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Top Movie Directors - Sidney Lumet

Updated on October 5, 2013

Top Movie Directors - Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet - 1924-2011

Sidney Lumet died in 2011 after a distinguished career in both film and TV.

He was one of my favourite directors because he had the ability to tell a story without too much stagnancy and static. His movies, for the most part, seem to rattle along. He chose good actors to play good characters and by and large, his films were successful.

I'm not saying he was perfect. Sometimes, he could be taken with a theme or an enthusiasm for some things and this led him to be inconsistent at times.

Not every one of his films is great; some aren't even good but the ones which are good are very, very good - they have stood the test of time.

That said, even he was influenced by the growing ego of some of his stars. When this happened, his movies are not quite as crisp but I still love his movies, flaws and all.

He truly was, an actors' director - able to squeeze out the best from those performing under his direction. This hub is a dedication to this gift and the great movies it spawned.

Sidney Lumet - the Actors 'Director
Sidney Lumet - the Actors 'Director
John Frankenheimer- director of Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May.
John Frankenheimer- director of Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May.
Yul Brynner - more famous as an actor now but he was once an influential TV actor/director in the 1950s.
Yul Brynner - more famous as an actor now but he was once an influential TV actor/director in the 1950s.

The Golden Age of Television

I am no movie critic, only inasmuch as anyone is a movie critic (I think anyone and everyone has the right to be one!) but for me, Sidney Lumet was able to infuse his movies with real energy; this was probably because he had previously worked as a TV director in what is now called 'the golden age' of 1950's US television.

He is amongst a small group of directors who previously directed for TV and went onto movie stardom - John Frankenheimer, Yul Brynner (who saw success in movies as an actor) and Robert Altman all worked on successful TV shows in the fifties and crossed over to cinema.

This is not a list to be sniffed at. Between 1955 and 2011, they share an amazing number of nominations and awards for their movie work. In fact, Lumet has directed no fewer than 17 actors in oscar-nominated performances in his movies.

Paul Newman told journalists 'I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man who can double-park outside of a whorehouse.  He's arrogant about not shooting more than he has to.  He doesn't offer himself any protection, I know I would.' (source:Wikipedia)
Paul Newman told journalists 'I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man who can double-park outside of a whorehouse. He's arrogant about not shooting more than he has to. He doesn't offer himself any protection, I know I would.' (source:Wikipedia)

Sidney Lumet Liked Rehearsals

In 1957, Sidney Lumet directed his first movie, 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda. At that time he was still working as a TV Director/Producer where rehearsals were much more commonplace.

Lumet was used to working to an extremely tight schedule in TV and this became a trait he continued into his movie career.

Many actors admired the speed at which he worked. His TV career had armed him with the tools necessary to shoot a movie on time and most importantly, on budget.

Lumet brought all of his actors together for two weeks before shooting was due to begin to enable them to rehearse extensively.

These were no short one-hour sessions. Actors gave of their own time to rehearse the dialogue and Lumet would welcome any ideas they might have for their characters.

He didn't always accept what they offered but he was always receptive to suggestions and actors liked this kind of communication.

He trusted his actors to let the rehearsals be organic; he expected them to be able to interact and play with dialogue with one another so that when they turned up on set, they were already well-prepared.

But even on set, he talked to actors a lot about their characterisation. He was a very tactile director, often seen with his arm around actors discussing what their thoughts were on a scene or a piece of dialogue.

It was not unusual for Sidney Lumet to only do two takes of a scene.

He understood actors but more importantly, he trusted them.

He did not second-guess the actors. They had all had two weeks of rehearsal and ample opportunity to pick Lumet's brains on set before anybody ever yelled 'Action'.

When the clapper board snapped shut, they acted what they had already rehearsed together; the action and reaction was already established and understood and this can be seen to amazing effect in many of Sidney Lumet's movies.

Joan Hackett
Joan Hackett
Candice Bergen
Candice Bergen

Top Director Sidney Lumet's Best Movies

Well I'm sure other people will read this and agree with some choices, disagree with others - that's fine.

We all have different reasons for liking the movies we like. My first choice, The Group, is one of his lesser-known movies; indeed I am the first person to review it on Rotten Tomatoes.

I think The Group is an excellent ensemble movie. It stars Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartmann, Jessica Walter and Shirley Knight. It is certainly one of his brisker movies and sees our main protagonists leaving university to enter society just as the USA declares war in 1941.

The stand out performance for me is from Joan Hackett as the rather naive Dottie, who loses her virginity in the first 10 minutes of the movie, believing herself in love with Richard Mulligan's shameless wedding guest.

Her descent into alcoholism is very poignant and largely goes unnoticed by her so called friends.

Candice Bergen went onto more success later in her career and doesn't have a lot of dialogue in The Group.

Nonetheless, she looks beautiful in her role as lesbian,Lakey Eastlake, very much the outsider of this group.

Al Pacino
Al Pacino
John Cazale
John Cazale

Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon

I am sure many people really love this movie and it is one of my favourites too.

I often hear people lauding the performance of Al Pacino as Sonny and I wouldn't argue with that but he is ably assisted by John Cazale as Sonny's sidekick, Sal.

John Cazale is the kind of actor who seems not to be acting at all. He inhabits his characters completely. The part where Sal is sitting in the back seat of the getaway car and asked to point his gun at the ceiling to avoid shooting Agent Murphy, the car's driver is pastiches by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. Sal meets a similar end to the back-seat driver in Tarantino's movie.

This scene is Sidney Lumet at his best - close up, tight cinematography, brilliant dialogue, great acting.

Dog Day Afternoon is another of Sidney Lumet's 'rattle along' movies; something is happening all of the time.

The denouement of the movie sees Sonny's gay lover, Leon (played by a young Chris Sarandon) trying to talk Sonny out of the botched bank robbery.

Sonny is robbing the (almost empty as it turns out!) bank to pay for Leon's sex change. It is a clever little film, very layered with unexpected twists and turns and some laughter because Sonny and Sal are so inept as robbers but so sensitive as well. Sonny is a political creature, ylelling 'Attica' to express his opinions on the recent prison riots at the time and we are told that Sonny is a Vietnam vet.

The movie was based on a true story and Lumet stuck to the facts.

Lumet had already worked with Al Pacino on Serpico and that movie has its merits but Dog Day Afternoon has a story to carry the day and not just two good actors but also good performances from Charles Durning and James Broderick (who had also been in The Group) as the two guys entrusted with ending the bank siege,

Dog Day Afternoon is not just about the acting, it is about Lumet's ability to create a sense of heat, sweat, discomfort, claustrophobia and mistrust.

You shift around in your chair when you watch it and this is exactly what Sidney Lumet intended.

Go to this Al Pacino Movies hub for more movies starring Al Pacino.

Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda
Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill

Sidney Lumet Movies - Best Of The Rest

In all, Sidney Lumet made over 40 movies.

12 Angry Men is still a stand out movie with wonderful performances from Henry Fonda and Lee J Cobb.

Sidney Lumet infused the film with a sense of energy and claustrophobia in much the same way as he did with Dog Day Afternoon and Q&A. He knows how to create tension.

Long Day's Journey Into Night was his working of Eugene O'Neill's play.

Lumet had started his working life as an actor in the theatre and there is a lot about his methods in movie-making which hark back to his theatrical background. The film was nominated for Oscars but swept the board for the actors at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Sidney Lumet was very satisfied with his work on the movie, saying it was one of his best.

Sidney Lumet's films are often about justice and ordinary people's fight for their rights in whatever form that takes. Think about Serpico, 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, Critical Care, Guilty As Sin and Find Me Guilty all have characters fighting against either the legal system or oppression and unfairness of some kind.

He was passionate about the subject and sub-text in his movies and he trusted his actors to tell the stories with sincerity. He is lost to us now but a legacy of over 40 movies remain, his canon to his skills as a great director.

Other Top Movie Director Hubs You Might Enjoy....

Howard Hawks

Sydney Pollack

John Ford

David Lean


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    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Kaismom, Thanks for your comments. I might look at Pollack and Hitchcock sometime. Check out Cogerson's hub on Hitchcock, it is very good.

    • KaisMom profile image

      KaisMom 6 years ago from Keizer, Oregon

      So pleased to see The Group on your list. Though far from a perfect film, it certainly showed he could direct women. I'd love to hear your views on another Sydney: Sydney Pollack. And/or Alfred Hitchcock. I enjoy your smooth writing style.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Flora, Murder On The Orient Express is one of my favourites too. Usually, it is repeated on UK TV at Christmas so I may get to see it again soon. Lumet was brilliant at pacing his films and building tension - definitely skills he'd need for a murder mystery. Thanks for commenting.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      Sidney Lumet was one of my favourite directors. I'm an Agatha Christie fan, so my ultimate favourite of Lumet's career is Murder on the Orient Express. Other favourites of mine of his are Fail-Safe, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict and Deathtrap.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, thanks for your kind comments. I really like Lumet's films and he's the first director I've done a hub for, so glad you liked it.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Cogerson-Lumet had a habit of working often with actors he admired. He was a big fan of both Paul Newman and James Mason, Mason also worked with Jean Renoir on films (Renoir is another actor's director)so maybe Mason liked that type of relationship with his director.

      I look forward to readng your James Mason hub!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      A fine tribute to the late Sidney Lumet.

      So many great films but if I had to pick one it'll have to be Dog Day Afternoon.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Very nicely done on a director that not many people seem to talk about anymore. But your list of classic movies is an impressive resume. I thought his last movie Before The Devil Knows You Are Dead was a awesome movie....depressing but awesome. I have not only not seen The Group I have not even heard of it...I will add that one on my movies to check out list. I think my Top 3 Lumet movies order....The Verdict, 12 Angry Men, and Dog Day Afternoon. On a side note I am currently working on a James Mason and in my research I noticed that Lumet and Mason made at least 4 movies together. Loved your hub...and I voted up and interesting and awesome.