Legendary director Sidney Lumet passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Lumet’s career spanned movies and television for more than five decades. His films explored some of the most intense and interesting characters to have ever graced the big screen. His often cerebral thrillers and suspense films touched on some of the most important themes of the day, yet also hit emotional notes that resonated with movie-goers throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Lumet directed such classics as 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker, the chilling Fail Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, and The Verdict. During his career, he directed some of the most distinguished actors of our time, including Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Katharine Hephburn, Ralph Richardson, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Peter Finch, Rod Steiger, and Robert Duvall. Nominated for several Best Director Academy Awards, Lumet never went home with an Oscar until receiving an honorary award in 2005.
He was an expert at exploring the complexities of his characters no matter what the genre. Whether the dissipated drunk of an attorney (Paul Newman) looking for redemption in The Verdict or Al Pacino’s morally ambiguous detective in Serpico, Lumet knew how to ratchet up the intensity while finding the emotional core of the scripts he shot during his illustrious career.
He had a knack for drawing you into his characters, no matter the genre. His brilliant 1964 film Fail Safe was an intense thriller and cautionary tale about the perils of the Cold War and the real danger of worldwide nuclear disaster. But in Lumet’s hands, the movie became as much about the character drama involving the President (Henry Fonda), his young Russian translator Buck (a very young Larry Hagman), and the bomber pilot (Dan O’Herlihy) about to annihilate New York City as just payment to the Russians for the U.S. having tragically and accidentally nuked Moscow.
Each character, including the unseen Soviet premier, is fully realized as we are brought in the moral dilemma that each faces as the world hangs in the balance. It was the first Lumet film I saw, late at night on television as a teenager; it still occasionally haunt me, decades later, the Cold War long over.