What made Sidney Lumet, who died in April, such a compelling filmmaker for a half century—from his high-powered debut, “12 Angry Men” (1957) to his innovative, cynical final film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)—is that he never ventured far from his signature theme: the struggle to remain moral in an amoral society.
Whether it’s an honest cop navigating the streets of New York, a thoughtful juror, a guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor, a determined district attorney, a cynical TV executive or a down-on-his-luck lawyer, Lumet’s characters are defined by their principles and their ability to resist the temptation of corruption.
Those characters, challenged emotionally and ethically, attracted great actors and, under the director’s Midas touch, produced some of the most intense, complex and exciting performances of the past five decades. Under Lumet’s direction, 18 actors earned Oscar nominations, but that doesn’t include Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in “12 Angry Men,” Jason Robards in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962)—arguably the greatest performance by an film actor—and Ralph Richardson in the same film, Sean Connery in “The Hill” (1965), John Cazale in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), Treat Williams and Jerry Orbach in “Prince of the City” (1981), Jeff Bridges in “The Morning After” (1986), Christine Lahti in “Running on Empty” (1988), Nick Nolte and Armand Assante in “Q&A” (1990), Ian Holm in “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1997), Peter Dinklage in “Find Me Guilty” (2006) and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
Yet as memorable as the acting always was in a Lumet picture, what elevated his best work was his impeccable ear for intelligent, sophisticated screenplays, honed during his years directing TV dramas in the 1950s. And leading that list is Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.”
For this filmgoer, only Woody Allen has made more pictures than Lumet that I’ve watched over and over again, inevitably finding them just as compelling and entertaining the third time as I did the first time. And leading that list is “Network,” Lumet’s greatest achievement and one of the 50 finest American films ever made.
It’s easy to dismiss Lumet’s contributions to this daring critique of American values and the loss of humanity in the race for money and power in honoring the erudite script by Chayefsky. While the screenplay is among the most literate and thoughtful ever written, there are good reasons why Chayefsky chose Lumet to direct his prize.
First, Lumet shared with the writer roots in early TV and was equally versed in the vagaries of the industry. Second was Lumet’s acumen with actors: he elicited great performances from no less than six actors in “Network” (not to mention Lee Richardson’s commanding narration). And third, Lumet was not a director of comedies: he never makes a show of the incredulous situations—TV news taken over by the entertainment department; Howard Beale’s on-air rants; a show starring terrorists—treating them as seriously as the 6 o’clock news used to be. If anything, this approach makes the comic aspects more authentic and the realistic plotlines compellingly immediate. In lesser hands, the film could easily have turned into an over-the-top, dark yukfest that might have been hilarious, but not a timeless masterwork.
What also makes Lumet the perfect director for “Network” is his comfort with talky pictures. His two superb Eugene O’Neill (the ultimate writer of long monologues) adaptations, “The Iceman Cometh” for TV in 1960 and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” along with “12 Angry Men” and “Fail-Safe” were perfect preparation for the heartbreaking, soul-searching speeches, many taking place in tight quarters, that make “Network” such a memorable movie.
The famous “Mad as Hell” scene (it’s on YouTube if you don’t have the DVD) offers a prime example of Lumet’s mastery of storytelling. Starting outside in the rain with the lone figure of Howard Beale, the scene moves into the TV studio as Beale takes his place behind the anchor’s desk. Lumet moves us back and forth between Beale’s rant, the frantic excitement in the control booth with its wall of monitors and then finally to a single TV in the living room of Max Schumacher (Holden), where his daughter opens the window onto the sight of the neighbors mimicking Beale’s rant. The camera pulls back to show an entire block of open windows and screaming New Yorkers: the power, for better or worse, of television demonstrated starkly and dramatically in about five minutes.
As Lumet reveals in “Network” and in so many other films, understanding the human heart is more important in creating great movies than flashy camera movement or breakneck editing.
In his excellent 1995 book, “Making Movies,” in which Lumet details every aspect of the filmmaking process, he summarizes his career philosophy:
“I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life. I don’t have one….The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at that moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.”
THE CONSPIRATOR (2011)
What is most surprising about this fascinating historical sidebar to the Lincoln assassination is that it took over 100 years of cinema before it made it to the big screen. Despite a few TV movies on the conspiracy, only a 2009 short film has previous focused on accused conspirator Mary Surratt. But, judging by this presentation directed by Robert Redford, it might be a story better told in a documentary.
Surratt (Robin Wright), whose son Johnny was a member of the John Wilkes Booth-led plot to kill Lincoln and other government officials, is tried by a military tribunal organized by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). In fact, there’s little interest in determining her guilt; officials hope to draw in her fugitive son.
A young lawyer and Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is engaged by a forceful senator (Tom Wilkinson), disturbed by Stanton’s disregard for the Constitution, to defend this much-hated women.
That the trial is a sham enrages Aiken, turning him into a true advocate for Surratt despite the damage his actions have on his personal and professional life.
If this all sounds familiar, it is because the scenario—with other names and involving other cases—has been the fodder of movies since actors began talking. Redford’s handsome, well-acted, impeccably staged picture (written by James D. Solomon) never catches the tinder-box fever that engulfed the nation as the war came to an end and Lincoln was buried. And his choice of McAvoy to carry this passion play (and its inevitable comparison to the contemporary military trials for accused terrorists) overestimated the young actors’ skills. In the three previous films I’ve seen him in, “The Last King of Scotland,” “Atonement” and “The Last Station,” I’ve been underwhelmed; I’m at a loss as to why he’s the star of a major motion picture.
Even the flashbacks of the conspiracy in operation the night Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre add little energy or excitement to the film; they look like those reenactments done for TV crime documentaries.
What saves the film from being purely educational is the powerfully stoic, austere performance of Wright. Looking gaunt and plain, Wright does more with her eyes and body gestures than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. Central to this character is her unwavering determination to protect her guilty son and in Wright’s hands that emotional resolve turns her into a martyr of nearly Biblical proportions.
Wright has been giving intensely emotionally performances for more than 20 years, thought mostly in films few saw, including “The Playboys” (1992), “She’s So Lovely” (1997), “A Home at the End of the World” (2004), and “State of Play” (2009). She’s best known as the hippie girlfriend of “Forrest Gump” (1994) and the ex-wife of Sean Penn.
The top-notch supporting cast—Wilkinson, Kline, Colm Meaney, “Gilmore Girl” Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood and Danny Huston—keeps you thinking that something will spark the film beyond a by-the-numbers recreation of a crucial moment in American history. But it never happens.
Though Lou Gehrig, one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history, has been one of my favorite players since boyhood and his life was chronicled in the Gary Cooper movie “The Pride of the Yankees” and later in a TV movie, I either forgot or never knew that he starred in this B Western.
Susan King, the invaluable film writer for the Los Angeles Times, mentioned the movie in a roundup of baseball-themed pictures marking Opening Day. Through the magic of Netflix, I was watching it a few days later.
Gehrig, a strapping 6-2 athlete with Hollywood good looks, seems perfect for the movies. Yet he’s required to do very little in this by-the-numbers cowboy flick, playing himself on a visit to his sister’s Montana ranch during the offseason. It’s hard not to cringe when he jokes about quitting baseball for the cowboy life knowing that he was forced to retired a little more than a year after the release of the picture. (The mysterious muscle disease that took his life in 1941, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, became known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”)
Gehrig even gets to sing (the song features the lyrics “I used to chase flies, now they’re chasing me.”) but most of the warbling is left to Smith Ballew, a popular recording artist and minor singing cowboy of the 1930s, who plays the lawyer who helps Gehrig and his sister escape the clutches of the town’s evil syndicate.
The highlight of the hour-long programmer is the comical bar fight featuring Gehrig and his cohorts tangling with the gunslingers who work for the town’s boss. At one point, Gehrig starts hurling billiard balls at the bad guys, knocking them out of the fight, as if he’s firing baseballs across the diamond.
Gehrig has a hard time keeping a straight face in the serious scenes, but isn’t half bad when he strikes a joke and flashes his wide grin. For fans of baseball history, this curio is a must-see, offering the rare opportunity to see “The Iron Horse” just being himself while wearing an enormous cowboy hat.
WIN WIN (2011)
The characters that populate writer-director Tom McCarthy’s films act and sound just like your friends and neighbors and face the same insecurities and problems. That’s not necessarily a good thing in Hollywood, where ordinary is difficult to package and market for a big opening weekend. That probably explains why his latest and most accomplished movie opened in March.
As in his first two films, “The Station Agent” (2003) and the much better “The Visitor” (2007),” McCarthy brings an odd assortment of needy people together to form a modern version of the extended family and he does it without turning them into sentimental stereotypes.
In “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti, the ultimate “regular guy” actor, plays Mike Flaherty, a small-town lawyer with a wife (Amy Ryan, Oscar-nominated for “Gone Baby Gone”) and two young daughters. But he’s worried: about the lack of clients, a ready-to-die generator in his office, pending bills and the high school wrestling team he coaches that lose every meet.
Then a meal ticket comes Mike’s way when he convinced the court to name him the conservator for Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client entering dementia. The ethically questionable deal pays him $1500 a month and since the old man hasn’t heard from his only offspring in 20 years, Mike feels safe.
Then, Kyle, Leo’s grandson (played with just the right amount of James Dean cool by Alex Shaffer) shows up and everyone’s lives are altered.
At the center of the film is this troubled teen with his distinctive dyed blonde hair and a Zen-like demeanor who wins the heart of Mike and his family, while turning out to be a championship-caliber wrestler.
The bones of the plot—a needy kid, a losing sports team inspired by an outsider, a battle between a negligent parent and a caring new family—could have easily become a shallow, teary melodrama but McCarthy avoid the traps and never allows the characters to slip into caricatures.
There aren’t any showy performances here, just actors inhabiting their characters, bringing messy truths and hard-earned hopefulness to the film.
While Giamatti and Shaffer are the most interesting and developed characters, “Win Win”—like all of McCarthy’s pictures—is filled with wonderful supporting players who all have their moments. Ryan, who was devastating as the selfish, white trash mother in “Gone Baby Gone,” plays the exact opposite here, creating a nourishing, giving mother-wife who helps turn around Kyle’s life.
Then there’s the eternally sulking Steven (Jeffrey Tambor, the veteran TV comic actor) and the clueless, optimistic Terry (Bobby Cannavale from McCarthy’s “Station Agent”) as Mike’s best friends who help him out with the wrestling team. Watching these three as they coach their colorful collection of mostly inept teen wrestlers is the definition of pitch perfect comic acting.
Easy to overlook is “Rocky” jokester Young, who gives a poignant portrayal of a feisty, but confused man who just wants to stay in his home. All these characters represent what McCarthy does best: Give voice to a community of people who need each other more than they know.
If this World War II actioner had been made in the late 1950s or early ‘60s, when stars Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum still resembled front-line soldiers, it might have been slightly interesting. By 1978, the actors look more like World War II vets than participants, offering comically bad performances as they walk through their roles with the energy of a nightlight.
Burton plays a thoughtful, discontent German sergeant (reprising a role originated by James Coburn in Sam Peckinpah’s vastly superior “Cross of Iron”) who, as the war nears its end, tries to broker a cease fire before a bloody fight over an Italian village begins. Mitchum is the laid back American colonel who ends up being Burton’s messenger after an encounter in no man’s land.
Mitchum seems amused by the war and those serving around him. In his first scene, in which he’s meeting with his commanding officer (Rod Steiger in a small role), he pulls out a foot-long cigar and lights up. It would have been a funny moment in a comedy (even Steiger’s character is startled by it) but is totally out of place in a serious war picture.
But nothing Mitchum can do or say can upstage the specter of Burton. For some reason, the uniform emphasizes the actor’s small shoulders and torso and his enormous head; he looks like a comic figure wearing a costume (remember Arte Johnson from “Laugh-In”?), ill suited to combat. Adding to his out-of-place appearance is his stern, pained expression he maintains throughout the film. Burton looks more like a man in his 70s than his actually age of 53.
Even his distinctive, commanding baritone cannot overcome the sense that you’re watching an actor going through the motions, barely cognitive of the role he’s playing. Meanwhile, Mitchum seems to be enjoying the scenery and reciting the cliché-riddled lines.
Director Andrew V. McLaglen (“Shenandoah,” “Chisum”) doesn’t do much to keep this mostly uneventful story moving and fails completely to create any sense of tension or doom as soldiers prepare to engage each other in battle.
“Breakthrough” may not be the worst war picture ever made, but it may be the most disappointing considering it stars two of the finest actors of the postwar era. Just the year before, Burton had given an excellent performance in the film adaptation of “Equus,” while Mitchum, three years earlier, delivered one of his most memorable performances as Philip Marlow in “Farewell, My Lovely.”
I trust that Burton and Mitchum drank themselves to sleep each night after the shoot and had a great time exchanging “war” stories. As for watching the resulting movie, I would not advise doing it sober.
ONE FLEW OVER THE
CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
When I first saw this movie, I was 19 and on a date. My mind was clearly on other matters, because I left the theater unimpressed.
I’ve seen “Cuckoo’s Nest” a few times since and now recognize it as an American classic, among the 100 best pictures in history. A recent viewing, after re-reading Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, increased my appreciation of the film, especially the screenplay by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.
The back story on how the book became a movie would make for an interesting film itself. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the novel—based on Kesey’s work as a volunteer at a veteran’s hospital--before it was published and eventually had writer Dale Wasserman turn it into a play. The actor starred in the 1963-64 Broadway production, which also featured Gene Wilder and Ed Ames. A few years later, on a goodwill trip to Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, Douglas meet a young director and was impressed enough to offer him a chance to direct the film version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Douglas promised to send him a copy of the play.
The director, Milos Forman, never received the book (Communist censors had confiscated it) and assumed the famous actor was all talk. But when Douglas’ son Michael took up the cause to get the film made in the 1970s, he offered it to Forman, now living in America.
Douglas chose Jack Nicholson for the role of R.P. McMurphy, a seemingly untamable rebel stuck in an institute where rules and discipline dictate life, after seeing his performance as the foul-mouthed Navy tough guy in “The Last Detail.”
Forman went with unknowns for the rest of the roles, including eventual best actress winner Louise Fletcher as the unrelenting Nurse Ratched and Will Sampson, a 6-5 Creek Indian discovered by a Portland car dealer.
Playing Chief Bromden, a patient who pretends to be deaf and dumb while constantly sweeping the floors, Sampson brings this unforgettable character to life and went on to play Indian roles in two dozen movies and TV productions until his death at 53 during lung-heart transplant surgery. Also playing patients were a very young Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, William Redfield and, as the stuttering Billy Bibbit, Brad Dourif.
The Chief narrates the book, using his apparent deafness as a cover to hear conversations he otherwise would never be privy to. Also, in the novel, it is the Chief’s depiction of the Combine and the Fog, imaginary elements of the vast machinery utilized by Nurse Ratched and her staff to control the patients, which transforms the book more than just a collection of adventures inside the nuthouse.
Goldman and Hauben brilliantly strip away the interior narrative of the book, making it McMurphy’s story rather than the Chief’s, without losing the theme of society’s crushing effect on individualism. Instead of the Chief being a prominent character from the start, he slowly emerges as an important ally of McMurphy and, ultimately, his protector. (The change greatly displeased Kesey, who also wasn’t happy with the casting of Nicholson, preferring Gene Hackman for McMurphy.)
What connects with audiences is McMurphy’s sanity; he’s an unruly troublemaker, but there’s nothing wrong with his mental state. He finagles his way into the facility hoping it will be an easier ride than the work farm he was confided to. At first, he’s quite pleased with himself, as he takes over the place, turning it into a virtual gambling parlor and then leading the inmates on a renegade fishing trip. But little does he know what fate has in store for him.
The screenwriters took a great novel, disassembled it and put it back together for the cinema in a way that utilizes the book’s best ideas, its heartbreaking moments and singular characters while creating their own work of art.
IN A BETTER WORLD (2011)
About halfway through this Danish drama that won the 2010 Oscar for foreign-language film I was baffled as to why anyone thought it worthy of any honor. Then, what appeared to be a rather ordinary tale of a pair of teenage boys with family and emotional issues, turns into a thought-provoking, intricately plotted thesis on the insidious nature of violence and how we confront its perpetrators.
This deceptively straight-forward story opens in an African refugee camp where Anton, a Danish physician (Mikael Persbrandt, looking like and with the calm resolve of a young Max von Sydow) is attending to the sick and injured, including a pregnant girl whose stomach has been cut open by the henchmen of a ruthless strongman for pure sport.
Back in Denmark, he attempts to teach him son, a regular victim of the school bully and his new friend, who just lost his mother to cancer, that responding to violence with more violence is a hopeless, losing battle.
In the boys’ black-and-white world, the father’s intellectualizing is lost and they seek revenge, first on the bully and then on an angry auto mechanic who gets into it with the doctor.
Christian (a memorably intense William Jøhnk Nielsen) is a very troubled boy who blames his father for his mother’s death and, in confused desperation, strikes out against the cruel world, bringing the more naïve Elias (Markus Rygaard) into his schemes. On the surface, Elias seems to be adjusting to the separation of his parents—his mother is also a doctor—better than they are, but nothing in this film stops at the surface. The story goes back and forth between Africa and Denmark as it depicts both children and adults relying on violence to vent their anger and express frustrations.
Director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen, whose “After the Wedding” (2006) also received a foreign film Oscar nomination, display a steady hand as the film steadily becomes more emotionally involving and its issues move to the forefront. Yet Bier’s camera refuses to turn away from the violence or its devastating aftermath, whether it’s in a poor African village or on the playground of a suburban European city.
I can’t offer an opinion as to whether “In a Better World” deserved the Oscar, having not seen any of the other nominees (don’t get me started on why the year’s foreign film winner isn’t released in the U.S. until the following April), but I’m certain it will rank among the best films of 2011.