Is it blasphemous that I consider Sidney Lumet merely a good director opposed to a great one? This question has crossed my mind recently as this week marks a retrospective on Lumet career as part of The LAMB's wonderful series, LAMBs in the Director’s Chair. Before you run out and grab your pitchforks and axes, let me preface this by stating that a lot of my views toward Lumet stem from the fact that I have experienced more of his later works rather than his “classics”.
My earliest encounter with Sidney Lumet’s films was The Wiz when I was younger. I remember watching it one summer on television with a few family members. It was a big event that evening mainly because the all black cast featured both Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Fast forward to present day and The Wiz still holds a special spot in my heart. It is not a great film by any means; in fact the unevenness of the film is more glaring now with than it when I first watched it over twenty years ago. I even had a tough time explaining my fondness for the film to my wife last week when we happened upon it on television. It is hard to point out the film’s strengths when giant trash bins, with oversized teeth, are gumming Michael Jackson’s arms on screen…believe me I have tried.
Many will cite Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon as examples of Lumet’s exceptional works and I would not disagree. I would even throw Running on Empty into the list as well. Those would be my top three selections, based on what I have see, of Lumet’s canon of work. All three films were stellar examinations of characters struggling with issues of loyalty. Whether it was the cop being true to his code of ethics in the face of corruption; the misguided criminal doing whatever he can to help the one he loves; or simply the young man who loves his family but must wants to be his own man; each one of those pictures left an undeniable mark on the world of film.
Loyalty is a theme that is constantly in all of Lumet’s films, although more often than not, it is never quiet executed as well as in the three films mentioned above. Just look at some of the films that people conveniently overlook when reminiscing about Lumet. Films like Guilty as Sin, which tried hard to be a sexy thriller but ended up being a sloppy mess. Don Johnson’s overacting matched with Rebecca De Mornay’s poorly written attorney was a recipe for disaster from the start. Halfway through the film you really could care less about De Mornay’s conflict of wanting to prove Johnson’s guilt while still having to represent him as her client. Or how about the generational comedy, and I use the term “comedy” loosely, Family Business. While some may have enjoyed seeing Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, and Matthew Broderick stumble around like buffoons, I could not help but think that the actors had signed up for the film script unseen. Let us also not forget the gangster’s girl with a heart of gold story, Gloria, in which Sharon Stone attempts to show off her softer side. One of the most shocking things about Gloria was that the formulaic story came from a John Cassavetes script.
Even decent films such as Night Falls on Manhattan, Q&A, Strip Search, and A Stranger Among Us fail to muster up anything more than a “well it was not a bad way to kill two hours” type of response. If I had to pick the one that stood out the most it would probably be the made for television feature Strip Search as I really loved the segment between Ken Leung, a vastly underrated actor, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I like how the tension builds in the scene and the resolution is as equally unsettling as the interrogation.
Again I am not saying Sidney Lumet is a bad director, I just do not see him in the same light that many others do. Besides a handful of exceptional films the majority of Lumet’s body of work, based on what I have seen, is good but not necessarily great.