Sidney Lumet knew a thing or two about making movies.
A legendary film director and a diehard New Yorker, Lumet passed away over the weekend at the age of 86. Needless to say, the tributes are pouring in—as well they should be. Lumet is one of the most important directors in the history of Hollywood. He didn’t make blockbuster hits like Spielberg or Cameron, and his cult status has never equaled that of Kubrick or Scorsese. Just the same, Lumet leaves behind a body of work that is nothing short of remarkable. 12 Angry Men. The Pawnbroker. Serpico. Dog Day Afternoon. Network. Murder on the Orient Express. The Wiz. The Verdict. Running on Empty. And that’s just a partial list.
What’s also remarkable is that Lumet never won the Oscar for Best Director. (Which puts him in the illustrious company of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and, yes, Stanley Kubrick.) Lumet was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.
Lumet came from the theater, starting his career as an off-Broadway director, then moving into television, then film. He was especially masterful at taking dialogue-driven material and infusing it with a cinematic electricity. Lumet didn’t make filmed versions of stage plays. He made movies. He understood the difference.
He was also masterful at getting brilliant performances from his actors. Indeed, Network is only one of two movies that won three acting Oscars: Best Actress Faye Dunaway, Best Actor Peter Finch, and Best Supporting Actress Beatrice Straight. (The other film that holds this distinction is A Streetcar Named Desire.)
In 1995, Lumet wrote a terrific book called Making Movies. It is one of the most practical, inspiring, no-b.s. primers about the art of moviemaking. (I’m staring at my copy of it right now.)
Network, which I’ve written about at length, is probably my favorite Lumet film. But if you’ve never seen any of his films, start with Dog Day Afternoon. I dare you not to like.
There may never be legions of film students worshiping at Lumet’s shrine. And he may not be an auteur in the limited, snobbish sense of the word. But Lumet was something more than an auteur (and arguably better): he was a first-class storyteller, a film artist who never let style or pretension get in the way of riveting an audience and creating movie magic.
With Lumet’s passing, the world has lost one of its greatest filmmakers. And I for one am mad as hell about it. But if there’s any justice in the world–which was a constant theme in much of Lumet’s work–his movies will still be riveting audiences and casting spells for many years to come.