The Seventies were a golden age for American Cinema. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas really changed the game with regards to how films were made and how audiences ‘watched’ cinema.
Amongst those greats was one particular director who was incredibly prolific and, more often than not, hit the target continually in that he made polished, pertinent films that truly had something to say about the world around them.
That director? Sidney Lumet (1924-2011).
In a long and illustrious career, Lumet was a classic example of ‘less is more’ in cinema. A highly prolific filmmaker, although he achieved a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, he never really got the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. However, if one looks at his filmography, more than likely they will find their jaw on the ground with regards to the consistency and quality of his work.
While not always hitting the bullseye (the misguided “The Wiz, from 1978, a disco rejig of “The Wizard Of Oz” and a star vehicle for singer Diana Ross, immediately springs to mind), here are fifteen films directed by Lumet that we cannot recommend enough.
15. Family Business (1989)
Featuring three generations of incredibly interesting actors, namely Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick, this is something of a lesser work for Lumet. It looks at three generations of one family, and the idea of action and consequence. While having some strong elements to it, it somewhat fails to click and gel as it should.
However, it does show how crime can corrode and corrupt the family unit, something he was to explore to gut wrenching effect in his final film, 2007’s “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”.
14. Q & A (1990)
While admirable in its ambition and scale, “Q&A” is another one of those films that bites off a little bit more than it can chew. The love story elements seem superfluous and grafted on to some compelling material. However, the saving graces of this film, again looking at police corruption and greed, are the sheer muscle with which Lumet approaches the material and the performances from his cast.
Nick Nolte in particular is an absolute standout as a morally and physically repugnant, racist toxic policeman. A somewhat patchy work, it still shows flashes of brilliance in regards to what makes Lumet a great director.
13. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Showing his versatility, Lumet directs this bracing, brutal cinematic take on the Eugene O’ Neill play. With a stellar cast including Katherine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards, this is a searing, unsparing look at addiction and the damage it does. Never obtrusive, Lumet gives the material space and life, eliciting some remarkable work from his cast, particularly Hepburn.
12. Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
A director with an incredible versatility to him, this saw Lumet head across the pond to England. A classically beautiful take on Agatha Christie’s classic story, it’s a beautifully shot and acted ‘whodunnit’ that holds you from the opening frame right till its final shot. Buoyed by a wonderful cast including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery, for pure entertainment value, you could do a lot worse than this.
11. The Hill (1965)
One of five films actor Sean Connery made with Lumet, this is a compelling, allegorical look at the relationship between persecutor and persecuted. Set in a military detention camp, it shows how a man can only be pushed so far before he eventually pushes back. “The Hill” is a bruising, uncompromising work that is a beautiful illustration of Lumet moving away from his stage roots and developing as a filmmaker.
10. The Pawnbroker (1964)
A ground breaking film in many ways, “The Pawnbroker” was one of the first American films to address the plight of Jewish survivors of The Holocaust during World War II. In a magnicent performance, Rod Steiger plays a man who, due to his experiences, has turned off his emotions, empathy and compassion towards the world around him.
The first mainstream film to feature both nudity and explicit swearing, it remains as powerful and compelling as it was when it was released fifty years ago. An essential work in the Lumet canon.
9. Fail-Safe (1964)
A chilling, timely take on the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, “Fail-Safe” is a bleak, unsparing and morally acute look at warfare and the damage it does. Unfortunately, while an excellent film, it died something of a death at the box office due to being released as the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial work “Dr Strangelove”. This is an overlooked work that is well worth seeking out.