Lumet’s films, from his debut 12 Angry Men (1957) to his final film, 2007’s Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, not only charted changes to the physical landscape of New York City over five decades, but the moral landscape of the country as well. His films Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Serpico (1973) captured the corruption of the Big Apple that was rampant in the 1970s in their stories that were inspired by real headlines and people. His 1976 caustic satire of television news -as-a-business, Network, served up a bravura performance from Peter Finch (See clip below) as a deranged newscaster which has become sadly prophetic in this era of competing ideological 24-hour cable news channels.
Although nominated five times for an Academy Award – for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict (1982) – he would never win an Oscar trophy. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.
Lumet got his start directing live television in New York City in the 1950s for such shows as You Are There and The Alcola Hour. His early films were often adaptations of stage plays such as 1962’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night or social issue dramas such as The Hill (1965).
Lumet used the city as a backdrop for a majority of his films, the streets and skyline often acting as a vital character in such works as The Pawnbroker (1964) and Prince Of The City (1981). He even re-imagined Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs as the magical land of Oz for 1978’s The Wiz.
To say that Lumet was a talented director would be an understatement, especially considering that his very first film takes place in one enclosed location, but remains as visually gripping as it is narratively gripping. And while his output in the 1980s and 90s wasn’t always the strongest on his filmography, they would still have something within them for film scholars and critics to discover and celebrate.