Only days ago “The Deadly Affair” arrived at my doorstep, yet another of Sidney Lumet’s films I had never seen before since having been born two-thirds of the way into the director’s legendary career, it’s always been a game of catch-up. Then again, it was that way for most in his field, even if they were contemporaries.
After passing away far too soon at the age of 86, Lumet leaves behind a half-century-long career that will no doubt be scrutinized for being inconsistent, a richly ironic assessment given that in person and on film, he was known as a straight shooter, and perhaps one of the only filmmakers who could say their final film (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) was as vital and strong as their first (“12 Angry Men”). However, that certainly isn’t the only reason why Lumet was a rarity.
In a world full of auteurs, Lumet was a collaborator, bringing out the best in some of the finest screenwriters and actors of the day, whether it was protecting Paddy Chayefsky’s visionary media satire “Network” or guiding the likes of Al Pacino to two of his finest performances in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.” And yet he was also fiercely independent, unusually minimalist in his approach to storytelling and willing to fail, which made his successes all the more triumphant and many of his less commercially successful films intriguing if not as downright compelling for a specific audience as many of his hits are.
Of course, in recent days, there have been plenty of great remembrances of the director, from Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz and The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, not to mention Mubi‘s excellent roundup of them all, as well as Film School Rejects‘ list of the seven Lumet films you can watch right now and Matt Singer’s YouTube primer. But the director’s body of work is so vast that even after one gorges through the accepted classics, there are far more treasures to be found, especially since quite a few of them haven’t been released on DVD or sometimes home video in general until the last year. Here are a few that are well worth checking out:
“Prince of the City” - Amongst Lumet’s biggest fans, the director’s nearly three-hour adaptation of Robert Daley’s book about real-life NYPD detective Robert Leuci (Treat Williams) who uncovers corruption in the department and methodically weeds them out is perhaps his greatest achievement. After long being unavailable on DVD, Warner Brothers released the film in a two-disc set in 2007 that not only leaves the tense, labyrinthine thriller uncompromised, but includes a half-hour documentary about the making of the film that details the film’s difficult shoot and serves as a testament to Lumet’s adherence to accuracy with the participation of the real Leuci.
“Find Me Guilty” - Despite an unfortunate wig, Vin Diesel gave the performance of his career as mafioso Jack DiNorscio in Lumet’s 2006 courtroom comedy and unfortunately, with a nascent distributor in the now-defunct Yari Film Group, the film was similarly hidden in plain sight with audiences. But after directing very few comedies with a limited amount of success (the often budget-bin-bound 1997 hospital comedy “Critical Care” adroitly uses an excellent ensemble including Helen Mirren and an unrecognizable Albert Brooks), “Find Me Guilty” finds Lumet in his most comfortable setting — the courtroom – and at his most relaxed, which gives Diesel the chance to turn on the charm as the real-life mobster who, already having been sentenced to a 30-year prison stretch, represents himself to avoid having to testify against his pals in what became the longest mob-related trial in history.
“Bye Bye Braverman” - It was actually a lament from MSN Movies‘ Glenn Kenny upon the Warner Archive release of this bittersweet 1968 dramedy about a gathering of four liberal Jewish pals at the funeral of their friend that both he and the film’s director (whom he quoted from his essential memoir “Making Movies”) felt “should’ve been a soufflé, but it turned out a pancake” that led me to check the film out. As it happens, Warner Archive is one of the best sources for Lumet’s wilder works, having also made available to the public the 1968 adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull” with James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave, the 1970 Tennessee Williams adaptation “Last of the Mobile Hot Shots” with James Coburn, and the 1980 Ali McGraw comedy “Just Tell Me What You Want.” And like those films, “Bye Bye Braverman” was never likely to catch fire with mass audiences, but one will admire Lumet’s craftsmanship, particularly in regard to what he brings out of his actors, and the film’s nerve, reveling in its Brooklyn setting and Judaica in a way that will make it foreign to some, but instantly beloved by others if it hits them in the right way, as it did Andrew Grant of Like Anna Karina’s Sweater.
“The Offence” - Thanks to MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, a manufacture-to-order DVD service in the vein of Warner Archive, three of Lumet’s lesser-known films are available to own including “The Group,” the 1966 drama that tracks Shirley Knight and Candice Bergen amongst others in a group of graduates from Vassar as they pass through the rites of adulthood during the 1930s (which can also be watched on Netflix), and “Garbo Talks,” the lighthearted 1984 drama featuring Anne Bancroft as an indefatigable Greta Garbo fan who decides she’ll meet her screen idol when she learns she has an inoperable brain tumor. But perhaps the strongest of the trio is Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery, following 1965’s war drama “The Hill,” which touched on the director’s longtime fascination with abuse of power with Connery as a veteran detective pushed beyond the brink of self-control by a suspected child rapist. It’s available both on DVD and Amazon on Demand, a blessing since it never saw the light of day in more than a few countries after it proved to be a disappointment at the box office, though it was a passion project of Connery’s that is evident from the end result.
“The Fugitive Kind” - Ordinarily, inclusion in the Criterion Collection might preclude being on a list such as this, but we’ll make an exception since Lumet and star Marlon Brando’s considerable résumés often overshadow this 1959 Tennessee Williams adaptation about a drifter (Brando) who attracts the interest of three women (Joanne Woodward, Anna Magnani, and Maureen Stapleton) while trying to escape his criminal past in a small Mississippi town. At the time of its release, critics believed the East Coast-bred Lumet was out of his element in the Deep South, but later reception has been far kinder as the evocative black-and-white portrait of a decaying culture and Brando’s lonesome lothario. If nothing else, the film allowed Criterion to include a collection of Lumet-directed one-act plays of Williams on their two-disc set and eventually, The New Yorker‘s John Lahr to tell a wonderful anecdote about its occasionally difficult production.