Sidney Lumet was first and foremost an actor’s director. Capturing great performances was clearly his strong suit, and what he lacked as a visual artist, he sometimes compensated for in his ability to extract extraordinary performances from his key players. It’s hard to imagine Al Pacino‘s film career without Lumet, who with Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, tapped into the young Pacino’s excesses as proficiently as Coppola worked his subtleties. Lumet was even able to find three or four new notes in Katharine Hepburn, no small feat considering the legend shaped a multi-decade spanning career rarely displaying more than two.
When Mr. Lumet succeeded as a director, it was usually as a procurer of the written word, peddling dialogue-heavy, character- driven vehicles. He used his actors to do the heavy lifting; they created the film’s tapestry through words. The brilliant Network is Mr. Lumet’s greatest accomplishment and played to his strengths. He and his cast kept Paddy Chayefsky‘s diatribe about the future of television (how right he was) rolling at a steady pace and never lost track of the fact that, for Lumet, the play is the thing. His Dog Day Afternoon is similar in that it is also a wonderful framework for an actor; by letting Mr. Pacino run free, and then knowing exactly when to rein him in, Mr. Lumet helped carve what is possibly Mr. Pacino’s finest film performance.
But overall, what Lumet brought to the table made him better suited for the theater, and somewhat colorless on film. Lumet never approached cinema with a strong sense of the camera, and offered little that was new to the New York crime genre in the way early Scorsese did (the grit of Scorsese ’s subject matter takes on different meaning when it is captured through a stylized, sometimes glorifying, lens). For all of their sweaty New York backdrops, his films lumber on screen, boasting of the director’s infatuation with the east coast, attempting to carrying out a tradition that was better accomplished by other filmmakers like William Friedkin (The French Connection) or Alan J. Pakula (Klute) with a much better sense of film’s many possibilities. By comparison, many of Lumet’s actor-based studies seem more static than necessary. Serpico, The Pawnbroker, and Dog Day benefit from the exotic New York locales which break up the inherent boxed-in feel of his work. But there are not enough gritty exteriors to combat the theatricality of his film version of Long Day’s Journey into Night, or his entertaining, but overrated, 12 Angry Men. They never embrace the film medium with the confidence of Mike Nichols’ superior Who’s Afraid of VirginiaWoolf? where the film’s cinematography embodies the fundamental differences between theater and film. It fragments the performances in ways that theater can not. It doesn’t simply record what could have looked like stage performances, but captures the performances on film’s terms.
TCM has scheduled a tribute which features Network and Dog Day Afetrnoon.