Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways for society to recalibrate its moral compass.
Throughout his long career, Sidney Lumet was obsessed with stories of moral courage – the lone individual who has the guts to risk everything and stand up against the crowd for what he/she believes is right.
His own courage and commitment as a filmmaker resulted in 46 Academy Award nominations and 6 Academy Awards, including 4 for Network.
Call us crazy, but here at The Thread, we are actually chumps enough to believe in this stuff. To us, it felt like no coincidence that American Masters chose this moment to premiere By Sidney Lumet.
It was a great profile, and inspired us to put together this list of Lumet favorites.
In By Sidney Lumet, Lumet tells his own story in a never-before-seen interview shot in 2008 by late filmmaker Daniel Anker and producer Thane Rosenbaum—directed by Nancy Buirski.
With honesty and humor, Lumet reveals what matters to him as an artist and as a human being. He talks about his early years growing up in NYC tenement housing where he quotes Brecht: “First feed the face, then tell me right from wrong.”
As a young soldier in Calcutta he witnessed the brutal rape of a young girl by a group of G.I.’s but was powerless to stop it—this criminal act and his inability to stop it shadowed him through his life and his work on the fight for justice.
Lumet often used New York City’s urban spirit to infuse his films with a realism and intensity that kept audiences in suspense while pushing them to consider their own morality. His consistent dedication to truth and what drives human behavior makes him a unique and philosophical director who is sorely missed.
In 1956, Reginald Rose and Henry Fonda commissioned Lumet to turn Rose’s Studio One teleplay of 12 Angry Men into a Hollywood movie. Before this, Lumet had only directed TV dramas, but it was this first feature that defined Lumet as one of the industry’s most socially conscious directors. Themes of justice, personal integrity, and radicalism would later appear in the scripts he chose, as well as the people he chose to work with.
In the film Fonda plays Juror 8, who casts the lone ‘not guilty’ vote as he and his fellow jurors deliberate the fate of a young Puerto Rican boy facing the death penalty for his father’s murder. A symbolic counterargument to the witch hunts of McCarthyism, it is also a quest for social justice, this time by way of that iconic American institution – the jury.
Critic Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece of stylized realism.” Even skeptical New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said that it was, “so sure-fire it has the crackle of a hit.”
Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor has credited it with inspiring her career in law. “It sold me that I was on the right path, “she said. “This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”
Serpico was a police thriller starring Al Pacino, this time in the role of an isolated and intense undercover cop whose radical idealism defines his search for justice as he blows the whistle on payoffs and corruption in the police department.
Based on a true story (written by Peter Maas; screenplay co-written by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt) the movie showed Lumet at his best, filming on New York City streets with a talented crew of actors playing characters in moral conflict and a story that was in perfect sync with the mood of the country.
Lumet has said of Serpico, “I’m not directing a moral message. I’m directing that piece and those people, and if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” Near the end of the film as Al Pacino is testifies before the Knapp Commission, Lumet mentions that he was often criticized for not having a thematic line in his work and for doing many different kinds of movies. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “There is always a bedrock concern: Is it fair?”
“Talk about radical,” says Lumet. “What could be more radical than a guy robbing a bank so that he can get the money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex operation?”
“The thing that I think makes Dog Day what it is Pacino’s performance. Because it could have easily degenerated into a sensational piece,” he says. “We have got to reach, on a fundamental level, into anybody watching this movie, to make them aware of the humanity of these two men. And I couldn’t have had a better person unearth that feeling than Pacino because he is like an open wound up there.”
In the end of this film even the hostages are rooting for them.
Lumet said of Network, “For me and [writer] Paddy Chayefsky, the network was a metaphor for America and the corruption of the American spirit.” He noted Chayefsky’s prescience and said, “It’s only gotten worse,” at the time referring indirectly to the war in Iraq.
Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch star in this powerful satire of the news industry. When anchorman Howard Beale is forced to retire his 25-year post because of his age, he announces to his viewers that he’s going to commit suicide on his final program. When his announcement looks like it will improve the ratings, the entire event is turned into a garish entertainment spectacle.
Based on a script by David Mamet. Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic Boston lawyer who tries to redeem his personal and professional reputation by winning a difficult medical malpractice case against a large Catholic hospital.
Helped by his assistant Mickey (Jack Warden) and his new girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling) The Verdict is an outstanding, if not very legally accurate, courtroom drama; his decision to try the case without telling the family of the settlement offer would probably lead to his real-life disbarment.
The central theme concerns a man who overcomes his own impulses toward self-destruction and summons the courage to challenge the system – even though it will inevitably turn him into a pariah.