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)