We lost another great filmmaker this weekend. Sydney Lumet was 86 years old and had been making movies for almost 60 years. His last big release was in 2007, the excellent and disturbing “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.
Before he became a film director, Lumet was a child actor. He starred in the original Broadway production of “Dead End” and at the age of 14, and appeared in a fantastic film I wrote about a few years ago called “One Third of a Nation,” a gritty look at tenement life in New York starring the amazing Sylvia Sidney.
When talking about Lumet’s best films, I know it would be more fashionable to mention his superb, critically acclaimed productions such as “Twelve Angry Men,” his first film project, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” starring Katharine Hepburn, Rod Steiger’s tour-de-force in “The Pawnbroker,” or Al Pacino’s amazing performances in “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” I could watch each one of those right now and there are so many more. Who could forget the brilliant “Network” which seemed so outlandish in 1976 but which has all but come true in 2011, “Stage Struck” starring Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg, the odd but yummy “The Group” based on the Mary McCarthy book, the film versions of the Broadway hits “Equus” and “Deathtrap,” “The Verdict” starring Paul Newman, “Daniel,” based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, and “The Morning After” which features one of Jane Fonda’s best performances.
Lumet also directed some stinkers. There was the bizarre and misguided film version of “The Wiz” starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lumet’s mother-in-law at the time, the fabulous Lena Horne (whose solo is the only worthwhile sequence in the film). To be honest, this film was so bad that I should probably take another look—its kitschy awfulness might make it fun to watch. And I bet the musical number filmed on the plaza of the World Trade Center is chilling to see today. There was also the disappointing “Garbo Talks” with Anne Bancroft and a slew of great actors in a plot that had my name on it. Oh, how I wanted to like this film—but I just couldn't. I remember they even tried to get the reclusive Garbo to appear as herself in the film. She rebuffed the offer, of course, and in the end was played by the legendary Betty Comden. Finally, I remember the painful “A Stranger Among Us,” another film that had my name on it (but really sucked) in which Melanie Griffith goes undercover as a Chasidic Jew (!) in order to solve a murder and ends up, of course, sleeping with a young hunky Chasid. Oy. Besides the outlandish script, I’m afraid that Ms. Griffith sank the film. I’d like to see it again with Kate Winslet in that role (or do I just want to fantastize about Winslet wearing a sheidel?).
But apart from these masterpieces and clinkers, the two Sydney Lumet films that made the biggest impression on me came out in 1974 and 1988.
Murder on the Orient Express. This high-pedigreed film version of Agatha Christie’s novel featured enough over-acting for a dozen movies and I loved every second of it. You couldn’t even gather a cast like this today: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Jean-Pierre Cassel—are you freaking kidding me? It was by far the best of the Agatha Christie films (and the only one that the still alive Christie approved of) and, as far as I’m concerned, a perfectly realized ensemble piece. Lumet had great fun with the actors and made every frame of this gorgeous film drip with class.
Do you know where you were on November 24, 1974? I do—I was at the opening day of this film at the now demolished Playboy Theatre on the corner of Dearborn and Division in Chicago. Funny how I can barely remember what I did this weekend but I remember every detail of that screening, from the big plush rocking seats (a real thrill in 1975) at the Playboy to the smell of the popcorn, to how transfixed I was by this movie. For some reason, stray lines from the film still find their way into my repertoire of non sequitirs. Just ask Kendall—I think it was only last week that I quoted lines from Lauren Bacall, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, and Ingrid Bergman.
The film, inspired by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, includes a series of delicious (and implausible) twists that, of course, our intrepid detective Hercules Poirot (an unrecognizable Finney) figures out by the story's end. The cast is so good I could go on at length about each one of them. Instead, I’ll just focus on Lauren Bacall who I thought was especially brilliant as the brash American housewife (or was she?) Harriett Hubbard. I would go so far as to say this is my favorite Bacall performance and as much as I worship Ingrid Bergman, I think it is Bacall who should’ve won the Supporting Actress Oscar that year. But she wasn’t even nominated and Bergman seemed so embarrassed by her win (she played a timid missionary who helped the “little brown babies” in Africa) that in her Oscar speech she apologized to fellow nominee Valentina Cortese whom she felt should have won that year for Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” But let’s take a moment to see Lauren Bacall at her obnoxious best:
Running on Empty. My other favorite Lumet film was loosely based on the lives of William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn when they were fugitives in the Weather Underground. Chrisine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play 60s radicals who have been on the lam for many years because of a botched bombing. Whenever they feel the Feds hot on their trail, they move and change their identities, including those of their two sons. The older boy is played by the late River Phoenix whose burgeoning relationship with a young Martha Plimpton (the two were also matched in “The Mosquito Coast” as well as in real life) is one of the best depictions of young love I’ve ever seen on film.
Can you believe it’s been almost 20 years since Phoenix died outside of the Viper Room in Hollywood? He was not quite 18 when he shot “Running on Empty” and showed an emotional maturity and skill that belied his years. It’s hard not to wonder how his career would have developed had he survived—he’d only be 40 today. My favorite scene from “Running on Empty” is not very crucial to the plot of the film. It takes place when Phoenix brings Plimpton home to meet his family for the first time. While clearing up after dinner, they all start singing and dancing to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” For me, at the time, this represented a fantasy of the perfect family. Who wouldn’t want such cool, hip, loving parents? Today, however, Hirsch and Lahti’s naïve leftist politics and their forcing their kids to be on the run seem just as oppressive as the establishment forces they were fighting against. To the parents’ credit, however, they finally realize this by the end of the film and set River free to pursue his own dreams.
Oh, and I just watched some of “The Wiz” and forget what I said about it being “so bad it’s good.” I think it’s just bad. No disrespect intended to Mr. Lumet who will be greatly missed, but take a look at this preview and judge for yourself!
Come on, Sydney, and ease on down, ease on down the road...