5 Essential Life Lessons From the Films of Sidney Lumet

The late filmmaker Sidney Lumet leaves behind a half-century's worth of masterpieces (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict), misfires (The Wiz, Gloria, Guilty as Sin), and enduring curios (Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, The Group, The Offense). Among that body of work are a few vital lessons any moviegoer would do well to take to heart.

1. First impressions are everything

Contemporary filmmakers could learn a lot from Lumet's openings, the most expressive of which feature long, gradual shots working from the outside in. Sometimes this is literal; take 12 Angry Men, which marvelously sets up the entire narrative in about seven shots -- a courthouse exterior to a young murder defendant's close-up -- before getting to the opening credits. The effect compels viewers to digest the stakes while entering the deliberation room with the jurors. Subtle stuff, but utterly standard-defying for its time.

On other occasions the outside-in technique is more figurative. For my money, Lumet never surpassed the opening credits of The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, a washed-up, ambulance-chasing attorney gripped by a crisis of conscience. Dollying in to Newman's profile -- virtually a silhouette to start -- Lumet gradually blocks out Galvin's pinball game, beer mug and cigarette distractions, leaving only a pub-cloistered nobody against the chilly backdrop of winter. The intrigue is instant. (And who needs credits music, anyway?)

2. All you need is a table.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. From the start, Lumet went simpler: Just sit some excellent actors down at a table with a good script, and get out of the way. "But how is that directing?" one might ask. It's all in the set-up, as evidenced by these three diverse, extraordinary scenes from Network, The Verdict, Running on Empty -- to say nothing of 12 Angry Men.

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Comments

  • CiscoMan says:

    Great stuff. I wouldn't mind at all if there were more articles like this (minus the loss of a great filmmaker part, that is).

  • Cameron Williams says:

    The great Sidney Lumet, schooling everyone.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Thanks much. We will look into the living!

  • Dimo says:

    I totally forgot about Running On Empty. The last 2 minutes bring me to tears every time.

  • Aggrieved Bystander says:

    "The Offense" is more than a mere curio. It's an unjustly overlooked film with an absolutely balls-out performance by Sean Connery.

  • I do agree about Connery and the film; it is worth watching. It's just this kind of weird, almost under-the-radar British practice run for the fried-cop pictures he'd come back and make in NYC. And then he turned around and made _Child's Play_, which might be an even stranger call after _Anderson Tapes_ and _Offense_. Neither are necessarily _bad_ films; they simply occupy a strange limbo due in part to the more legendary accomplishments surrounding them.

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Wow, I thought you meant "Child's Play" with Chucky the doll! I never hit google faster in my life...

  • Ha! And you know that doll would have been nominated for an Oscar.

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