Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is Sidney The Wiz At Afternoon Dog Running?

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.


  1. Sidney Lumet is an excellent director despite an inconsistent track record.

    I do have a review of Strip Search I wrote back in 2004 which was copied by some Italian website a few years ago. It's an OK film but it was the 56-minute version instead of the full-length version.

  2. Running on Empty is defiantly one of his best and most powerful efforts of all-time.

  3. To answer your opening question, yes! Lumet has directed more masterpieces than most directors make films in general and you've missed almost all of them in this post. 12 Angry Men, Network, Prince of the City, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Critical Care, The Verdict, The Pawnbroker, Long Days Journey into Night. This is one of America's last truely great directors. Even his minor work like Find me Guilty, Murder on the Orient Express, Family Business, Q&A, The Wiz, etc. Is more interesting and well made than most directors'. Not only that, but the man knows movies through and through, all of them, even the failures, are about as well made as any American film could be and he has written on of the best books ever on the art of directing.

    I like you CS, but damn :P

  4. @thevoid99 – I will give your review of Strip Search a read. I agree that the film is merely ok overall but I really liked the Gyllenhaal segment. It is flawed but the performances are great.

    @CMrok93 –Running on Empty is great, Phoenix and the entire cast give wonderful performances.

    @Mike - I knew this post would raise the blood temperature of a few readers, maybe even cost me some. Yet my views are solely based on the works of his that I have seen. I fully acknowledge that he is one of those big directors whose many great works I should really make a point of seeing. Still I would rather be honest about my Lumet experience rather than post a fraudulent piece based on other people’s views of the director.

    I did not know he wrote a book on Art Direction though…might have to check that out.

  5. What is this movie with Miles from LOST?!

  6. @Sasha - Ken Leung was great on Lost. I really became a fan of his after seeing the Spike Lee directed Sucka Free City. Leung is one of the bit players (he was in Spielberg’s A.I. amongst other films) that I could see going the Phillip Seymour Hoffman route if given the right opportunities.

  7. CS- is Sucka Free City good. It's the one Spike Lee movie I've kind of avoided because I'm a touch wearly on TV pilots that get turned into movies (ya know, like Twin Peaks) but Spike has almost never let me down and it's his only thing I don't own so would it be worth my dollars?

  8. @Mike - Sucka Free City was actually pretty good. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is also in it as well. The only problem with Sucka Free City is that it is all about establishing the characters and situations, as most pilots do, so by the end you are left wanting more. There is no big payoff at the end. I think it would have worked well as a cable series.


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