Browse Tag

Sidney Lumet

Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

Keep Reading

Review: Serpico

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”

What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.

Keep Reading

Blu-ray: Criterion’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Honeymoon Killers’ and ‘A Dog Day’ anniversary

MoonriseMoonrise Kingdom (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Wes Anderson has made a career exploring the childhood neuroses that keep adult characters in an arrested state of adolescence and stasis. It’s been a lively career with creatively energetic high points like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums but an approach with diminishing returns. Until Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that refracted his portraits of dysfunctional families and modern anxieties through a storybook world.

In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson finally builds a film around the troubled kids themselves. Kara Hayward’s Suzy, a book-loving loner with anger issues, and Jared Gilman’s Sam, an eccentric orphan out of step with his fellow Khaki Scouts, are two misfit adolescents who instantly recognize the other as a kindred soul and run away together into the wilds of a small New England island. Which, admittedly, makes escape a little difficult, what with a small army of Khaki scout trackers and a storm on the way.

It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s full of nostalgic blasts and period trappings, but most of all it is loving: accepting of the headstrong kids determined to find their place in the world, forgiving of the oblivious adults around them, affectionate in its storybook imagery and narrative playfulness.

Keep Reading

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murder on the Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.

Keep Reading

Review: Dog Day Afternoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

Keep Reading

Blu-ray: ‘The Pawnbroker’

The first few minutes of The Pawnbroker, the 1964 screen version of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel about a concentration camp survivor in New York City, takes us from an idealized memory of a family picnic in pre-World War II Europe (a soft-focus dream about to tip into nightmare) to an anonymous Long Island suburb to the slums of Harlem, where Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) runs a cluttered pawnshop. It’s a series of whiplash culture shocks that doesn’t exactly tell us what we need to know about Sol’s journey but sets the stage for his dislocation. Once he lived his life. Now he simply endures it.

His young, energetic assistant Jesus (Jaime Sánchez of The Wild Bunch) talks a mile a minute and many of the shop’s walk-ins, a stream of addicts, hookers, thieves, and a few lonely souls more desperate for contact than cash, try to engage Sol in the most rudimentary of conversations. But Sol is an impenetrable wall of business. He’s not rude or dismissive, even when slurs are spit his way, simply terse and direct and unyielding. “I have escaped my emotions,” is how he explains it to Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the widow of his once-closest friend. To an insistent social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who keeps gently pressing him to talk, he’s more forthright about his dispassion and disinterest in his customers or anyone else. “Black, white, or yellow, they are all equally scum. Rejects.” After losing his wife, his children, and his parents to the Nazis and the concentration camps, Sol has lost faith in God and humanity alike.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Review: ‘Power’

Richard Gere with Gene Hackman (who plays crusty “Wilfred Buckley” … a tribute to crusty character actor Wilford Brimley, who’d worked in Lumet’s Absence of Malice and was at the height of his celebrity about then?)

[originally published in The Weekly, February 5, 1986]

I saw a movie the other day and (you probably aren’t going to believe this, but hear me out) it said that politicians can be confected and marketed just like any other commodity. It seems that when we, as citizens of a democracy, bear witness to a political campaign, we aren’t necessarily being given a fair chance to make an informed judgment about the values, or even the authentic personal identities, of the candidates. The campaigns are, to a large extent, managed events, smokescreens, projections of cosmetic fictions designed and orchestrated by behind-the-scenes consultants called (pardon me while I check my notes here) media wizards. These highly paid people conduct a kind of advertising war in which the consumer/voter is persuaded to prefer Brand X to Brand Y largely on the basis of images—unflattering images of Brand Y, heroic images of Brand X—that don’t always correspond to the candidates’ realities or have much to do with the kind of job each candidate wants to do and would do upon achieving elective office. Moreover, these media wizards may not care whether Candidate X or Y will be good for the country, state, or whatever. They may even have been hired by (where did I put those notes again?) special interests looking to protect some business that could be affected by government policy and legislation. Theirs is a dirty job, such consultants may admit, but it is a job: “As long as our candidate polls 39 percent or better, it makes us look good.” Talk about cynicism! (Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t believe it.)

Power is an overweeningly silly movie that seems to have been made for, if not by, residents of one of the moons of Saturn. No one else, certainly no one who has come in contact with the American political process in the past several decades, would regard the appalled revelations of this motion picture as news. They’re still less likely to find it entertaining.

Keep Reading

Review: Equus

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Sidney Lumet was just the right director for Equus, and just the wrong one. His certified ability to entice performances of considerable force — if not always precision and coherence — is invaluable to the film version of a play that, however much “opened up” for the screen, still depends to an extraordinary degree on the impact of actor on audience, and on his fellow players, for that matter. Equus is reasonably satisfying to watch as a collection of actor’s-moments, but only in a negative sense can it be discussed as a movie, and this is where Lumet’s essential wrongness for the project comes in. Peter Shaffer’s Equus, like brother Anthony’s Sleuth, is a highly stylized construct whose primary raison-d’etre is to provide a theatrical battle zone for a couple of skilled actors. A honey of a conceit lies at the heart of the piece, a point of convergence where sexual urgency and Christian iconography and primitive, almost primeval mystic rite overlap, intertwine, crossrefer, and get mixed up and mutated every which way, with man-on-horseback-as-godhead and man-and-woman-as-one-flesh setting up irresistibly resonant imagistic and conceptual rhymes. Pretty heavy, yes/no? Mm, could be, sure: sex and God and identity-crisis — that’s heavy-artillery stuff in anyone’s canon. But the fact is that Shaffer’s points and paradoxes are readily perceptible and paraphrasable about ten minutes into the picture, and prove to be several degrees less-sophisticated than “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. But whereas Welles needed Rosebud only as a pretext, and could dispose of it with an ironic fillip about thirty seconds before the end of his movie, Shaffer/Lumet must keep the same not-so-multifaceted sparkler twirling for the duration of their show. And that they have chosen to let psychiatrist Richard Burton periodically pour out his anguish — and suggest a few interpretive glosses — direct to the audience only exacerbates the sense of desperately limited ideational resources being wrung drier than dry.

Keep Reading

Manners, Morals, and Murder: Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express. More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuth sets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Express is a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.

Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuth and the detriment of Orient Express. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, The Hill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of Orient Express to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.

Keep Reading

Barbara Stanwyck at Universal and Criterion’s Southern Revivals – DVDs of the Week

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets
Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

Keep Reading