Last week, legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet passed away, leaving us with decades of great films. Yet, his is, somehow, an uncertain legacy — his films are more famous than he is. Lumet’s greatest traits include his ability to get the best from his actors and his focus on storytelling. Even though his films typically floated towards mediocrity without a good script, when he was afforded a good one he made absolutely great films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) stars Al Pacino in perhaps his most interesting role — an amateur bank robber who wants to steal money to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. Even more interesting is the fact that this Oscar-winning script is based on a true story. Lumet doesn’t play the film exactly straight. Yes, he captures the inherent tension of the bank robbery, but more importantly, he finds ways to intermix the narrative with unlikely humor and pathos. The quintessential moment in the film is supposedly somewhat improvised. Al Pacino’s character goes outside the bank to greet the cheering crowd and incites a chant of “Attica, Attica” — a reference to the 1970s prison riot in upstate New York and a symbolic gesture embracing the power of the people, so to speak. Studio films rarely feel this real anymore, despite shaky hand-held camera tricks to induce a false sense of vérité. Lumet’s good judgment and intelligence keep the film from losing its center.
The Verdict (1982) might not be one of Paul Newman’s more famous films, but it’s definitely one of his best performances. With an atypically personal script from David Mamet about personal redemption, Lumet uses expert pacing to pull us down into the depths of this courtroom drama before pulling us back up. Newman plays a soused lawyer who has lost his ideals and now basically chases ambulances. After taking a case in the hopes of making some easy money, he unexpectedly tries to rediscover his moral compass and, in the process, threatens his client’s ability to get money from a settlement. Newman’s character finds himself trapped with very few options but he finds a way to succeed through finding his own human decency.
Cine File is a random reference guide to help explore the vast catalog of films available on Netflix instant viewing, with special emphasis on the interesting, the unusual, and the ones that got left behind.