Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wiz

I'm a little late getting to this, but as a big movie buff, I don't think an event like the passing of the greatest living film director should pass without comments by yours truly.

I should probably qualify that.

Sidney Lumet, who died last week at the age of 86, was one of only about three (maybe four) people who could be considered the greatest living film director. The only other two I think were seriously in contention were Francis Ford Coppola (who stopped making good movies a long time ago) and Martin Scorsese (ditto, more or less).

I suspect that most of you have seen his three great masterpieces: Network, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. If not, you should run out and rent them. They are three of the very best movies of the 1970s (especially Dog Day), bar none. (Network feels more eeriely relevant -- and less like a satire -- with every passing year, particularly with the advent of Glenn Beck.)

But the thing that I'm amazed by, in thinking over Lumet's career, is just the sheer number of first rate movies (that weren't quite as great as those first tier films I just mentioned) that Lumet directed. Sure, he had his share of stinkers. (Like, say, The Wiz.) Some of his movies which were wildly praised when they came out did not hold up well over time. (Like The Pawnbroker.) When he took on social or political issues (like with Fail Safe) he often fumbled (just think of what Stanley Kubrick did with more or less the same material when he directed Dr. Strangelove which came out the same year.)

But despite all this, he leaves behind a titanic body of great work. Here's Max Gross' list of second tier Lumet movies, which you should run out and rent as fast as humanly possible.

12 Angry Men. This one is a little like The Pawnbroker, in that it doesn't quite hold up. And a little like Fail Safe, in that it's an issue movie. But it's also quite clever. And while Lee J. Cobb tends to chew the scenery a bit it still holds up from that era as one of the better "social issue" films. To see just how badly this kind of material could be handled, all you have to do is watch William Friedkin's hopelessly lame 1997 remake.

Bye Bye Braverman. One of the great forgotten Jewish comedies of the 1960s. Every time I get eggrolls, I think of this one.

Murder on the Orient Express. MOTOE almost edges into greatness territory. It has an all-star cast, and it feels like watching one of those stylish, studio pictures from the 1930s with an epic cast, like Grand Hotel, where you expect champagne to flow from the faucets in the sinks. It is also possibly the best-ever adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. (I think it surpassed Christie's original.) Moreover, even as a big commercial romp, it manages to squeeze in some great moral drama. (The ending was also recently parodied on an episode of 30 Rock!)

Prince of the City. One of the best movies about cops ever made. Period. (I'll never quite forgive the great Pauline Kael for failing to appreciate this tragic, heartbreaking movie. Or Roget Ebert, even though he's kinder.) Moreover, I admire the restraint Lumet showed in the fact that he refused to cast a big name as the lead actor -- he went with Treat Williams, because he didn't want the audience to spend a half-hour getting over their pre-existing associations with a Pacino or a DeNiro. (Sadly, Williams never did anything as good again.)

Deathtrap. For a filmed play, this one is excellent.

The Verdict. I'm slightly biased on this one, because it's based on the novel that my father ghost wrote. But it is one of Paul Newman's best performances. And as a courtroom drama, it is fascinating, riveting stuff.

Daniel. This one is nowhere near as good as E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel about the Rosenbergs (and their kids) but it's worth watching if only for Amanda Plummer's loony performance.

Find Me Guilty. Some were saying that this was a great movie... I'm not sure about that, but it's certainly enjoyable.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Now this is a great movie. Or a near great one, at any rate. The fact that it was directed by a man in his 80s shows just what a master can do when he's in the zone. In addition to being a movie of terrific moral complexity, of the performances one comes to expect in Lumet's movies, it almost looked to me like Lumet had picked up something from Quentin Tarantino. Not just in theme (a robbery gone awry) but in the fact that he decided to play with timelines -- and do so expertly.

For more on Lumet, Slate has an interesting podcast about the man and his work -- which also includes a segment about my old classmate, Mehgan O'Rourke's extremely heartbreaking memoir about her mother (which I will write about later this week.)