that thanks to Paddy Chayefsky’s great script has entered the American culture: Does anyone need to be told who Howard Beale is and how mad he is? One of the best films ever made about television.
This one often gets lost in talking about Lumet’s top movies. But Lumet made a fascinating film out of a play many believed unfilmable, while giving Richard Burton one of his best roles ever.
Prince of the City (1981)
Cops, crime and New York City again … only this time Lumet dug even deeper to the complexities of corruption and the drug trade.
The Verdict (1982)
Paul Newman stars as an alcoholic ambulance chaser who takes a case to trial not just to redeem his sorry life but to seek greater justice against careless doctors. David Mamet’s script bursts with great dialogue and scenes for James Mason, Jack Warden and Charlotte Rampling.
Running On Empty (1988)
Another superb screenplay, this by Naomi Foner, about a family of political radicals forever on the run, whose children suffer from the constant change in towns, identities and schools.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
His first film makes this list and so does he last. A “perfect crime” goes very wrong as pair of brothers, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, find their lives spiraling out of control. The supporting cast was pitch-perfect, too.
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