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13 Sidney Lumet Films with Society at Heart

BY Mark Reynolds

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

13 Sidney Lumet Films with Society at Heart

As his talky but satisfying ensemble drama The Group is released on DVD for the first time, we take a look at some of the director’s greatest hits.

Sidney Lumet (1924–2011) was one of the most prolific and energetic directors of the modern era, making over a film a year between his stunning 1957 debut 12 Angry Men and 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Schooled in the fast-moving era of 1950s TV serials, Lumet specialised in scrupulously-shot psychodramas about men and women who summon the courage to challenge fragmented social systems, pursue justice and conquer abuses of power.
Shooting many of his films on the streets of New York, Lumet became synonymous with the city’s vibes and vices, but he was also adept at switching between a surprising diversity of genres. He was known as an ‘actors’ director’ and coaxed outstanding performances from the leading lights of his lifetime including Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Albert Finney, Anne Bancroft, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Simone Signoret and Sean Connery.
He was nominated four times for the Best Director Oscar – for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict – and 14 of his films were shortlisted or winners in various categories. The following list only scratches the surface of his astonishing output, and you’re sure to want to dig deeper for further treasures.

The Group (1966)

This engaging ensemble piece follows the varied trajectories of the lives of eight friends after graduation from an elite girls’ school in the years between the Depression and the beginning of World War II. Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett and Elizabeth Hartman star, with Larry Hagman as love interest, in a faithful adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s bestselling and taboo-breaking novel.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Explosive legal drama starring Henry Fonda as the dissenting member of a jury tasked to deliver a verdict on a Hispanic teenager charged with stabbing his father to death. Filmed almost exclusively inside the claustrophobic courtroom, with unnamed characters (Fonda is ‘Juror 8’), the film skilfully unravels the psychology of consensus and the murkiness of discerning reasonable doubt.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino stars as a street-smart bank robber who leads a bungled raid that turns into a hostage crisis and full-blown media circus. Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik is gleefully complex: a Vietnam veteran, married with kids, who has organised the stick-up to pay for his gay lover’s sex-change operation. The events, spiked with quirky humour, are based on a real-life raid on a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn, and truth and fiction are further blurred by the fact the real Sonny reputedly based his plan on scenes from The Godfather, in which of course Pacino also starred.

Serpico (1973)

Another true crime tale starring Al Pacino, this time as New York cop Frank Serpico, who blows the whistle on widespread corruption in the city’s police department. Pacino picked up his first Best Actor Golden Globe for his portrayal of the single-minded but psychologically tormented, furious yet thoughtful protagonist, and the gritty action is presented in near-documentary style on location around the seductive and dangerous city.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Albert Finney plays Poirot in this timeless Agatha Christie adaptation, and an A-list cast of suspects includes Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won the Best Actress Oscar), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Denis Quilley, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York. A hugely entertaining and bewitchingly satisfying whodunit.

Garbo Talks (1984)

This heartfelt comedy stars Anne Bancroft as indomitable Jewish mother Estelle Rolfe. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Estelle’s dying wish is to meet her screen idol Greta Garbo. Ex-husband Walter (Steven Hill) and son Gilbert (Ron Silver) do their utmost to make her dream come true – even at the risk of jeopardising Gilbert’s marriage to Lisa (Carrie Fisher).
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Fail Safe (1964)

A Cold War thriller starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau as an unnamed US president and his trusted scientific adviser Walter Groeteschele. When a malfunction in the Pentagon’s computer defence system causes a squadron of US bombers to cross the Bering Strait, Professor Groeteschele applies the cool logic of an academician to propose an audacious solution that leaves both sides reeling. Shot in black-and-white, the tight close-ups, dark shadows and ponderous silences inside the White House bunker ratchet up the tension.

The Verdict (1982)

Boozy, down-at-heel lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) takes on a medical malpractice case in a bid to save his reputation. Adapted by David Mamet from the bestselling Barry Reed novel, Newman excels opposite James Mason’s sleazy and corrupt defence attorney Ed Concannon and Charlotte Rampling as his sometime lover Laura, while Lindsay Crouse delivers a powerful cameo as pivotal witness Kaitlin Costello. A profound legal drama and a captivating story of redemption.

The Deadly Affair (1966)

James Mason, Maximilian Schnell and Simone Signoret star in this gripping adaptation of John Le Carré’s debut thriller Call for the Dead. Mason plays dependable MI5 officer Charles Dobbs (renamed here as Paramount had all rights to the George Smiley character, having recently made The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), as he investigates a high-ranking Foreign Office official’s apparent suicide. As Dobbs uncovers a network of Soviet agents, suspicion falls on the enchanting wife of the FO man (Signoret).

Network (1976)

Faye Dunaway won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as duplicitous TV executive Diana Christiansen, who puts deranged news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) into the firing line to boost the network’s ratings. There were also Oscars for Finch, supporting actress Beatrice Straight and writer Paddy Chayefsky, while William Holden and Robert Duvall go head to head as voices of conscience and exploitation. A tantalising satire on moral values in the media, shot with intensity by Lumet.

Q&A (1990)

Racial tensions underpin this hardboiled thriller about police corruption and unbalanced justice. Lumet adapted the script from a novel by Puerto Rican lawyer Edwin Torres, who went on to become a New York Supreme Court judge. Ethnic divisions are rife throughout the city’s legal system as Nick Nolte’s tough cop Mike Brennan leads a cover-up of his own shooting of a local hood. Combustible and fast-paced, with a heavyweight performance by Nolte and bold support by Timothy Hutton and Armand Assante.

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

Sean Connery stars in this Big Heist film overlaid with prescient musings on the pervasiveness of electronic surveillance. Connery’s Duke Anderson is released from prison after ten years and cashes in a debt of honour with mafia bosses to bankroll an audacious attempt to burgle an entire Fifth Avenue apartment block. Dyan Cannon plays Anderson’s girl Ingrid, and the film is also notable for Christopher Walken’s big-screen debut and a fizzing jazz-funk score by Quincy Jones.

The Offence (1972)

Lumet and Connery cross the Atlantic to deliver this complex and ambiguous British drama about a police detective sergeant haunted by the death in his custody of a suspected child molester. Based on John Hopkins’ 1968 stage play This Story of Yours, Connery’s DS Johnson revisits the events of twenty years earlier through a series of flashbacks in which he browbeats suspect Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) and is interrogated in turn by his commanding officer Cartwright (Trevor Howard).