Obituary: Saluting Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet on the set of Serpico.

Sidney Lumet directs Al Pacino in 1973's Serpico.

The great American filmmaker Sidney Lumet died Saturday morning, April 10, 2011, of lymphoma at his home in New City. He was 86.

Sidney Lumet made movies for grown-ups — strongly written, well-acted stories about grown-ups that he brought to the screen with a straight-forwardness that allowed the material and performers to breath but didn’t sacrifice the naturalism and subtle artistry that was his trademark. Firm but unobtrusive, his direction of such modern classics as Network, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, among his more than 50 films, is masterful in its naturalistic presentation and confidence. We’re talking the top, here. Simply the best.

Okay, now for my Sidney Lumet story: I attended the New York premiere of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold directed by Jonathan Demme on a snowy night at Lincoln Center back in 2006. It was a relatively low-key premiere, but there were still a gaggle of high-octane guests in attendance, including Mr. Young himself,  Meryl Streep, Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, folk singer Odetta (!), Jim Jarmusch and jazz legend Ornette Coleman. But the coolest sighting I made — I saw them sitting next to each other and chatting in the theater right before the lights went down and Demme took the stage to introduce his film — were the great directors Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. When Demme spoke to the audience a few minutes later before the film began, he exclaimed, “And I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet are here to see my movie!” I was thrilled, too!

We’ll miss you, Mr. Lumet, of course, but we’ll always have your outstanding work to watch and enjoy.

Here are 10 of our favorite films by the great Sidney Lumet:

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men, 1957

12 Angry Men (1957)
Lumet’s first feature film, an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s acclaimed 1954 teleplay, still ranks as one of the finest courtroom dramas — make that jury room dramas — ever put on film.
Available on DVD from MGM/Fox

The Hill (1965)
A brutal drama set in a British army prison in North Africa during World War II, The Hill showcased star Sean Connery’s formidable acting chops, which were getting overlooked in the midst of Bondmania in the mid-1960s. Lumet and Connery would ultimately make five films together.
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video

Bye Bye Braverman (1968)
Four middle-age New York men from different parts of the city (George Segal, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman and Sorrell Booke) attend the funeral of their buddy, who dropped dead of a heart attack.  This under-appreciated paean to New York’s numerous states of mind is the “dramedy” of its day and still a delight.
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video

Serpico movie scene

Serpico, 1973

Serpico (1973)
The first of Lumet’s films to deal with corruption in New York City’s law-enforcement community — a subject he would return to frequently — proved to be the second hit in Al Pacino’s one-two punch that launched him into the celluloid stratosphere. (The first was 1972’s The Godfather, but we didn’t have to tell you that, did we?)
Available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Lumet lightened his touch for his glamorous, superstar-filled adaptation of the Agatha Christie’s whodunit, featuring everyone from Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall to Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud.
Available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment

Network movie scene

Network, 1976

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
It was back to the city — Brooklyn, to be precise — for one of the greatest New York movies of all time. Attica! Attica!
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video

Network (1976)
The Paddy Chayefsky-penned film about American television remains the finest-ever examination film ever made about American television. The cast, script and, yes, direction, are all simply perfect.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video

Prince of the City (1981)
Based on a true story, this movie stars Treat Williams as a New York City cop who plays ball with the Internal Affairs division and the Department of Justice in this operatic drama about what happens to men and their ideals in the face of police corruption and conspiracy. Jerry Orbach’s supporting turn as a world-weary detective with dirty hands re-ignited his then-lagging career.
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video

Before The Devil Knows Your Dead movie scene

Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, 2007

Q&A (1990)
More NYC police corruption came in the form of a brutish Irish detective played by Nick Nolte in one of his greatest and most under-appreciated performances.
Available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Following nearly two decades of few hit movies and a whole lot of misses (A Stranger Among Us, anyone?), Lumet’s final film was this powerful crime drama about two brothers (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose plot to rob their parents’ suburban jewelry store goes horribly, fatally wrong.
Available on Blu-ray from Image Entertainment and on DVD from ThinkFilm

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.