I have always thought that, for any fledgling American film director with enough talent and brains, the horizons must seem limitless. On film, the country and its history are virtually unexplored in any imaginative sense, and abstracting from the American experience some semblance of life as it is lived has hardly even been tried, let alone achieved. What few authentic depictions of the American scene that have made it to film are, sadly, almost invariably about criminals. And while there will always be an attraction to the people who break laws and - another American fixation - who get away with it, there is a filmmaker who has chosen to explore the other side. Not just crime, but its consequences, the thankless and too often fruitless pursuit of justice, when it can be found, by people accustomed to seeing justice cheated or perverted.
For more than twenty years a consensus has been building among film critics regarding the position of Martin Scorsese atop the always very short list of great American film directors. But, for me, Scorsese will always be the second best American film director as long as Sidney Lumet is alive and kicking.
After working in television, much of it live, from 1951, Lumet, who turns 85 today, made his feature debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957. It had all of the ingredients of his later work: a controversial subject handled fearlessly, telling people truths they didn't want to hear; powerful acting, this time from a once in a lifetime ensemble cast, and confidence in a less than happy ending. Lumet's theme was the fragility of justice, over prejudice, stereotypes, and all short cuts to the truth about human beings who are poor, underprivileged, and Puerto Rican - the ethnicity of ethics, long before To Kill a Mockingbird made a big deal out of it.
From the beginning he was distinguished as an actors' director. His work, for example, with Sean Connery definitely demonstrated that he was too good to be wasted on James Bond.(1) He proved that Sharon Stone could be a genuine actress when she felt like it in Gloria (1999). And as recently as 2006 he proved that he could make a slab of meat, Vin Diesel, act, in Find Me Guilty. But the films for which Lumet will be remembered are all about crime and punishment: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), and Q & A (1990). The first, third, and last of these films form a kind of trilogy on a favorite theme of Lumet's: policing the police. In all three a young, principled cop struggles against his corrupt fellow cops, in Serpico and Prince of the City, and against one powerful, dirty cop in Q & A.
Lumet never, thank goodness, developed a "style" that he imposed on all of his material. For this he doesn't get high marks from the auteurists. But what makes so much of his work truly distinctive is how it always manages to rise above genre. Even his whodunits are paradigms: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is easily the best film based on Agatha Christie, even if Peter Ustinov was a better Poirot than Albert Finney. Lumet made the most of Paddy Chayefsky's overblown script for Network (1976). And he even managed to make his film of Equus (1977), Peter Shaffer's preposterous love letter to insanity, as good as it could've been.
Of course, the fate of a commercial film director who is as versatile as Lumet is to occasionally find himself marking time with material that is beneath him. And in a career spanning five decades and nearly fifty films, Lumet might well have balked at certain projects. Fail-Safe (1964) was intended to be an intelligent look at the nightmare of nuclear war, but it was completely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, released earlier the same year and with which it bears an uncanny resemblance. Luckily, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970) has been forgotten, since it was based on one of Tennessee Williams' terrible late plays. I don't suppose anyone short of Rene Clair in his prime could've redeemed The Wiz (1978) from being moribund.
Besides returning to TV for awhile in 2001, Lumet has directed two more feature films, is in production with another, tentatively titled Getting Out, and, as I write this, has another film "in development". I see from his credits at the Internet Movie Database (2) that Martin Scorsese isn't slowing down either. Scorsese's finally winning an Oscar for Best Director for his overrated The Departed (2006) has perhaps given him some kind of vindication. Lumet was nominated four times, but never won. He was given one of those odious "honorary"Oscars in 2005, which is usually a kiss of death (Robert Altman). But Scorsese had better not plan on retiring any time soon. Lumet obviously won't.
(1) In The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offense (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Family Business (1989)