“Good style, to me, is unseen style.” The film director Sidney Lumet was quoted as saying so in the New York Times obituary notice that ran for him over the weekend. The 86-year-old Lumet passed away on Saturday, after a long, uneven, vibrant career.
He came from the world of New York theater, and many of his projects, like his 1962 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, have their roots there. He was at his best doing New York dramas that examined the justice system, whether that was from the point of view of cops (Serpico), lawyers (The Verdict), criminals (Dog Day Afternoon), or jurors (12 Angry Men). He tended to be weakest when venturing outside that territory, as with the Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express or the musical The Wiz (which is nevertheless fascinating). His 1976 social satire Network is a rather overrated piece of work, but it has remained relevant through the decades. (The Glenn Beck = Howard Beale comparisons have been running for some time.) Like the best filmmakers, Lumet worked excellently with actors, directing Al Pacino to two of his greatest performances and Peter Finch to a posthumous Oscar. He was not only prolific but long-lived, still doing vital work as recently as 2007, when his remorseless last film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead graced the first Lone Star International Film Festival before coming out to laudatory reviews.
When movie people pass away, The Guardian is always quick to compile YouTube clips showing their best work, and so they’ve done for Lumet. However, there’s a terrific scene from his 2006 film Find Me Guilty that’s not in the Guardian piece, probably because the clip isn’t available on YouTube. (No surprise, since probably 32 people saw the movie in the theaters.) The film stars Vin Diesel as a real-life mobster who defended himself in court from prosecution, and the scene I’m thinking of comes late in the movie. In open court, Diesel interrogates his cousin (played by Broadway veteran Raúl Esparza) who tried to kill him earlier and is now testifying against him. It’s a fantastically layered scene: The mobster genuinely wants to know why he’s been betrayed and isn’t afraid to let the jury see that he’s been hurt by it. Yet it’s also a canny piece of courtroom theatrics, as the mobster gently but damningly ruins the witness’ credibility. It’s a nice reminder that Diesel has some game as an actor, but it’s also a testament to the craftsmanship and sensitivity of the director. All hail!