Goodbye Sidney

Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men is probably my dad's favourite film and its tale of men in white shirts with unbuttoned collars in a jury room is timeless. One of the things I liked most about the director was that he didn't didn't hang up his lens and rest on this fantastic laurel. Instead, he plunged into cinema which documented urban decline and, like fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, didn't retire when it looked like his best work was behind him. He passed away at the age of 86 on Saturday and the New York Times' s AO Scott has written a brilliant work which gets to the nub of what makes Lumet's fragmented canon so oddly consistent.:

In the history of American movie realism, you might place Mr. Lumet between Elia Kazan and Martin Scorsese. To some extent, this is a matter of chronological happenstance: Kazan was born in 1909, Mr. Lumet in 1924 and Mr. Scorsese in 1942. Mr. Lumet’s career overlapped with both of theirs. Mr. Lumet and Mr. Scorsese in particular were professional contemporaries. They both seem to belong to, and to have defined, the 1970s — the era of “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network” and also of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” But the differences between those studies in urban dysfunction and modern existential woe are not just temperamental or stylistic. They are generational as well. The city in Mr. Scorsese’s early films is one from which hope has largely fled, and in which heroism and nihilism are for the most part indistinguishable. Johnny Boy, the character played by Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets,” represents an anarchic, disruptive criminality unconstrained by the codes and customs of organized crime. The vigilantism of Mr. De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” is, if anything, even more pathological: his idea of justice is paranoid, apocalyptic and bloody, and it may be the only justice the city has to offer.


In Mr. Lumet’s universe, however, a shadow of the old hope persists, a residual but still potent faith in the possibility of something better. The tired old warhorses — Holden and Durning in “Network” and “Dog Day,” Paul Newman in “The Verdict” — are like creatures from the world of Kazan and Clifford Odets who have somehow survived into the age of Travis Bickle.

Fascinatingly, Scott draws a line between Lumet and Spike Lee:
New York realism was revived in the ’80s and after by Spike Lee, whose debt to Mr. Lumet is most apparent in “Clockers,” “Summer of Sam” and “The 25th Hour.” And while ethically engaged, sprawling city dramas may be rarer on the big screen, they can still be found on television. “The Wire,” with its complicated tableaus of commitment and corruption, and its inexhaustible fascination with men at work and with the flawed, vital institutions they work in, is perhaps the most powerful recent evidence that the wise, stubborn, angry humanism Mr. Lumet celebrated and exemplified is still alive.

Blog Archive