Those 70s Movies (Sidney Lumet)

The 1970s is a decade which is rightly regarded as a period of revitalization for American cinema. In 1969 “Oliver”, a worthy old school British musical, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. “2001, A Space Odyssey” & “Rosemary’s Baby” were not nominated. The following year “Midnight Cowboy”, a thoroughly modern movie, rated R, was the winner. By 1972 Bob Rafelson’s “5 Easy Pieces” & Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H” received nominations while George C. Scott’s compelling title role in Best Picture “Patton” (“Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”) won him Best Actor & he told the Academy where to stick their statuette. Better late than never, the energy & attitude of youth which had so affected culture in the 1960s finally reached the mainstream cinema.

I try to avoid lists here but in 1975 the best director nominations were Coppola, Truffaut, Polanski, Cassavetes & Fosse. This was Hollywood not the Cannes Film Festival ! There was a whole bunch more too, some of my favourites, some of yours & they were making a whole heap of creative, challenging, memorable films, some of which were also the most commercially successful of the time. Often overlooked in this blossoming is a director who came to maturity in this decade almost 15 years after his breakthrough. Sidney Lumet was no “movie brat” but an experienced hand at the tiller of  some intelligent, well-crafted work. In 1975 & 76 he was nominated for Best Director in a crowded & talented field.

“The Anderson Tapes” (1971) is Christopher Walken’s film debut, reason enough to watch this film though there are plenty more. Sean Connery stars as a burglar who, after 10 years “away”, gets straight back to the thing that he does. The world has moved on, CCTV & surveillance means that Anderson’s (Connery) heist is followed by a lot of feds & cops. It’s an assured, modern caper movie shot on the streets of New York. The cast keep it rolling. Dyan Cannon sizzles as the hooker-girlfriend, Martin Balsam as camp as a row of pink tents & old-school comedian, Alan King is a perfect mobster. These are characters not caricatures. It is not a classic movie but it is a good one. It is certain that the Coen brothers were digging the scene of the gangster lean. The mob dialogue zings like that of “Millers Crossing” & at the heart of the movie is Connery, the Man Who Was There.

Sidney Lumet’s first film got him a Best Director nomination. “12 Angry Men” is a dialogue-heavy, sweaty, claustrophobic movie. It is one of those 1950s expositions of the liberal dilemma like “High Noon” or “On The Waterfront”. Films that we saw on TV as youths which made us think that there could be more to cinema than cowboys & car chases (could be). Henry Fonda, Hollywood’s favourite Democrat, is the star but there are not many other films which can rival the ensemble playing of this film. It’s another list for another time but some of the great character actors of the next decade made their reputation in “12 Angry Men”.

Sidney Lumet established himself as an actor’s director, In the 60s he worked with Brando, Steiger, Katherine Hepburn. There was a film a year, work in the UK & Europe. A reputation for the transfer of plays on to the screen was earned. His outstanding film of the decade was another male ensemble movie, his first of 5 collaborations with Sean Connery. “The Hill” (1965) is  stark & tough as teak, as anti-military as “Full Metal Jacket”. Set in a British army prison in World War 2 in Libya a range of fine British character actors (& Ossie Davis) revel in being allowed to do that fine thing they do. Lumet’s facility with realism, his preference for  New York  over Hollywood, put him bang on the new cinema & the new audience.

“Serpico” (1973) was based on a true story of a New York cop who made a stand against the corruption he encountered on his promotion to plain clothes. The film starred the hottest new actor around. Al Pacino was a relative unknown when he landed the role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”. He did the job well, the sequel placed Michael at the hardening heart of the mobster saga. The movie was not one of Lumet’s signature ensemble pieces, it was all about Serpico, all about this new kid Pacino. The star-maker machinery kicked in, this was a big movie, a big success too for a new face. It was a well told story with a beginning, a middle & an end, reassuringly in that order. The deal with “Serpico” was that he started out as Dudley Do-Right. The deeper he got into the graft, the more isolated he was by his workmates, the longer his hair & beard grew. It was simple but effective, the Hippie versus the N.Y.P.D., choosing sides was never easier. “Serpico” was no counter culture indie art house film. It’s budget was $1 million, the US box office almost $30 million. That’s a language Hollywood understands. Lumet was on the A-list.

Just 2 years later, the same director-star combination, another true New York story, a bigger budget & a bigger hit. The opening montage of “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) shows Lumet’s view of the city. It’s covers more area than that new guy Scorsese who was just making his way from Little Italy to Times Square. Just as Marty’s films confirmed that Robert de Niro had proper movie star chops then Lumet’s double did the same for Pacino. “Dog Day Afternoon” is an anti-establishment bank robbery movie which goes for a fresh, inspired & realistic take on the genre. Sidney Lumet absolutely nails it.

Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) & his wingman Sal (John Cazale) are new to the bank heist business & it is showing. The safe is pretty empty & Police Chief Moretti (the incomparable Charles Durning) has the place surrounded. It emerges that Sonny, a Vietnam vet like Travis Bickle, is a complicated guy with quite a particular set of problems. This movie addresses gender issues with a subtlety rarely found in US cinema. The hostage/hijack dramas of the decade are reflected upon, as is the role of the media & a new perception of celebrity but, as Sam Goldwyn reportedly said “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” This is a movie which tells a tight, taut, moving story. Pacino is magnetic. Cazale shows again that his early passing was a truly great loss to American acting. Spike Lee, another director of New York stories made his homage to this outstanding film with his “Inside Man” in 2006. I enjoyed his film but it really reminded me to get to “Dog Day Afternoon” again.

The next time around Sidney Lumet enjoyed even more success. “Network” is a scathing satire on morality (the lack of it) in a television culture where ratings are everything. Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway & William Holden all won Oscars but a bunch of others contributed to a didactic, intelligent & questioning movie. There were a few of those around & Sidney Lumet made his share. Enjoy “Iron Man 3” & “Anchorman 2” this summer.

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