Five of Sidney Lumet’s Lesser-Known Films Worth Seeking Out

Five of Sidney Lumet’s Lesser-Known Films Worth Seeking Out (photo)

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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.

04142011_FindMeGuilty.jpg“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.

04142011_FugitiveKind.jpg“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.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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