Sidney Lumet's final film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), is about a crime that looks perfect on paper. Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are brothers with separate financial struggles; their parents (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris) own a suburban jewelry store; the brothers will rob the store when it opens in the morning, with little pressure considering they know where the best goods are located in addition to any safety box combinations; being children of the owners, no one would ever suspect them, and hell, everything is insured: It's a victimless crime, and a perfect way out of their monetary pressures.
Hypothetically, in theory, in the abstract, etc, the plan will work. Indeed, if the human beings going through the motions of the crime were as abstract or mechanical as the robbery's design, there would not be a hitch. But everything goes wrong. Everything. Neither of these brothers are practiced criminals (other than Andy's recent foray into embezzling his employer). Andy recruits Hank because of how recognizable Andy is in the store's area; but Hank is jittery, and brings in a more luridly seasoned friend to go inside the store while Hank waits in the getaway car. The meek and docile employee who was supposed to be there isn't; the boys' mother unexpectedly is. The robber, who doesn't know that it's the parents' store, is oblivious to this. The mother makes a move for a stashed gun, shooting the robber while also being shot. The robber dies, Andy flees, and the mother is comatose. The dominos of consequence then fall, not only of causal incident but of emotion. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a movie about guilt, or rather about how guilt catches up to people who stave it off for a long while. The title tells the tone of the movie: once the contingencies of an immoral act conflagrate into the utter truth of the matter (namely selfish, apathetic betrayal), all characters involved – perpetrators and victims alike – are in Hell, and the audience experiences Hell with them.
This was Sidney Lumet's last film, for my money a masterpiece and one of the best suspense thrillers of recent decades, released in the already masterpiece-laden year of 2007 (whose other entries include There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, Eastern Promises, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Lord knows how many other greats that are slipping my mind). He was 83 when it was released, but it has an urgency to its pulse with more viciousness and buoyancy than films made by directors a fraction of Lumet's age. It could have been the first film of a great director, and it certainly makes me think of Tarantino's first, Reservoir Dogs (1992). The difference is that Lumet has the emotional attentiveness and wisdom of a paternal old man, something that makes the violence and contrived betrayals in his picture more horrifying than what we typically see in a stylish and clever crime story. Maybe it's too bad that Lumet's swan song should have been one of his most nihilistic films, when he has also offered glimmers of illumination and redemption. But being that this picture so definitively explores the theme of people running from guilt and consequence, in addition to how it examines the perfect engineering of the abstract versus the nuances that contingency chaotically opens up, it's quite a perfect bookend to a career beginning exactly 50 years before in 1957's 12 Angry Men, another masterful depiction of ordinary people like you and me, each of whom are evaluating what looks like an open-shut criminal case, their judgments and defenses often determined by how they are dealing with incidents in their private histories. In 1957 Lumet was making a movie that reflected his thoughts on the McCarthy stricken United States and how the skeptical examination of our institutions was hindered and discouraged, draped beneath a comfortable apathy as the jurors really just want to get out of the hot deliberation room and go about their comfortable domestic lives of barbecues and ball games. In 2007, Lumet was outspoken about his growing pessimism of post-Iraq America and attitudes regarding patriotism that disturbed him even more than they did in the 1950s. The Hansen brothers' plot in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is as seemingly fail-safe in its perfection as the invasion of Iraq. The devil, or the dire reality of the situation, catches up. Matricide, fratricide, and ultimately filicide reflect the horrifying nihilism of a country, or a family, that has lost its bearings. But pride, or an inability to face oneself, keeps one in "staying the course."
Oh, and I forgot to mention, beyond all the thematic and intellectual hooey in that previous paragraph, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a definitive coda for Sidney Lumet because, a) the performances are absolutely sterling, and b) it's simply a damn good movie.
Lumet was not an auteur, even resenting the theory as he believed that filmmaking was a collaborative process where any one person out of 125 can break or aid a movie. He was a hard worker and great tradesman, but he would refuse to kill himself and others for the work, or cruelly manipulate actors to realize his vision. His intentions would either congeal or they wouldn't. He would not waste time or go over-budget and over-schedule to fix it. "It's not worth it," he said. This makes him an interesting doppelganger to Kubrick, whose primary theme was also mechanical perfection outdone by unseen contingency, and who similarly wanted his actors to surprise him in finally capturing "the moment" that can only happen accidentally. But Kubrick would spend well over a year shooting, being known for manipulative cruelty in order to create unforgettable images and performances, most famously George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove and Shelley Duvall in The Shining. Lumet, who was an actor before he was a director, would never do that. Both men made more classics than most directors can dream of, but we can sense the attitude towards acting in the great performances featured in both filmmakers' works. Kubrick's characters are ironically detached from us; Lumet, on the other hand, suffers with them, and so do we. Even in Network (1976), featuring larger-than-life characters ripe for satire, we can see Lumet's – to say nothing of the actors – genuine struggle within them. But Lumet would tell you that the ingredient in his formula for direction was completely dependent on what the actor was willing to reveal in the character. The actor would either be willing or able to make that revelation, or he wouldn't. Lumet, unlike Kubrick, simply refused to wait for the revelation to happen. Luckily, perhaps because his actors trusted him so much (Al Pacino referred to him as the priest who listened to an actor's prayers), Lumet's films gave us some of the best work actors have ever accomplished.
Lumet arguably gave us the best performances of Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker), Sean Connery (The Hill), Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Faye Dunaway and William Holden (Network), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Timothy Hutton (Daniel), River Phoenix (Running on Empty), Nick Nolte (Q&A), to say nothing of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's full cast (including Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and perhaps most impressively, Albert Finney). He also brought out the best in less-respected actors: who would have thought that anyone could have made movies featuring "masterful work" by Treat Williams (Prince of the City), Don Johnson (Guilty as Sin), or Vin Diesel (Find Me Guilty)? Lumet was prolific enough to necessitate his fair share of mediocre clunkers where the elements simply didn't come together, but when things worked he hit it out of the park, and when he did so the component that invariably lingers in the audience's mind is reflective of what his actors have "revealed" of themselves in the consequently unforgettable characters. But my utterance of this fact is inadequate, being that I've really only mentioned the star players of Lumet's dramas. This was a man who brought out the best work in all of his supporting players also. Of course Pacino's Sonny Wortzik is one of the greatest characters and performances in any American movie, but that movie also has nothing less than Good-God-Amazing work by John Cazale, Charles Durning, James Broderick, Chris Sarandon, and every single one of those actors playing Sonny's botched-bank-robbery hostages. It's extraordinary. No actor in a Lumet film is used arbitrarily. In watching his pictures, one gets the sense that even if he doesn't love humanity or has lost hope for it, he's still genuinely curious about people, and approaches "people" with a certain benevolence that most artists resist because of how human nuance complicates functionality (or the way characters function as archetypes within a plot). Of course, this method is perfect for Lumet considering that is his great human theme. He understands human dimension and he'll direct his actors displaying those multiple dimensions, both with extroverted moments of grand speeches and unleashed sublimation (great examples being Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, or most everyone in Network), and then with quiet characters whose pain is manifest in subtleties, drawing us in between the cracks of their turmoil (Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker; Paul Newman in The Verdict).
My own personal journey with Lumet began when I was in 7th grade, having just finished reading a biography of Al Pacino, Life on the Wire by Andrew Yule. The book served as a good reference for movies for me to see, being that I had barely seen any of the films which I had spent the week reading about (I believe at that time I'd only seen, uncountable times, The Godfather trilogy, and then Dick Tracy). One Friday night I went to the local video store and rented Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …And Justice for All, and Sea of Love for an all-night film festival in the downstairs living room (for whatever reason, my mom wouldn't let me watch Scarface). It was one of the best vegetative VHS nights in my life, but those first two pictures – Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon – I recognized as their own kind of perfect double-feature. This was a while before I much cared about who directed a movie, so I'm not sure that it registered with me that they were directed by the same individual, but I recognized their quality as well-rounded entertainments that were as dramatic as they were often humorous. They were stark and gritty in a way that I often think of so many of the 1970s' best films, but the grittiness was textured with the inherent humor in the writing and the incredible actors bringing the stories, both based on factual characters, to life. There was no cheap sentimentalism, no righteous pandering or grandstanding, and no pat, resolved happy endings.
I was transfixed, because I was sutured into the movie so as to identify with these characters that were not mythic archetypes (these were not the Corleones) and their extraordinarily desperate situations that they had hopelessly brought on themselves. Frank Serpico was a hopelessly honest cop in a world where it was expedient to be dishonest, and in giving himself to a rebellious code of conduct, he was too principled – one could even say flawed – to turn back. He was obsessed with a style of work that amounted to, in the "real world," ruin. Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon was even more extraordinary. The bank robbers weren't bad men, but were men who felt the robbery was their only path towards fulfillment; and then of course, having crossed the threshold of action they only dig themselves deeper into a pit from where the weak can never escape. I credit this one night, and so particularly Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, to how I aspire in relating to cinematic characters. I'm thankful that I saw them before I was introduced by Tarantino's posture-painted thugs that shoot from the hip, or even the magnificent fully-dimensional criminals in Scorsese and Michael Mann who are seasoned professionals in their illegal trades. Frank Serpico, Sonny Worzik, and so many of the supporting players surrounding them, are people trying to adapt to unaccommodating circumstances, futile in their quest to reconcile themselves to Hell. I love Tarantino, but I think an impressionable viewer using him as a primary cinematic education might fall too much in love with the hip post-modern postures and cleverly cool remarks; similarly, the key cultural misreading of The Godfather trilogy pertains to how we emulate the characters as sage heroes, when we would be better to recognize them as fundamentally tragic. No such misreading can happen with Lumet's vulnerable and desperate men. Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon are more than the work of a great director, craftsman, and stylist: they are unsentimental, but they are also the work of a humanitarian.
Dog Day Afternoon exemplifies something I think of when watching any number of Lumet films: improbable, but not impossible. Two guys botch a bank robbery? Fine. The cops show up and bank robbers find themselves trapped with hostages inside? Okay. That a crowd of onlookers would then surround the bank, identifying with the bank robbers and going so far as to project their social ideals onto them in politically turbulent times? Things are getting out there, but I believe it. But that the motivation for one of the bank robbers would be getting his gay lover – and apparently spouse – a sex change operation? No flipping way. But no, it's true – it's not impossible however improbable. And I haven't even gotten to the usual bankrobbery/hostage stuff involving getting transportation out of the country. It then wouldn't seem that Sonny Worzik should be an everyman with whom we can identify. But his struggle, damn it, sure enough becomes our struggle. This was a man who in turns out fought in Vietnam and was never able to readjust to civilian life. He has a close relationship to his mother, but evidently a strained one with his father (a characteristic of many other Lumet films). He married a woman (Susan Peretz) who may have at one time been attractive, but following two bouts of childbirth is obese. We sympathize for her just as we sympathize for Sonny, and in a just world we would sympathize for her much more so. And yet, Peretz plays her so effectively as someone who would have been loud, needy, and hopelessly nagging in such a way that an insecure and uncoordinated mother's boy like Sonny could only pray to get away from her. In her, we see the hard reality of domestic life and the self-imposed sentence of being a man expected to provide. Sonny has a background that prohibits him from getting a good paying job. He's already in the red before the robbery begins. By the end of his journey, he'll be in the darkness from whence no man returns.
Sonny's then a kind of representative man in Lumet's body of work. He's weak, yes, and much of his weakness is a consequence of his own choices and inadequacies, though it's certainly aggravated by the larger social structures surrounding and rendering him impotent. He's a man that's been consumed, chewed up, and spat out by the System, and that coupled with whatever other bad choices he's made has put him in a position beyond redemption. Bank Robbery is a hypothetical "path to freedom," but it's more like a path to destruction, as we see with other Lumetian strategies played out by the Hanson brothers in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the former radicals in Running on Empty, the washed up newsman in Network, the alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict, and most interestingly the President in Fail Safe (who must agree to drop a hydrogen bomb on New York City in order to negotiate with the Soviets anticipating the destruction of Moscow). But Sonny's flaw, beyond and related to his detrimental choices, is his single mindedness which has resulted in an unhealthy life compartmentalization as both a heterosexual and homosexual husband. I think he says several times throughout the film, "I'm talking to you and you're not talking to me," even though Sonny is too consumed with his own problems to listen to anybody else. This is a detrimental flaw, but also maybe a universal one that too often we overlook in ourselves. Lumet and Pacino turn the mirror on us.
The power of Dog Day Afternoon washes over you during its conclusion at LaGuardia Airport's tarmac, the planes shrieking everywhere and swallowing all the sound. Sonny has been successfully apprehended by the FBI, his partner Sal (John Cazale) having been fatally shot. Sonny was theoretically only moments and feet away from his freedom (on a plane to…Algeria?), and yet observing him during the last 30 minutes of the picture, I can't help but think that Sonny knew he would never get to his destination, and was only trying to stretch out time before it inevitably runs out. One gets this sense during the bank robbery negotiations, when James Broderick's steely-faced FBI agent nods to Sonny, "Don't worry about Sal. We'll take care of everything." The implication is that the agent is calling Sonny's bluff, and trying to passively convince him that he understands that Sonny really just wants to wrap this up, Sal being the only unpredictable wildcard. We can see Pacino fighting the implication in his eyes. Sonny has only one fatal victim in his robbery, and it's the man who trusted him. And when he sees Sal's body wheeled away, complemented with a loud airplane engine, there is a fog of terrible guilt cast over Sonny, as if he was a silent accomplice in his partner's death. He looks in the other direction to see the freed hostages, whom he may have thought of as friends during this 14-hour stand-off, happily embracing each other and not one looking at him. Sonny had a small taste of being a leader, a captain, a comrade, and a central part of a group. Now he is a nowhere man, friendless, alone, and doomed to a monochromatic prison for a 20-year sentence. If the System had corroborated in the perpetuation of his demise before, he is now only much deeper in the pit of his own hell.
Yet we care for him. Though we might not find cause to superficially identify with Sonny – he's an antisocial, abusive, nearly sociopathic homosexual robbing a bank for his secret transsexual wife's sex change operation – the way that Lumet handles the material and Pacino plays the character makes it so easy to do so. Lumet's method is to take an extraordinary "improbable but not impossible" situation, but play it out naturalistically. We are always with Sonny, and the movie's tone doesn't hinge on the increasingly weird contrivances of the plot. When it is revealed that Pacino's character is gay, it never feels exploited. It's not psychoanalyzed. The knee-jerk reactions we have to the material is handled in the periphery, as homosexual (or homophobic) street-gawkers shout on the sidelines, or a few cops try to muffle their laughter behind Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny's transsexual lover, who explains the story. Nor does Lumet work too deeply on analyzing the dynamics of Sonny's experiences as a Vietnam vet, or as a son with complicated relationships with his parents. Sonny simply has his history, and we marvel at what's shown, while Pacino performs a man desperate in his bid to keep the chaos of an untenable situation in order. Which is impossible.
Dog Day Afternoon is set in a world we thought we knew, but which is ultimately bizarre and unfathomable. At the end, we'll never figure out Sonny Worzik, just as we'll never figure out the linear life pathways of so many other hapless criminals lured to their self destruction. That's the world Lumet likes to create: one which is familiar but truly bizarre, then subsequently made normal again by the numbing mechanisms of ordinary life (such as television). Human beings want to flee into the simulacrum of day-by-day living and forgetfulness, fleeing the past that hustles around the corner in pursuit. A memorable Lumet protagonist is Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) in The Pawnbroker, a Holocaust survivor who has emigrated to the most stark and monochromatic environment in New York, hiding from his past and any emotions associated with it. He saw his children die and his wife raped in the concentration camp, and as a survivor he seems to breathe more than live. Thinking or feeling too much – which is just a little – brings the past back to him, something that Lumet creates through quick-frame flashbacks. In Steiger's performance, his best, we see one of the best portrayals of a man actively fighting with his mind. In classic Lumet manner, the haunting realities of the past always win. Nazerman has tragically cut himself off from the rest of humanity, rejecting even the most selfless friendship, because of his pain. When the present materializes to carry deep inflections of his past, he is no different from Lumet's other tragic protagonists, deeper in his own hell than he was before.
The Pawnbroker exhibits the claustrophobia of human psychology. Claustrophobia is a word that one must think of when watching Lumet, from beginning to end, seeing examples like 12 Angry Men where the action is almost completely set in a hot, stuffy deliberation room inhabited by twelve bickering individuals, most of whom just want to get the hell out of there and go back to their trivial lives. Lumet, who had come out of the theatre and live television before directing 12 Angry Men, did not approach the tight and limited structure of the material as special or difficult. If anything, the compactness of everything worked perfectly with the material of men discussing an apparently open-shut case, and how their own set psychological frameworks work to construct justifications for their decision making and subsequent arguments to maintain that point of view. In 12 Angry Men we observe the mercurial consonance of filmmaking grammar, as the picture has its fair share of wide shots covering the whole room of jurors, but is brilliantly punctuated with tight close-ups on faces. Few mainstream filmmakers use the close-up with such perfected calibration as Lumet does, a trait that he would carry with him throughout his entire career, possibly ingrained within his craft directing live television. The tight spaces and constrictive sets in so many Lumet films, whether bordered with walls or camera compositions, mirror our own psychological and existential circumscriptions. There is no way out – from our environment, the social structures governing us, or the past which chases us. We can only distract ourselves with frivolities, the way that Jack Warden's character in 12 Angry Men can't wait to get to his baseball game, before the devil knows we're dead, so to speak, and collects.
There is a great political current underneath Lumet's structural frameworks. Lumet, who was like his fellow live-TV colleague Arthur Penn in being a Jewish, New York-based true blue far leftist, had seen many of his friends blacklisted in the 1950s. He observed the way ideology worked in connection to individual psychology. It was easy for a Joseph McCarthy or whomever to get away with what they did, because everyday middle-class Americans were, understandably, hesitant about whatever complications introspective evaluation invited into an established and prosperous worldview. If I have my car, my home, my kids, my job, my bank account, my dog, three meals, my TV, and my baseball tickets – essentially, if I have the treasure of my certainty – what do I care about someone whose ruin was caused by embracing an alternate worldview, or was from a different social order? The story of 12 Angry Men is not about the "truth" of a crime case, but it's about how human beings evaluate and judge truth. At the conclusion, the young man on trial accused for the stabbing of his father is not found "innocent" – no one ever is "innocent" – but he is "not guilty," meaning that the jurors had, through active deliberation, discovered reasonable doubt. The stakes are very high. If they found the defendant guilty, as 11 of them do at the beginning of the film, he would fry in the electric chair. His life is in their hands.
He certainly would have been found guilty too, had it not been for Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), the most thoughtful and reticent juror who insists that all the other jurors explain to him why they think the young man is guilty. He understands the existential stakes. He considers it part of his civic duty as a citizen – and a human being who may send a young man to the electric chair – to have an evaluative conversation about the case before a final answer is given. He understands that common sense indicates that the young man is guilty: two witnesses, a bad history between the boy and his father, and a shady criminal past for the defendant. It's improbable that anyone else killed the father – but not, Juror 8 reminds us, impossible. He demands an examination of the cracks alongside the clean lines of the case, which irritates the other jurors as unnecessary complication. Eventually, the other jurors swept into the discussion come around to a Not Guilty verdict. We observe that it's our human capability to understand nuance, complexity, and the unfathomable emotional dimensions of human motivation that enable them to do so. We are also to observe that the most resistant to deliberation are the most conservative and coldly rational jurors. Pure Reason negates the complications of human emotion; it fails to see the contingencies in apparently fail-safe enclosed structures. The irony with the most conservative jurors, a racist old man (Ed Begley), and an outspoken businessman (Lee J. Cobb), is that their accusations of "bleeding heart" towards Juror 8 and his increasingly convinced colleagues are primarily driven by emotions over which they have no control. The businessman has a personal investment in his Guilty verdict, which relates to the pride he feels relating to a bad relationship he has with an estranged son. He has projected his distraught sadism onto strangers, and being that the unconscious motives for that decision relate to the core of his long-standing private emotional turmoil, he is too proud to veer from that judgment until he finally collapses underneath the weight of his repressed anguish, tearing up his son's photo and muttering "Not guilty" while sobbing.
12 Angry Men, similar to other dramas of the time like Inherit the Wind, is an iconoclastic liberal movie, imbued with the Marxist ideal of dialectical argument amounting to a fuller understanding of the truth and triumphing over close-minded bourgeois tyranny. It's about how we cherish certainty over knowledge, and how knowledge – or if not knowledge then simply the acknowledgment that life is complicated – is sometimes difficult to achieve. But it sees each of its jurors – in particular the conservatives – as sentient individuals with three-dimensional identities. The argument of the picture, and of most Lumet pictures, however, is simply how harmful an attitude of two-dimensional thinking is.
Lumet did not limit this critique to conservatives. Dog Day Afternoon has a New Left radical mindset woven into its design, but also clearly shows how those attitudes are exploited by people as a means of manipulation. Sonny's populism, manifested in his "Attica!" cry, or an attempt to discuss his economic woes to a newsman, might be sincere but it's also a survival tool he's using to stave off the inevitable. The Communists and radicals we see in Network are driven by the same variables of late capitalism that drive the corporations ("Don't fuck with my distribution percentage!") In that film, the mysterious corporate head Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) gives one of the best film monologues of all time, dubbed "Corporate Cosmology," where he explains to the mad TV Prophet Howard Beale (Peter Finch), "What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state? Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the cost price probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do."
Lumet's critique of leftism continued with two films in the 1980s: Daniel, adapted from E.L Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1983), about a young man (Timothy Hutton) dabbling in the radical campus politics of the 1960s, while also wrestling with memories of his parents who were executed as Soviet spies in the 1950s; and Running on Empty (1988), about a radical couple (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) who engaged in political terrorism in the early 1970s to protest Vietnam. Several years later, and with two children (River Phoenix, Jonas Abry), they are still on the lam as fugitives from the federal government, constantly adopting new identities and occupations while fleeing from town to town.
Daniel Isaacson in Daniel is close to living in a vacuum. He's angry and vitriolic with his young wife (Ellen Barkin) and his troubled activist sister Susan (Amanda Plummer). Daniel and Susan are unlike other young people involved with radical politics and Vietnam protests. Their parents (portrayed in flashbacks by Mandy Pantinkin and Lindsay Crouse) were actual radicals from the 1930s, card carrying members of the Communist Party who earnestly believed that the Soviet Union was the beacon of hope in the world. They were loving parents who work hard at nurturing their children as conscious individuals. We see how the father shows young Daniel a box of Wheaties, and teaches the boy how to deconstruct the signs that are meant to manipulate the consumer, starting with Joe DiMaggio's picture. "He's just like you and me," the father says. "He's a worker. He probably smokes and drinks in real life." The father is not saying this with contempt of Wheaties or Joe DiMaggio, but he simply wants his son to grow up aware of how the capitalist world works. It's good to question authority and to be skeptical.
But the Isaacsons, honest political devotees to certain values, are accused of being Soviet spies and of handing atomic secrets to the Russians (Doctorow's book was, anyone can tell, based on the Rosenbergs). We can see where Isaacsons are themselves probably blind regarding ideals of the Soviet Union, particularly when they criticize Trotskyites (the American Communists critical of Stalin). They love their children, they believe in the common good, and the father even proudly fights in World War II. But what if they were wrong? Daniel is decorated with musical interludes of folk songs sung by Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, actor, athlete, and political radical who also thought the Soviets had the superior system throughout the mid-20th century. But his philosophy is not born out of anything nefarious: Robeson believed in what he thought was good. The songs are beautiful and deeply moving.
Daniel wonders if his parents were guilty. He does not want consolation, he wants certainty. His parents were executed and branded as infamous criminals, maligned forever. What were they hiding? And if they acted illegally, what were the human motives? Daniel is told, "They had faith. And they were prepared to suffer the passion of their faith!"
Daniel and Susan are lost. Susan has embraced radical politics, but without any connection to what her parents were doing as intellectually driven individuals. We learn that her activism is a fervor that psychologically desperate people look for: she first found God, then found sex, then drugs, and her current phase is activism. When Daniel reprimands her, she does not debate (engaging in the Marxist dialectic, as her parents would), but attempts suicide and is institutionalized. Daniel, remorseful for his sister, seeks the truth of his parents while also needing to identify with their activism. Lumet and Doctorow are critical of New Left activism because it was knee-jerk counter culturalism (as we see in Network) separated from a detailed history of radical thought. At the end of his journey, Daniel finds that missing link and is reconciled to his past, while also illuminated in the present.
Running on Empty is particularly interesting for me, because of the amazing performance by River Phoenix as the eldest son, a 17-year-old musical prodigy who has lived this chameleon existence since he was two-years-old. It does not matter that he finds a teacher (Ed Crowley) who wants to foster his musical talent by auditioning him for Julliard, or that he finds love with the teacher's daughter (Martha Plimpton). How can he have a lasting, proper, symbolic relationship with anyone when he lives a simulated existence, paying for the political passion of his parents?
There are, indeed, two antagonists in Running on Empty. We can see how there is decadence in the structures of the country, which would induce conscientious people to revolt. For example, the son may be a musical prodigy, but he can never go to Julliard unless he has his "academic records," his gateway to any life fulfillment impeded by paperwork that matters more than anything he exhibits with his own body and soul. And because he's assumed a multitude of identities over the course of his life, there are no records. There are only forgeries and excuses. The other antagonist is the father (Hirsch), whose drive to keep his family together threatens to destroy his boy's dreams. This is what interested Lumet in the material, who says that if he had come from Kansas or Texas he would be making movies with parent-child dynamics like most of the other products from "liberal Hollywood," where the obstacle parent is usually conservative. But Lumet came from the urban East Coast, and all he knew were passionate left-wing parents. Whether someone is right or wrong in their opinions, children always react, and sometimes pay for, what their parents believe.
We observe this in the teenage son, who reminds his father that the old man brought him up to question authority, so why shouldn't he then rebel against his father? But we also see it in a beautifully acted scene between the mother (Lahti) and her own father (Steven Hill), whom she hasn't seen in 14 years. The moment begins as should be expected, with the father, evidently very wealthy and conservative, laying a guilt trip on his daughter: "I wonder if you'll ever know what it's like to not see your children for 14 years....The last thing you said to me was that I was an imperialist pig." The conflict of political ideology, grudges, and easy resentment carries the surface of the scene, but the motives for those petty thoughts are tight, primal emotions grounded in love. When Lahti gets up to leave her father, his pride falls and mouth drops open in despair. The two fathers of the film, who come from completely separate ideologies and psychological frameworks, are fundamentally driven to their flaws by an identical impulse to preserve their families.
Running on Empty's radicals are not necessarily easy to like then. For example, they may lose a lot of our sympathy when they discover the FBI is closing in on their present residence and so have to ditch their dog, something that points to how any semblance of domestic tranquility for these people is necessarily duplicitous and illusory. Certainly, the talk radio hatred toward figures like Bill Ayers and Sara Jane Olson, who committed acts that are technically categorized as "terrorism" in the 1970s, invites comparison. But Lumet shows us things from their perspective: before they bombed the government napalm plant, "we asked them to stop nicely. They didn't listen." A janitor, who wasn't supposed to be at the plant, was paralyzed and blinded by the explosion. Once again, Lumet gives a fail-safe scenario that was risky but should have worked – and just didn't. The radicals feel guilty, but will not turn themselves in. Nevertheless, they are afforded salvation, in the meantime anyway. Father and son finally come to an understanding, the father sacrificing his ideals to let the son go his own way in the normal world of stable human relationships, education, and employment. Redemption for Lumet's characters, if there is redemption, comes through the characters' ability to step outside of their constrictive psychological boxes and embracing the erratic plethora of human emotions and desires.
An oft-neglected Lumet masterwork is his 1964 Cold War thriller, Fail Safe. Written by blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein, Fail Safe had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick's picture is rightfully acknowledged as one of the best films ever made, and it is certainly the "hipper" of the two nuclear annihilation scenarios, playing the nihilism for hyperbolic satirical laughs while Fail Safe plays everything straight. The films are indeed mirrors of one another, almost uncannily similar in terms of production design, the absence of music (Kubrick's film has a little music, but it's used completely as an ironic counterpoint), photographic angles, in addition to similar characters voicing conflicting ideologies on nuclear war, themes of a fail-safe contingency plan breaking up underneath the weight of mechanical inefficiency and unpredictable human factors, and in its basic plot structure of having separate enclosed, claustrophobic settings across the globe in contact – or out of contact – with each other.
The structural outlay of Cold War machinery once again exhibits the Lumetian fascination with our all-too-human blind faith in how our machinations are supposed to predictably work. A congressman is visiting the War Room command center, the working drones within dwarfed by a big board animating military air traffic. The technology's genius is extraordinary. As one general explains to the congressman, "We have instruments so good we can tell the difference between a whale breaking wind and a submarine breaking its face." But as the congressman is amazed, he's also weary. "These machines scare the hell out of me," he says. "I want to be sure that that damn thing doesn't get any ideas of its own." "That's the chance you take with these systems," the general responds. The automation designed to handle our situations also necessarily then creates its own, as we will see happen later in the film. The United States and Soviet Union are involved in something more than a nuclear arms race, but a technology race. They are trying to outguess and make predictions based on the assumed technology of their opponent. Unfortunately, the Soviet surveillance of United States aircraft responding to a UFO (which turns out to be an off-course commercial jet) provokes a new radar jamming device the Soviets have developed. The device unexpectedly results in a U.S. nuclear bomber having its communications with base distorted. The airmen on the bomber have been conditioned to obey protocol, and so it's impossible for any human voice at home base to call them back from their directive of dropping two hydrogen bombs on Moscow. The protocol of our governing institutions demand that we be irrationally rational, being completely concrete psychologically in adherence to coded instructions. Ironically, the machines malfunction unpredictably, but the human bombers – to whom the political officials at home make emotional appeals (such as having the commanding airman's wife call him) – behave with linear mechanical dependency.
Though Kubrick is considered the master of examining the conflict between Man and Machine, Fail Safe is every bit as rich in its own ruminations on technology as Dr. Strangelove. Another one of the film's settings in a meeting room, where military officials are discussing new war strategies and theories, presided by an academic, Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau). The irony of this meeting is that it's the veteran military man, General Black (Dan O'Herlily), who is the dove that wants to get rid of nuclear weapons, and it's the academic civilian that is the hawk, evaluating death and destruction in bottom-like statistics and reducing human behavior to basic mechanisms. General Black is reminded by a colleague that he shouldn't be voicing opinions regarding the development of nuclear policy: "You're a soldier, Blackie. You carry out policy. You don't make it," in other words reinforcing the notion that proper military men are parts of a functioning machine. But Black reminds everyone that simply developing and voicing a "strategy" for war is making policy. His fear connects to the rapidly developing technology. "We're going too fast," he says. "Things are getting out of hand. We're setting up a war machine that acts faster than the ability of men to control it." What if a mechanical failure should occur? He's reassured that it won't happen. "But is it possible?" Once again, the Lumet credo is offered: "It's possible. Not probable." And that seems like enough.
But it's not. Moments later, when these generals finds themselves mired in a devastating situation, they have to figure out how the enemy will respond. Groeteschele, much like Kubrick's Generals Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson,, sees the accident as a golden opportunity to preserve America's capitalist economic philosophy and stamp out Communism for good. Groeteschele relegates Communists to a completely Psychological "Other" setting: "Marxists are calculating machines," he says. Once hit, they will not counterattack because their endgame goal is a global Communist takeover; if they would bomb the United States, thereby provoking more American attacks, they would be consequently wiped out along with their ideals of preserving Marxism. Nuclear war, Groeteschele believes, is inevitable anyway, and any conflict requires a winner. "I would rather be on the winning side, wouldn't you?" he says.
The main voice of reason in Fail Safe is Henry Fonda's President (and who else would anyone want for their president?) His whole place in the film is set in a Washington D.C. bunker, on the hotline with the Soviet Premier, joined only by his translator (Larry Hagman). Like in 12 Angry Men, Fonda plays the Lumetian alter ego who understands the power and truth of nuance beneath the cracks of human discourse. He tells the translator, "Don't just tell me what he says, tell me how he says it, and any indications to what he might be feeling." The president further informs the translator the importance of getting to know how he thinks, which is an example of Lumet's ideal for human beings generally and for audiences watching a movie about superficially undesirable characters (like Sonny Wortzik, the New Left radicals, or Frank Galvin in The Verdict): he wants us to step inside and understand people instead of just embracing the all-too-human impulse of judgment.
In war, our impulse is to dehumanize and lash out at the other side. Patriotism may then debilitate us, as we see happen with the distrustful generals in the film, on both sides, who are convinced that the enemy must be lying. The Lumetian liberal embodied in Fonda's President makes the hardest choices, but he is also the kind of liberal conservatives love to hate and accuse of being weak. But is the surrender to violent impulses actually the weaker mindset? The President in Fail Safe realizes that his country is responsible for the catastrophic accident that begins the race to a solution, but the Soviets must also acknowledge how it was their paranoia and radar jamming technology that caused the mechanical malfunction beforehand. But even before that, the simple construction, acquisition, and proliferation of nuclear weapons is the cause, and so both world powers, the President believes, are to blame. "We let our machines get out of hand," he says. If the U.S. bomber is successful and bombs Moscow, the President makes an agreement with the Soviets that he will order one of his own bombers, commandeered by his old friend General Black, to drop a bomb on New York City – where the President's wife is visiting, and Black's family is residing. "If I hear the line to our ambassador in Moscow go out, I'll give the order."
We aren't expecting the worst to happen. But it does. The moment when the President listens to the American ambassador in Moscow speaking of explosions and a strange brightness in the sky, followed by the deafening sustained shriek of a dead line, is one of the most horrifying instances ever created for a movie. The President follows up on his agreement and General Black will drop the bomb on New York. Before it happens, Lumet cuts to a handful of random people in the city, oblivious to what has been happening in geopolitical war. Lumet's cuts grow quicker, freeze-framing followed by zooms, and the images of life in progress are stamped out by blackness, the title "Fail Safe" plastered on the screen, with no music to console us in fiction's artifice. Fail Safe gives us what Fonda's president calls "a taste of the future," and like Dr. Strangelove its military and technological observances bridge it to science or speculative fiction as it does to a Cold War suspense thriller. There is indeed madness and outlandishness in all of our institutions to which we are conveniently blinded and numbed (a great theme revisited in Network, which is also a bridge of cyber-futurism to the everyday present). As Groeteschele says earlier, "Hiroshima and Nagasaki belonged more to World War III than to World War II." Again, Fail Safe is about a protagonist running from the actions and consequences of the past, the main character being the entire globe. But the Future is Now, and we are dead.
Network (1976) begins with a joke about suicide, immediately followed by a serious near-realization of it, which is totally appropriate for the film considering that it seems like a satire but is in retrospect, as Lumet says, "sheer reportage." Indeed, to indulge Lumet and say it's not a satire is a little disingenuous, considering how hyperbolic the movie often is. But when we think of the corporatization of media, particularly Fox News, in addition to "Mad Prophet" populists for the people like Glenn Beck, or the increasingly edgy productions of wildly popular Reality TV, Network has a lot of truth in its prophetic fiction. In 2004, Lumet commented about the film's legendary writer Paddy Chayefsky, "God, I wish he'd lived to see George W. Bush!" Reality has caught up with the satire, and this was before the emergence of Sarah Palin. It begs comparison to the great comedian Tom Lehrer, who quit comedy because "Satire is no longer possible when Henry Kissinger wins the Nobel Peace Prize."
Like The Godfather, Network's own pop culture legacy seems to have been misconstrued by many of its fans (it probably was Lumet's most successful movie), as any astute film viewer, even those who haven't seen Network, know of the all-too-relatable line of dialogue spoken by Howard Beale, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" Indeed, society is crumbling, as it always has, but the success of Beale's brutal mad honesty is something that the network has hijacked for the same profit motives that produces what Beale earlier called "the bullshit." Audiences relate to Beale's madness and frustration, but they tune in, listen, and follow more than they think independently. More ironically, Beale's sermons seem to understand this. Even so, after he faints at the conclusion of each sermon, the crowd applauds on cue and the ratings continue to grow.
The opening act of Network wants us to ask the question about what the "news" is, and wants us to observe how the news is produced: for it is, after all, produced. Day after day, we listen to documents of assassinations, terrorism, kidnappings, industrial accidents, and mass death. We overhear details of a second assassination attempt on President Ford, with the president releasing a statement saying that he will not be a "prisoner of the Oval Office" or "hostage of would-be assassins." What is infotainment? We look at the show producers, board operators, and studio engineers running the images, joking with each other while news of tragedy is broadcast all over the nation. There is a detachment between the production and manufacturing of the product (the news) and the actual content of that product. People are part of the "news machine." But then Howard Beale, retiring (read: fired because of bad ratings) newsman, comes on for his final comment. Quite unexpectedly, and contrary to protocol, he says exactly what is on his mind: "Ladies and gentlemen. I would like to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks time. Because of poor ratings. Since this show is the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. A fifty share. Easy." We observe how most of the board operators don't even acknowledge what Beale is saying, chatting while fulfilling the technical tasks of their work. The content of news is simply white noise.
Of course, the network will not allow this to happen. But Beale convinces his friend, news director Max Schumacher (William Holden), to let him come on one more time. Again, he says exactly what is on his mind: "Yesterday on this broadcast I announced that I was going to commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, I'll tell you what happened. I just ran out of bullshit. I don't know how else to say it, except I just ran out of bullshit. Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living. And if we can't think of any reasons of our own, we always have the 'God' bullshit." As Beale continues, Schumacher refuses to take him off air. In the engineering room he immediately gets angry phone calls. He retorts, "He's saying that life is bullshit. And it is, so what are you screaming about!?" In Chayefsky's screenplay, Lumet found a perfect terrain for his own attitudes about our institutions and how citizens relate to them, but whereas his repressed and tragic characters are fighting with "the bullshit" of their own lives, often boiling over and exploding at the end, Network's Howard Beale begins his journey with a breakdown and never goes back.
Unexpectedly, ratings for Beale's news commentary have surged. The timing couldn't be better for the network, or worse for Schumacher. The network head, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), is making an unprecedented decision by having "the news division accountable to network," meaning that the corporate interests of the network will oversee the news division instead of the news division acting as an independent body. The news is out of the control of honest, Edward R. Murrow-like journalists like Schumacher (and Beale, before his breakdown), and in the hands of the same people who develop sitcoms and cop dramas, like Diana Christianson (Faye Dunaway), who sees Beale's publicity and Mad Prophet success as a perfect ratings grabber to develop in the long term: "After Vietnam and Watergate, the people are looking for someone to articulate their rage," she tells her production staff. In spite of the FCC, moral standard thumpers, and the possibility of losing stations in Kansas, the risk of hiring Beale, she tells Hackett, is worth the reward. How can we not think of Glenn Beck today when Hackett tells her, "We're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television." It is, however, what the people want.
When Beale embraces himself as a new prophet ("I must make my witness" he tells a security guard when entering the studio), he at last delivers the "Mad as Hell" speech, and becomes the most important man on television. Later on, with his show developed into a kind of circus (with psychics, entertainment gossip, etc), he continues to tell his audience the "truth," but it's a message that can never resonate with a viewing audience: "Television is not the truth. Television's a goddamned amusement park...We're in the boredom killing business...You people are the real thing. We are the illusion." But do people go out to fulfill their lives as individuated beings? No, they keep on watching Howard Beale. The irony of his show is that he lambasts the same system that encapsulates and fosters him. People are enthralled with the message, but safeguarded from its potency by a 20 inch screen.
Network anticipates the cyborg fiction and cinema that would bloom in the following twenty years, with novelists like William Gibson and filmmakers like David Cronenberg (particularly his Videodrome). There is an interconnectedness between media technology, commerce flow, human psychology, and human biology. Diana Christianson, for example, orgasms while talking about ratings and network success. Christianson is "television incarnate" we learn, organizing her life and the lives of those around her as if they were figures in melodramatic three-act scenarios drawn up for production and mass broadcast. Hackett, meanwhile, is not a sexual being at all, regardless of his power. His entire world is structured around the acquisition and maintenance of shareholders in the UBC Network.
Max Schumacher, on the other hand, is the most conscious character, but nevertheless passive. He is enticed by the visual object of desire (Diana Christianson) and is wafted away into a predicted affair, living the experience as a reflexive viewer. So unlike other Lumet characters, he is hopelessly honest (Holden does, after all, belong to that same echelon of actors that includes Henry Fonda, Lumet's other honest leading man). He doesn't hide the truth of his affair, but flatly breaks the news to his long time wife (Beatrice Straight). After the initial grief on his wife's part (Max even shrugs and says, "This is the obligatory Act II 'I'm leaving you for someone scene'), she asks him if Diana Christianson loves him. Schumacher is again completely honest in his response: "I'm not sure she's capable of any real feelings. She's television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows comes to her over there from a TV set. She's very carefully devised a number of scenarios for all of us to play, like movie of the week." Both of these characters know the tropes of illicit romance. "You're in for some grief, Max," she says to him. "I know."
When everything is riding high for Howard Beale, he finally oversteps a boundary. He provokes his audience to protest the foreign Arabic investments into the corporate body that owns UBC, which is unacceptable being that the Arabs have loaned the network $2 billion. Bashing politics and morality is fine, but what cannot be touched is the flow of monetary investments. This leads to Beale being called up to see the corporate head, Mr. Jensen, who delivers what I feel is the best of Network's many juicy monologues, the aforementioned "Corporate Cosmology" speech. It is a counterweight to Beale's "Mad as Hell" spectacle, delivered with the same kind of Jonathan Edwards-style Hell and Brimstone fervor. Within it, the other main theme of cyber futurism is laid out, detailing how political bodies are inconsequential to the late capitalist beast of corporatism: "There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast, interactive, interwoven, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars: petrol dollars, electro dollars, multi dollars...It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature! And you will atone!" Lumet films Ned Beatty's Jensen is a wide shot, streamlined between dual graphic vectors of green lamps on the long administrative board table. The image switches to a gentler angle, with Jensen's apocalyptic tone becoming professorial, intercut with a close-up of Beale's face responding. He is like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from an Old Testament God.
Jensen continues, "You get up on your little 21 inch screen, and howl about 'America' and 'democracy.' There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today...We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world...is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression, or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company in which all men to work to hold a profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized. All boredom amused." In other words, the Corporate Cosmology's ideal is a globe of worker drone humanoids. Beale was right – everything that the news reports is bullshit. The world is changing in this direction (and Chayefsky's prophecy of global capitalism has been in recent years further realized by the Information Age and documenting books on globalization like those by Thomas L. Friedman), and so the democratic method of operation devoted to political discourse (such as telegramming the White House regarding a merger or foreign investment) is nullified. Jensen has charged his disciple and prophet, Beale, to bring this news to the people.
The "Good News" is to embrace dehumanization. The next night he tells his audience, "What is finished is that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some 200 million transistorized, deodorized whiter-than-white steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston ruts." In the context of Lumet's own career, the ideals heralded in his first film, exhibited by Henry Fonda's Juror 8, are killed by Zero Sum basics. That's necessary for growth and economic prosperity. Beale adds, "The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren't. The whole world, not just us, we're just the most advanced country so we're getting there first...The whole world's people are becoming mass-produced and programmed." Idiosyncrasies, nuance, private motivations, and ephemeral thought is not a part of this global, capital driven society. And it "makes sense," doesn't it? Especially today, during a recession. What is the use of libraries, or a national endowment for the arts? What's the use of reading a book when you can acquire the adequate amount of information you need on a quick hyperlink? Why do we need 50 page movie analyses when this guy over here can tell you what you need to know in 300 words? The flatter the world gets in broadcasting and technological development, the flatter we get. But we don't need dimension, do we? We have television. Dummy.
Unfortunately for Howard Beale, the audience isn't interested in hearing that their lives are pointless. His ratings begin to fall. The audience seems to be coming to its senses, just as Max Schumacher is coming to his senses regarding his affair with Diana Christianson, the broadcast fembot cyborg. He tells her that he's turning into one of her scripts, which is conflicting with his basic human needs. "I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things that you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency." He sums up to her what is the main resonance of Network: "You're television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death. All the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain, and love. And it's a happy ending. Wayward husband comes to his senses, and returns to his wife."
Diana Christianson endures though. Her job in jeopardy because of Beale's sagging ratings, she and Hackett conspire to merge his show with The Mae-Tse Tung Hour, which follows. The far left radicals who are part of the same corporate media cosmology will assassinate Beale on the air, ushering in a new era of television, anticipated by Schumacher's joke to Beale that opened Network: "The Death Hour. Sunday night entertainment for the whole family." Beale will go down in history as the first man to be killed on air because of bad ratings, and the network will adapt and thrive as before in the "nature of things." Anyway, there's always more bullshit.
I fear, however, that Lumet's warnings are all too real, and the placating of television is irresistible. Network's aura of dehumanization is more pertinent today than it was in its own time, the same as with The Social Network's dehumanization (significantly, Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin thanked Paddy Chayefsky during his recent Oscar acceptance speech). As in 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, or the environment festered with corruption and apathy in Serpico, the way of convenience is always easier considering how it keeps the factors of reflectiveness or introspection at bay. In her negative review of Network, Pauline Kael accused the picture of being full of "hot air," given the endless array of monologues that follow each other. Indeed, the masterful writing of the film's dialogue may even be a distraction from the story (the same way that one could respond to Quentin Tarantino or Diablo Cody screenplays nowadays). But those words have turned out to be filled with a mass of sage substance.
I'm going to slowly wrap up with the two films that I consider to be Lumet's best. They were both made in the early 1980s and one might even get the sense that they belong together as a sequential double feature in their penetrating examinations of two men throwing themselves – perhaps foolishly – into seemingly absurd circumstances, instigated by a deep rooted need for atonement after living a long period of time in bad faith.
I've established that Sidney Lumet makes movies about guilty people. The ability to act guiltily is afforded them by the corrupt institutions in which they legitimately thrive. In 12 Angry Men, some of the characters sublimate their private guilt onto the judgment of the defendant. The Pawnbroker is about survivor guilt. Fail Safe's nuclear arsenal is representative of a nation's own systematic repression. Murder on the Orient Express has an array of suspects being investigated by Inspector Poirot (Albert Finney), all of whom are secretly guilty of something. The children in Daniel, Running on Empty, and Family Business are dealing with the guilt of their parents. Q&A is the investigation of a respected cop's possible guilt. Critical Care is about the guilt of the United States healthcare industry. And the titles of Guilty as Sin, Find Me Guilty, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead speak for themselves.
But one of the most fascinating protagonists in any film, plagued by his life of bad faith and guilt, is Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) in Prince of the City (1981), an epic true-life character study about New York police corruption following the Chase Commission in the 1970s. Prince of the City is a neglected masterwork, probably because of its lack of a marquee star above the title. Originally, either Robert De Niro or Al Pacino was to play Ciello for director Brian De Palma, but the production fell through. Lumet snagged the material and demanded a less known actor for his leading man, in addition to several non-actors in the vital roles of New York cops and wise guys, often indistinguishable from each other. As a great urban opera about corruption and crookery, it ranks with The Godfather trilogy, GoodFellas, and Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, the latter to which it feels like a response, even an apology. Martin Scorsese has been outspoken about his love for Prince of the City, hailing it as his favorite Lumet picture and certainly having had it in mind when he was directing The Departed.
Prince of the City begins with Ciello waking up in the middle of the night, apparently troubled by bad dreams. His wife (Lindsay Crouse) tells him it will be all right, holding him closely. But we learn that it is not a nightmare that keeps him restless; it's repressed guilt. And it's a guilt that's sliver thin, because it seems so facile and inconsequential. Ciello's a corrupt cop. But so are his best friends. And they're the happiest friends, comfortably living in nice houses with multiple cars, the best clothes, shoes, and watches. What do they do that's corrupt? The spectacular opening sequence of the picture shows them organizing a bust on South American drug dealers in New York; they make arrests, confiscate the drugs, and take half the cash lying around: $46,000, split evenly five ways. The drug dealers are immediately deported out of the country, the cops get to feed their families better, and the drugs are given to junkie snitches in exchange for information.
The bottom line is: such corruption gets things done. Late in the picture as one of the cops is being interrogated, he tells the attorneys that you'll never get convictions without illegal wiretaps, cops committing perjury, or feeding snitches/junkies illegal narcotics. "You want the big dealer out of business? The only way I know how to put him out of business is to steal his cash. Otherwise, somewhere down the line, he's going to buy out. He'll buy himself a bondsman, a DA, a judge. The scumbag dealer's back on the street before the arresting officer." This is far different from the corrupt cops in Serpico, who often seem like simplistic bad guys by comparison, a flaw that Lumet has acknowledged and is here attempting to rectify. The way that Lumet describes it, having spoken to many New York cops, is like this: 5% of all police are hopelessly corrupt; another 5% (the Frank Serpico type) are hopelessly incorruptible; the rest are essentially good cops who bend with the wind, or in other words it usually depends on whoever the Chief of Police is. Because of the portrayals of police in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Prince of the City, a lot of people have supposed that cops and law officials view Sidney Lumet as an anti-cop director. But Lumet says that it's quite the contrary, because the cops who see the films recognize the reality being depicted – which too often in movies is not the case.
Nevertheless, these men are cops. They work in law enforcement, and the ones we see depicted in Prince of the City are, we shall assume, not the negative 5%, but of the fair weather 90%. Lumet judges none of these characters, particularly Ciello, who goes through an astronomical descent into something for which he's not prepared. Special attorneys are cracking down on police corruption, and Ciello, truculent to the Chase Commission at first, nevertheless seems to be irresistibly pulled into going along with it. He's in a state of masked despair hidden from his conscious waking self because his material life is so fulfilling. He tells the lawyers that he'll play – as long as he doesn't have to snitch on his SIU partners. That loyalty is too deep. The lawyers agree, as long as he also reveals all of his own corrupt actions. Ciello gives them three incidents, which he swears are the only ones over his 11 year career. But we know he's lying. What's amazing is how Williams plays him as a man who is actively not only lying to other people, and thus setting himself up for perjury, but also lying to himself.
Like Sonny Wortzik, Ciello angrily tells the lawyers that they, in their three piece suits and expensive high rise offices, are no less guilty than the cops on the street. "You run it!" he tells a WASP Fed lawyer, referring to the inherently corrupt system. "Starting with assistant DAs who plea bargain with a Murder One down to a Misdemeanor. Or lawyers who wear $400 suits and come up to cops in hallways and say, 'Hey, this case doesn't mean shit. Here's $50. Here's $100. $500. $15,000!' Fuck, we know how you guys become judges! You pay $15,000 and zap! You're wearing robes. You guys, you live on West Port or you're on Central Park West! While we're up in our barrio on 125th Street! I mean, you want us to keep everybody on the inside, so you can stay on the outside." Ciello reiterates to them that the only people a cop can trust are his partners. "Nobody cares about me but my partner."
It's the cop-ness of these characters that drives them insane under an investigating commission. A character declares at one point, "They're cops! In their hearts they want to admit their guilt!" Indeed, Ciello's destructive path of being an informant against fellow police officers is something that he undertakes because he wants to be one of the "good guys." He still wants to believe in a world of good guys and bad guys, cleanly divided so that people can endure with certainty. The catch of Ciello's performance as a wire-wearing undercover cop amongst other cops is that he's thrilled by the rush of what he's doing: just as he adapted to police corruption with optimum proficiency, he is adapting to his new tasks – even to the shock of the Feds backing him. He grabs a gangster's hand and presses it against his testicles, taunting, "You think I'm wearing a wire? Feel right here!" The gangster is repulsed and takes his hand back. Later on, the Feds ask Ciello where he placed the wire. "Right where I showed him. My balls." Ciello also purposely is leaving his gun behind; if he's caught with a wire, he knows he won't have it. Like other great Lumet protagonists, he seems to have a grandiose death wish.
Ciello's original agreement backfires. The testimony he must give in court, which forces him into hiding and with constant surveillance over a course of years, means that his perjury will be discovered – and so too will he be compelled to give up his friends. A particular lawyer, Mario Vincente (Steve Inwood; and based on an up and coming lawyer in the district attorney's office named Rudy Giuliani), knows that Ciello is hiding a lot of information and tries to help him come clean. He quotes Thomas De Quincy, "If once a man indulges in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing. He comes next to drinking, and Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility, and procrastination." Ciello purges himself, and it's devastating to watch as this man betrays the men he loved as the very best of friends. They also come to testify against each other. One of them commits suicide. Only one of them, Gus (Jerry Orbach), refuses to play along with the Feds, something that rivets Ciello with admiration. "He's the only one to tell'em 'go fuck yourselves.'"
But what happens to Ciello? The prosecutors have a debate as to whether or not they should also prosecute him, a scene that is eerily reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. One group, the concrete bottom-line thinkers, pride themselves on being prosecutors, which means that they "prosecute" all people who break the law – including Ciello, regardless of any help he has given them. The other prosecutors, led by Vincente, are committed to the human principles and undercurrents that drive decisions. "For most cops, corruption creeps up slowly, almost imperceptibly," one of the lawyers says. "But getting back is something that can only be done in one great big generous leap. A leap that risks everything." It must be acknowledged that cops have codes. And if prosecutors were going to go after every single rule breaking cop, society would essentially have to pick future cops at age 7, grooming them perfectly until they were 21 years old. Human beings are not predictable machines. They encompass more variables than any law can wholly account for. It's only too evident that Ciello was driven to "carve out some penance for himself." He has made an absurd, and ultimately heroic, leap of faith that nevertheless does not guarantee commendation from his peers. In fact, the final scene concludes with a painful ambivalence. Ciello is a guest speaker at a police class. After he introduces himself, a young man rises and says contemptuously, "You have nothing to teach me." The look in Ciello's eyes indicates that he realizes both how right – and how wrong – the student is. This is a great film and a great story with no absolutes, even to the extent that Lumet disallowed the camera lenses that most closely match the human eye (30-40mm). Instead, he used a mixture of wide angle short lenses and shallow focus long lenses. Nothing is balanced or even. There is only the cloudiness of moral confusion.
If in the grand scheme of things we're doomed, as so many great Lumet pictures insinuate, it's a beautiful and even awesome thing to experience a small local victory for a singular individual who has been repeatedly smashed by the array of smothering systems that have worked in conjunction with his own personal weaknesses in his gradual dissemination. The unwieldy embedded influences that provoke him to do bad things become the same elements that lead him to make a principled but irrational moral decision – and that too could end in his destruction. The final Sidney Lumet film I want to discuss is the one I believe is his best, in addition to having the greatest performance by one of the most highly regarded actors, Paul Newman, and also being one of the best writing efforts by an American literary treasure, David Mamet. I am referring to 1982's The Verdict.
The walls are closing in on Francis "Frank" Galvin (Newman), a middle aged lawyer who's given himself to booze and shameless ambulance chasing in funeral homes. He's had three cases in four years, losing each of them. At one time he may have been a shining star, but now he's walking dead, wading in the filth of his present apathy. It's no coincidence that we first see him amongst the mourning and the pallor of death.
The one close friend Galvin has left, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), has secured an open-shut easy lawsuit against St. Catherine's Hospital, involving a patient administered the wrong anesthesia during childbirth. The patient is comatose, virtually dead and hooked up to machines. Her sister and brother-in-law (Roxanne Hart, James Handy) are looking for a settlement that will enable them freedom from their burdensome responsibilities. The Church, which runs St. Catherine's, is willing to offer $210,000 out of court so that they avoid any negative publicity. It's an easy win for Galvin and the plaintiffs, his share cleanly coming to $70,000. Everyone can move on with time's march and the medical malpractice can be swept away, each individual's reputations intact.
But something is moving in Galvin, much like something was inexplicably moving in Danny Ciello in Prince of the City. He has stopped running from the reality of who he is, and is tormented by the despair of knowing himself. The Lumetian character functions like a component in the machine-like apparatus of society, be it as cop, lawyer, or doctor, adhering to the protocols of the irrationally rational. But the diamond-like glare of human truth has Damascus caliber consequences. Frank takes Polaroid photographs of the comatose victim, so that he can more easily sway Bishop Brophy (Edward Binns) in a fair settlement. The pictures would be some more sentimental bullshit, as Howard Beale would say in Network, or as Lumet himself would say in his book Making Movies, constructions designed to shamelessly work on the emotions of whoever would view it. What Frank was not expecting was that the photos would work on him. They act as his own mirror, pointing out the pathetic man he is and the absurd process of Law that flows through all of civilization's social structures. The question is, "What is the right thing to do?" A settlement? There is no symbolic judgment in that, only money changing hands to pay off the grievous error of a sin. Seated in front of the Bishop, Frank says, "We've been paid to look the other way…If I take the money, I've lost. I'll just be a rich ambulance chaser." This case will go to trial, something no one wants, including the plaintiffs.
An easy "win" for Galvin is inversed to the alternate open-shut scenario, as his reputation as a loser alcoholic with a shady past precedes him. St. Catherine's has an impeccably brilliant veteran lawyer, Ed Concannon (James Mason), described by Morrissey as "the Prince of Fucking Darkness." Galvin only has Morrissey to help him; Concannon, in addition to being highly respected by judges, has unlimited funding and a staff of a dozen up and coming lawyers. Concannon has important people who can testify in his favor, and also knows how to coach them; Galvin's key testimonial witness has skipped the country, and no one else wants to cooperate. There is also the fact that the presiding judge, Hoyle (Milo O'Shea), finds the trial meaningless and resents Galvin's determination to not settle. Hoyle's in Concannon and St. Catherine's pocket. Finally, Galvin has unexpectedly fallen in love with a mysterious woman, Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), whose seduction of him was bought and paid for by Concannon. It's very improbable that Frank Galvin has a ghost of a chance in this case, and it's evident that his "noble" act has sown the seeds of his final destruction. It's improbable that he will win.
But not impossible.
Even after he wants to recant his noble and absurd leap of faith in going to trial, Frank flings himself headfirst into the case. The Verdict is a descent into his night of the soul, where he comes face to face with who he really is and really believes. The machinations and mazes of this case come together to form a representation of his own search for the forgotten ideals of faith, truth, and justice that were once upon a time real for him. The Verdict is set in a waste land, and I'm fascinated with how Lumet and David Mamet explore that waste land through the settings of three institutions that are intended by virtue of their existence to help the helpless and weak: the Law, the Church, and Medicine. We see all three throughout the film, sometimes their emblematic features all together in a single composition, but we are meant to notice how they wear their ideals on the sleeve. The Church does not want the case to go to trial, because any negativity in the public eye would impinge on the general charitable work they do; doctors are dignitaries and professionals, not healers of suffering; and lawyers are leaches, less focused on justice and truth than they are on winning.
But we need to believe in all three of those institutions, because they reflect the deepest sentiments of our basic humanity. We learn about Frank Galvin's past and how he married the daughter of a great lawyer, whose firm had made him partner. But after learning of his father-in-law bribing jurors he was overcome with disillusioned grief. After threatening to make the truth known, he was framed for jury tampering by his father-in-law, his reputation was tarnished, his wife divorced him, and he fell into his alcoholic ambulance-chasing slump. He lost his sense of value and his integrity, becoming an individual not comfortable in his own three-piece suit skin. I admit, maybe against my better judgment, that I find myself identifying with Frank Galvin more than any other Lumet character. His vulnerable and piteous patheticism is made more awkward by Newman's handsomeness and lawyer-suited dignity, the juxtaposition aching. We see him play pinball during the opening credits, or childishly bend over to sip from a shot glass of whiskey because his hand is too shaky, or fumble a pen over a footrest, or take off his coat in Hoyle's office and inwardly fumble after failing to locate a hanging rack, all of which reflect a man who has no confident grip on himself; whereas other Lumet characters run from their past, Frank Galvin's has long since run ahead him and is now dragging him mercilessly along a concrete street. He's a slave to his body's addictions and easy comforts, his self-loathing satiated by the pity he craves.
Frank knows that he is a weak man, which is now one of his primary motivations. People in these institutions are supposed to protect the weak, and in looking at his comatose client he sees his own weakness and need to stand up against the stronger impersonal forces surrounding him. But being weak, or defending the weak, is not easy. It's certainly not the way of the waste land, of the world. It requires a step beyond protocol and addressing the complexity of human situations, such as in this particular case. Judge Hoyle reprimands him, stating if Galvin finds the case complex, how the hell does he think a jury would also understand? Similarly, if a movie or a movie character is complex, why would a mass audience care to understand? That's what Lumet is interested in as a director. His films as experiences often stand alongside the scenarios in which his characters find themselves. It's risky and unpopular to make such moves, and my heart breaks for Galvin when he's left alone in Hoyle's chambers after making his stand, saying "Dumb, dumb, dumb" to himself.
No one would ever call Concannon dumb. He understands the world, like the judge and the bishop, and as such is estranged from the spiritual truth he is theoretically meant to uphold and represent. He writes out a check to his spy, Laura, voicing his philosophy which is the mandate of the System in all its forms, as Lumet understands it in his entire body of work: "You're not paid to do your best. You're paid to win. That's what pays for this office. Pays for the pro-bono work that we do for the poor. Pays for the type of law that you want to practice. Pays for my whiskey. Pays for your clothes. Pays for the leisure we have to sit back and discuss philosophy as we're doing tonight. We're paid to win the case. You ended your marriage, you wanted to come back to the practice of law. You wanted to come back to the world. Welcome back," he says, handing her a check for $525. Such words are practical and even advisable for professionals working in politics, the law, the church, medicine, and filmmaking. Movies like The Verdict do not usually make $200 million, and so most studios and filmmakers save their capital and time for "winning" scenarios. The cost of our stable comforts is the successful upholding of our ideals and dreams. Altruism loses to Prosperity, Artistic Integrity loses to Success. That's the way of the world.
Practicality is mechanical and linear, expected and simplistic. It is orderly and neat, like the way the offered settlement of $210,000 can be neatly divided up in thirds. This is what interests Lumet about the legal system: the mechanical fail-safe predictability vs. the unpredictable and undefined natural human element – processing vs. contemplation. This comes at issue during The Verdict's climax. Frank has found a key witness, a former nurse named Caitlin Costello (Lindsay Crouse). Years before, Costello signed off on an important document involving the plaintiff's anesthesia, and then was threatened by the defendant doctors to alter the document. She testifies, baring her soul and finally unveiling the ugly kernels of truth in the case. The jury is moved, as are we. Concannon and his cronies however are able to disqualify the testimony based on a legal precedent. Judge Hoyle predictably sides with Concannon in throwing out a Xerox copy that proves St. Catherine's ultimate mishandling, in addition to the very presence of Costello on the stand. He says, "The jury will be advised not to consider the testimony of Ms. Costello. Ms. Costello was a rebuttal witness. You shouldn't have heard it, but you did. That was my mistake. You should strike it from your minds and give it no weight."
This is the mindset of the System being imposed on twelve individuals, the jury. The technicalities of law assumes that the jurors are themselves machines governed by linear mental processing. They are instructed that a Xerox copy does not exist. But it does. They saw it. It was there. They are instructed to discount the nurse's testimony. But they heard it. It happened. There is no Delete button. The jurors, Lumet understands, would be inhumane to simply be automatons in following Judge Hoyle's orders. The absurdity of the proposition is reminiscent of other Lumet pictures, like the protocol of military orders in The Hill, or Critical Care's incisive satire of American health insurance and keeping patients functioning even if they are no longer capable of enjoying life. The human element is canceled out by the deadening manual instructions. Another example is the great modern noir, Q & A, where a commanding official tells a young district attorney, "If it's not recorded in the Q and A, it didn't happen."
Frank Galvin's final statement is a naked acknowledgment of how he has, technically, nothing on his opponents. It's a verbalization of the desperate search for a pulse within the system, and hope for his future in that system. We see him discard any paper that he would read from, and he speaks to the jury like he was offering up a final prayer and confessional revelation: "You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, 'Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what is true.' The rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead. A little dead, we think of ourselves as victims. And we become victims. We become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the Law. But today you are the law. You – are – the Law. Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not a marble statue or the trappings of the court. See, those are just symbols for our desire to be just. They are in fact a prayer, a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, 'Act as if ye had faith. Faith will be given to you.' If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves, and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts." He believes because he has to believe. We have to believe. The Verdict finds real justice, real religion, and real healing in its Waste Land of spiritually dead structures.
The prayer is answered affirmatively, reaping probably a ten-fold reward of what Galvin and his clients were originally seeking. But Lumet refrains from the usual legal thriller triumph of ornate ovations and triumphant music, however much we feel it. He gives a startling crane shot settling in on Galvin's close up, a loser who has beaten a nearly impossible foe. The sense we have at the end, as Galvin rests in his office and declines to answer a ringing phone, is that this is a small local victory. There will be no full spiritual restoration to the System, which will continue to be corrupt and an impediment to the weak. Galvin too may just as soon be drinking his winnings away. Nevertheless, The Verdict remains one of the most stirring and fulfilling motion pictures canvassing the leap of faith a beaten man takes in his absurd pursuit of a redemption he long ago abandoned. The picture is a hard punch to the gut that also flutters the heart.
Sidney Lumet was modest about his successes. He credited his collaborators for their achievements: Pacino, Fonda, Chayefsky, Mamet, Newman, Dede Allen, Finney, etc. The greatness was dependent on something being revealed, and the actor would either find the strength to reveal that private part of himself that brought a character to life, or he wouldn't. According to Lumet, what we see in an actor's performance as a character is the actor's self: it's their sexuality, it's their anger, it's their sadness, it's their romantic love that we see coming out of the fictional creation. The instrument is the actor: "The nature of the art is that the actor uses him or herself for all of the revelation." A great anecdote about Lumet's reliance on his actors comes from the production of The Verdict. Lumet had his pre-production read-throughs and rehearsals with his cast, but saw that Newman, who had never played such a weak man, was not bringing the essential, revelatory ingredients to Frank Galvin. The Friday before shooting commenced, Lumet's car dropped Newman off at home, but the director confessed his concerns: Right now, the movie will be fine. The performance will be fine, but there are pieces missing – and they belonged to the hidden side of Paul Newman, the man. Lumet told Newman, "Whether or not [Frank] will reveal himself is up to you." Lumet finishes his story by saying, "He knew just what I was getting at and he didn't say a word. And he came in on Monday and kicked ass."
So in this complete body of work of Sidney Lumet films, we have a treasured array of authentically revealed lives, both in fiction and in the intensely processed methods of human beings, the actors. That's a distinction in them from the usual flag-waving, award-baiting fodder with juicily loud speeches and manufactured tears. Lumet's characters, even at their most despicable, are authentic revelations of strangers in which we also see ourselves. Even in people who on the surface should be completely alien from us. It is improbable that we should feel for twelve angry men in a deliberation room; a bitter Holocaust survivor; a tragically honest cop; a homosexual bank robber; a child of political radicals; a man betraying his loved ones; and a drunk lawyer ushering himself to existential oblivion. Improbable yes, but as Lumet proves, not impossible.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Stage Struck (1958)
That Kind of Woman (1959)
The Fugitive Kind (1959)
A View from the Bridge (1961)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Fail Safe (1964)
The Hill (1965)
The Group (1966)
The Deadly Affair (1967)
Bye Bye Braverman (1968)
The Sea Gull (1968)
The Appointment (1969)
King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)
The Anderson Tapes (1971)
Child's Play (1972)
The Offence (1972)
Lovin' Molly (1974)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The Wiz (1978)
Just Tell Me What You Want (1980)
Prince of the City (1981)
The Verdict (1982)
Garbo Talks (1984)
The Morning After (1986)
Running on Empty (1988)
Family Business (1989)
Q & A (1990)
A Stranger Among Us (1992)
Guilty as Sin (1993)
Night Falls on Manhattan (1997)
Critical Care (1997)
Strip Search (2004)
Find Me Guilty (2006)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)