7 Great Sidney Lumet Films You Haven’t Seen

When legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet died on April 9th, he was immediately (and rightfully praised) for such masterworks as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.  But even after winning a lifetime achievement Oscar, there are incredible films that, for one reason or another, fell under the radar (even one that was an enormous hit, but remained unreleased). As much as people like to remind me he directed such flops as The Wiz and A Stranger Among Us, his legacy of films is much stronger than you know. So here are seven movies you should run out and rent at your local independent video store. Catch up on this master and see what you’ve been missing.

1. The Fugitive Kind

Criterion wisely released this moody piece written by Tennessee Williams based on his play “Orpheus Descending.” Marlon Brando plays a drifter guitarist landing himself in a sleepy Southern town after being released from jail. Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward are both his matches playing a middle-aged woman trying to hide her desires for the wanderer and the town’s unpopular drunken floozy respectively. The lighting, cinematography and numerous close-ups are used to great intense effect–proof that Lumet truly loved actors and their work.

2. King: A Filmed Record From Montgomery to Memphis

One of Lumet’s most successful films at the box office is also one of the rarest. King: A Filmed Record is a compilation work presenting the civil rights leader’s speeches sans voice-over narration. The great man’s crusade is thus told using his own words as the narrative thread. Amazingly, the original Oscar-nominated 3-hour version of this film went unreleased for almost 40 years until its appearance as a 2-DVD set in 2008.

3. The Offence

If you thought Natalie Portman’s turn as a ballet dancer losing her mind in Black Swan was terrific, they you’d better get your peepers in front of this jolting crime drama. Sean Connery boosted his post-Bond acting cred playing Detective Sergeant Johnson, a 20-year veteran of the police force going through a breakdown while investigating a child molestation case. His crumbling is viewed from different angles including the POV of his conflicted wife (Vivien Merchant), his lieutenant (Trevor Howard)–probably the only man who could intimidate Johnson, and the suspect (Ian Bannen) who mocks Johnson during his own interrogation. You could say that The Offence is Lumet’s warm-up for future masterpiece police dramas….

4. Prince of the City

…like this one. Boy, oh boy, if you’ve watched The Wire and love it and have not yet seen this movie, drop everything and rent it. Now. Along with Lumet’s final movie, Prince of the City was the Best Picture nominee that got away. When it first premiered, it confounded audiences searching for a hero. Sorry, folks, Lumet and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen were too smart for you. The film has no heroes, but it’s one of the best, most complex stories of police corruption, ruthlessness and vicious zeal ever shown on film. Did I mention you should see it now?

5. Daniel

Lumet was never one to shy away from socio-political issues. Daniel is a fantastic moving example that stands as one of the genius’ most obscure films. Timothy Hutton stars as the son of a Communist sympathizing couple (based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) trying to come to terms with his parents’ past. Harboring conflicting views with the sole surviving member of his family, an emotionally distraught younger sister, he seeks out the truth about his folks in an effort to save his sibling’s sanity. Set in 1970, this movie actually has to convincingly evoke two distinct periods of American history (the 1970’s and 1950’s) and does so quite well.

6. Critical Care

Network is a savagely biting dark comedy of the excesses of television and one of my favorite movies, period. However, as glorious as that movie is, I would argue that for sheer laughs, Lumet’s criminally underrated Critical Care, a savage satire of big business medical care, beats it.  Since Network has some of the most memorably quotable lines in movie history, it’s tough to come up with a social satire of another institution without instinctively feeling it will come up short. However, with the health care crisis coming to a head over the last few years, this movie is poised to make a cult viewing comeback. James Spader, in one of his best roles, plays a young doctor caught in the gears of a for-profit hospital system. Helen Mirren is a sympathetic nurse, Kyra Sedgwick a “distraught” relative of a patient, and Albert Brooks deserved an Oscar nomination for his hilarious performance as a boozy old head doctor enslaved to the bottom line.

7. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

How could the Academy–one year after giving Lumet a lifetime achievement award–completely overlook one of his best movies at Oscar time? It’s a question that still puzzles me. I called this movie the best new theatrical release of 2008 and still stand by it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two brothers who plot to steal their own parents’ jewelry store. This isn’t just the story of what happens after a robbery goes badly. That event is intertwined with the chronic dysfunction and collapse of a family with a fleeting opportunity of promise. Lumet finished his film career with a bang. Other directors should feel so lucky.

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