Sunday, April 10, 2011

In memory of film Director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

 "While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”
Sidney Lumet
The death of American film director Sidney Lumet sees the passing of another of the great film Directors of the late 20th century. In the period from the mid 1950's through to his last film he made in 2007, aged 83 years old, Lumet directed over 40 films, some of which are recognized as among the great films of all time. Some obituaries are here, here, here, here and here

Some of his best known films include Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Network, Murder on the Orient Express, The Pawnbroker, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Hill and Prince of the City.

Lumet was renowned for his ability to coax strong performances from his actors. Think Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico), John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Timothy Hutton and Amanda Plummer (Daniel),  Faye Dunaway (Network) and Peter Finch (Network).

To me Lumet was a deeply political film maker and often his films reflected a strong "leftist"  and progressive sensibility. Many of his films explored issues of injustice, the corruption of power and the courage of people forced by conscience or circumstances to take a stand against injustice and for a cause or the rights of others.

His films spoke about social and political issues and struggles of the day, including police corruption (Serpico and Prince of the City), the persecution of people for their political and personal beliefs and lifestyles ( Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Daniel), the power of institutions over ordinary people and their capacity to influence people to do evil and/or good (12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, The Verdict), the importance of political activism and political struggles and the need for individuals to act on their conscience (Daniel, Dog Day Afternoon, Running on Empty, Serpico, 12 Angry Men), the power of social and political institutions and their failure to be accountable and the power and corruption of corporations and big business (Network, The Verdict).

Who can forget the prescient scene from Network when Peter Finch (who plays a TV anchor) meets with the CEO of the TV network who tells him that " God is ratings. God is money", a profound commentary on what the corporate media has become.

In the Pawnbroker (starring Rod Steiger) Lumet told the story of a Holocaust survivor in New York numbed and hardened against humanity by the horrors he has endured. A vicious crime on his doorstep reawakens his conscience.

In the 1988 film Running on Empty, Lumet explored the legacy of 1960's political activism, telling the story of political radicals and activists who raised a family despite spending a lifetime on the run from the FBI because of their political activism. Lumet is able to tell a story beyond politics, of families, of mothers, fathers and children and of the place of political conviction.  

But I think perhaps Lumet's finest film is one of his least known. The film Daniel (1983) was based on the novel of the same name (by E.L Doctrow) and was based on the real life story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the husband and wife executed by the US government in 1953 for allegedly giving nuclear secrets to the USSR. The film tells the story of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, political activists and Communists sympathizers who are found guilty of selling US atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed, and the impact of their execution on their two children (played by Timothy Hutton and Amanda Plummer).

The film uses the story of Daniel (Timothy Hutton), a young graduate student during the Vietnam War who remains detached from politics of the day and his family's history of political activism and his sister (Amanda Plummer) who continues her family's political activism and directs her rage against political institutions and capitalism. The crises generated by his sister's attempted suicide and her institutionalization in a mental hospital causes Daniel to investigate the past to determine what happened to his parents.

Lumet's film is a powerful meditation on the witchunts and anti-communist hysteria that gripped the US during the 1950's, and features a fine movie score, including the songs of Paul Robeson. The film contrasts the political and social environments of the 1950's and 1960's, particularly on the left and explores some of the legacy and costs of leftist political activism and political struggles during those eras.

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