The death of Sidney Lumet April 9 is a striking reminder of how little the American motion-picture industry today has in common with Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s—which were his heyday and, arguably, the heyday of the movies themselves. Lumet was unquestionably the most consistent and productive of the star filmmakers of his time. He averaged a movie a year from 1964 until 1982, and eight of them are either classics or near classics (Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Just Tell Me What You Want, Prince of the City, and The Verdict).
Vivid and powerful, direct and explosive, a good Lumet movie takes the entirely artificial world of the movie set and makes it seem more real than real life, as though you are watching something dramatic happening right next door, right down the block. Lumet’s specialty was taking high melodrama and giving it a documentary feel—a feat far more difficult than making either a conventional melodrama or a conventional documentary, because he had to combine high artifice with techniques designed to mask every trace of artifice.
Take Dog Day Afternoon, the astounding 1975 movie based on a true story about a botched Brooklyn bank robbery. You can practically feel the heat of the summer’s day sizzling off the sidewalk. Lumet told the movie critic Glenn Kenny that in “a movie like Dog Day Afternoon, your first obligation is to put across the idea that, ‘Hey folks, this really happened.’ This picture is nothing if it’s an invented picture. It’s only interesting, and true, because of the reality of it. Well, we were killing ourselves trying to get film to look real. Because film color is not real.”
The Verdict, his morality play starring Paul Newman as a drunk attorney who refuses to settle a tort case, gets its power from its literal darkness, which seems intended to evoke the inside of a dive bar: “The color palette in The Verdict is wonderful and so carefully worked out. You know the color blue appears only once in that movie? I couldn’t get the sky out of the shot. And I looked for a way to change the lens, but I needed that lens for another reason.”
Among major American directors, only the MGM stalwart George Cukor had a better way with actors or a cannier sense of how to match a performer to a part. There are dazzling scenes and actor’s moments in Lumet movies that burn in your memory decades later. He pulled off casting feats without peer, as when he gave the comedian Alan King his only starring role as a Donald Trump type in 1980’s wonderfully cynical romantic comedy Just Tell Me What You Want. King reciprocated with a lead performance as glorious and underrated as the movie itself.
Even more stunning was a seven-minute interchange in Running on Empty—an otherwise disgraceful romanticization of the Bill Ayers-Bernardine Dohrn story—in which a fugitive terrorist played by Christine Lahti meets her bourgeois father in a restaurant opposite Lincoln Center to ask him to look out for her teenage son. The father is played by Steven Hill, later one of the DAs on Law and Order (and notable for being the only serious American actor who is also an ultra-Orthodox Jew).
Hill, who barely moves anything but his eyes as he conjures up 15 years of pain and sorrow and shame and anger, gives what I believe is the greatest single-scene performance in film history—and it was both Lumet’s brilliance in casting him and trust in letting Hill contain himself so unforgettably that allowed the scene to transcend its rotten surroundings and stand apart for the ages. (The scene is available with a little searching on YouTube.)
What’s interesting about Lumet is that, while he was considered extraordinarily successful commercially throughout the 1970s, none of the films that made his reputation and are likely to endure would be made for the big screen today. They might, perhaps, find a home on HBO, especially since most of Lumet’s movies were explicitly political and frankly left-wing in a way that characterizes many HBO movies—and is rarely true of multiplex fare.
Politics in present-day Hollywood is far more likely to find expression in the promotion of left-liberal cultural notions and prejudices about the relations between men and women, homosexuality, and the like. Lumet wasn’t really interested in that. He was an old-fashioned Commie who loved to romanticize lawbreaking radicals and trash the cops. At his and their best, Lumet’s movies—like many of the great American films of the time—somehow managed to transcend those stupid and offensive ideas. The multiplex fare that has replaced them is mostly stupid and offensive—and doesn’t even try to be anything but.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.