Reading of Sidney Lumet’s death, I thought of Al Pacino chanting “Attica! Attica!” to rouse the rabble in Dog Day Afternoon; of Henry Fonda, with Obama-like cool, shrugging off Lee J. Cobb’s bully tactics in Twelve Angry Men; of Jerry Orbach as a crooked New York cop raging against his fate in Prince of the City.
Lumet made more than a few great movies, but even his lesser films feature great scenes. He was a master of the sort of pacing that pays off in harrowing and darkly humorous depictions of people at the end of their rope.
His masterpiece is Network, a satire of the news media and a hilarious dystopian vision of America’s future. Who among you in my vast legion of readers hasn’t watched Network on DVD and said damn, I can’t believe this sucker was made in 1976! It’s as if Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had a crystal ball and could see everything from Fox News to globalization to the triumph of apathy over the spirit of rebellion.
Network shows us Ned Beatty as a corporate demigod explaining the new world order (“There are no nations…”) to Peter Finch, playing Howard Beale, the newsman who has gone gleefully insane for an audience of millions (“I’m mad as hell…”). Except that there is greater clarity in Beale’s madness than in network news, which is expertly personified by Faye Dunaway as a mid-level corporate hustler who seems always on the verge of realizing she, too, has gone around the bend.
Lumet was still going strong at age 82 when he made Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, about two brothers who scheme to rob their parents’ jewelry story, with disastrous results. The director even managed to coax a great performance out of Ethan Hawke. It’s a suspenseful but relentlessly dark film, made by an artist looking death in the face and not blinking. Instead, he seemed to be asking, “OK, what else can you show me?”