' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In Memoriam

Sidney Lumet / Stud/ 1924 - 2011
Sidney Lumet was as prolific as Ryan Adams. Seriously, IMDb lists his directing credits, spread across TV and film, as 72 titles. He made "12 Angry Men" in 1957 and 50 years later made his last movie, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead." In between were some noteworthy titles. "Dog Day Afternoon" was pretty damn fantastic and "The Verdict" was fairly hardcore and "Serpico" was Pacino at his manic best and "Murder on the Orient Express" won Ingrid her third Oscar and "Network" was, you know, "Network." If he had a few less than stellar pictures to his name, well, it seems reasonable to assume he didn't give a flip. He probably had another movie to make. So move aside, please. Mr. Lumet passed away yesterday at the age of 86 but, make no mistake, he didn't burn out or fade away. He was very much in the game until the end.

"Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" was a masterful film, one of 2007's best, and 2007 was no slouch year for film, about an in-family jewelry store heist gone very wrong and included an opening scene that I have written about before, that might function as a short story, that might genuinely be the best opening scene I have ever witnessed. But that's the writing as much as the direction. And yet the direction is just as important as the writing. Lumet belonged to that Polanski-of-"Chinatown" school of directing in how he refrained from so many show-off shots and served up only what was necessary to advance the story.

Not to suggest that Lumet was boring, that he lined people up for two hours in static two shots. Not at all. His visual schemes throughout "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" are quiet, subtle, but critical.



Lumet sets shots several times to suggest the older brother, Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the, shall we say, "mastermind", looming over the younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), the perpetual shaggy-haired screw-up. But he was intelligent enough to know that, say, during the argument in the car between Andy and his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), not to overshoot because the two have levitated above the earthly plain of merely good acting. Just let them do what they do. I'll get out of the way.

Near the end, after Gina has left him, Andy goes into the traditional rage where the spurned husband stomps around the house shoving everything off every table and drawer and desk. Except, not quite. Hoffman performs this act slowly and detached, almost does out of obligation, almost like, "Why not? What does it matter, anyway?" It's a deft twist on the expectation. Were these Lumet's notes? One can easily imagine so.

He coaxes genius performances out of everyone. Hoffman coming apart at the seams in near silence and Hawke's befuddlement with every detail of life and Tomei's quirky, almost childlike but not completely innocent naiveté and Albert Finney, at the ripe old age of 71, as raw as he's ever been, revealing his hand card-by-card, and the closing shot is him disappearing down a hallway into a sort of white light. Which seems even more eerily symbolic this morning.

And Lumet made "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" when he was 82.  82!!! That is amazingness of the highest order and testament to a career of both longevity and quality. Not only did he go down swinging, he was still connecting. And he landed a knockout punch on his last film. Apropos.

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