Sidney Lumet…at the beginning and in the end.

I recently watched the new Criterion Collection blu-ray of Sidney Lumet’s classic, 12 Angry Men.  I wanted to share my thoughts on this film but in all truth, what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already?  I love it.  It is as impactful and as relevant today as it was when released in 1957.  In this his feature film directorial debut, Lumet shines as few others could, confined to a room 12 men are brought together to decide a man’s fate.  In the process, an enlightening one for both the characters and audience, the cinematic bar is set quite high.  The perfect cast portraying a beautifully developed cast of characters telling a compelling story helmed by a master storyteller all lead to high drama of the unforgettable kind.

OK, so that’s my entire review of 12 Angry Men.  Of my latest viewing of this classic I will add that Criterion pays due honor to this great film.  A must for any movie fan’s collection, this blu-ray release is wonderful.  The sights, sounds and extras are worth giving a new look to a forever classic.  This is a shinier 50+-year-old gem somehow more moving for its newly attributed luster.

Among the enjoyable extras included in the Criterion Collection release is the 1954 television version of Twelve Angry Men, which aired live on The Westinghouse Studio One anthology series in September of that year.  For obvious reasons this version lacks the production value of the Sidney Lumet film and his flair for drama.  Although it is still very watchable, the television version only strengthens the choices made by Lumet as far as angles and close-ups that so strongly affect the 1957 film.  It’s worth mentioning that the Westinghouse production features a notable cast, including Robert Cummings as juror #8, the role played by Henry Fonda in the famous classic.  Also starring are Norman Fell, Edward Arnold and Joseph Sweeney, who played juror #9 in both the television and later Lumet, theatrical versions.

As often happens to me when I watch a film I love, watching 12 Angry Men lead me to want more.  In this case it was a want for more of Sidney Lumet.  Intent on watching another of his great films, and there are many to choose from, I decided on his last, just having finished his first.  So in went the DVD of the 2007 film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.  Incredibly, the film was made fifty years after 12 Angry Men and it ranks among his best.  It is, not simply, an extraordinary film.  I find it quite refreshing that Lumet made this kind of quality film at the end of his career.  In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead there is no sign that his creative energies were winding down.  In fact, the film is fresh and on the edge, somehow as though a much younger man directed it.  It is a film that deserves much praise and attention.  So, here come some praise and some attention…

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and features Albert Finney, in a key, supporting role.  The story is told through parallel individual tales of each of the main characters leading up to, and looking back on, the film’s fateful event and scathing aftermath.  Hoffman and Hawk play brothers, Andy and Hank, respectively.  Perhaps an odd pair to view as brothers at first glance, but there is never a question of their bond once we get a glimpse into their lives and history.  For very different reasons both men are in dire need of cash.  Andy, the older, stronger and wiser brother, who is also much higher on the economic scale, comes up with the brilliant solution to their cash woes – they should rob a small jewelry store, which he calls a “victimless crime” since the owners would be well recompensed by the insurance on the store.  But, it is not just any jewelry store he plans on robbing.  What makes it “special” is for you to find out.

That’s the premise in its simplest form but what results is a gripping, deeply emotional story.  There’s nothing simple about this film and the victimless crime results in numerous victims and unspeakable tragedy.  We get to know all the characters in this story in a taut, personal way so that the crimes they may commit are interwoven into the fabric of who these people are caused by where they came from, and their relationships.  They all make ruinous choices yet our sympathy shifts from one to the other as circumstances unfold.  These people are tragic but not unlikeable.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not easily placed into the confines of a traditional genre – at least not for me.  It is also a film that shouldn’t be spoiled.   It is best when consumed cold.  I knew nothing about it when I saw it and the experience was better for it.  Lumet himself referred to the film as a melodrama and how can I say otherwise?  I can only add that this is a tense and intense film.  It’s the kind of film that grabs you from the get-go and doesn’t let you go.  It is a guarantee that you will have a hard time letting it go or looking away.

The acting in the film is substantial all the way around.  The film received no Oscar nominations, although it deserved to receive several, it was recognized for ensemble cast and other honors on several fronts.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman, by my estimation one of the best character actors around today, is very moving as Andy in all his emotional incarnations here, and Marisa Tomei is memorable as his troubled wife.  These two actors have several scenes together that rank among the best I’ve seen.  One scene in particular blew me away.  The scene takes place in a car (again a very limiting space) where Andy breaks down after a disturbing exchange with his father.

Because it gives nothing away…take a look…

That kind of acting is not only testament to the actors involved but also to Sidney Lumet as the great actor’s director he was.  His films leave no emotional stone unturned.  Every role, every character is vital to the story and he treated them with the utmost care and attention.  He also deserved kudos for the way he chose to tell this particular story, using a wide range of shots, signatures of his work through the years, each showing his love of character and storytelling.  He used wide shots that enhance the character’s disconnect, aloneness and desperation and wonderful close-ups to enhance tension.  Worthy of note is that this film is the only one Lumet shot using digital film techniques, preferring it for its convenience to the more traditional use of film.  I am not familiar with the differences or technical terms used in filmmaking but can attest to the fact that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stunningly crisp film, as visually stimulating as the story is disturbing.

This film doesn’t resemble 12 Angry Men in look and feel, but his signatures are present in both films.  Having a love of theater, Lumet always made sure his films were theatrical events, setting the stage with precision and style – of stories grand or small, always truthful in the realm of human condition.  He tended to show the worst of human nature in an extraordinarily ordinary way, often through stories that featured characters in extraordinary, but believable, circumstances.  Whether in 12 Angry Men where we get to know the fiber of each juror as tensions grow in that room, or in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, where the unraveling of circumstances leads to…well, the devil’s handiwork, Lumet was a realist in the face of grandeur.  Through his camera we viewed the soul.

It is obvious I am a great admirer of Sidney Lumet’s exceptional body of work with many of his films being on my list of favorites – 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, The Verdict – and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead joins the list of notables.  It turned out to be a wonderful way to cap a stellar career proving that, at the beginning and in the end, Sidney Lumet was an extraordinary talent, one of the great directors of American Cinema.

May you be in heaven half an hour…before the devil knows you’re dead.

8 thoughts

  1. Aurora, great post on two Lumet pictures. I somehow missed BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, but definitely want to check it out based on your review. I’m a huge fan of 12 ANGRY MEN. It also amuses me when film critics carp that a film is “too stagey.” You could certainly say that of 12 ANGRY MEN, but I never notice because I’m too engrossed in the story. Bottom line for me is if it’s a compelling tale, the staginess doesn’t matter.

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