Hello, film fans. We’re fresh off of the Memorial Day weekend, and yours truly needs to get something off of his chest. It has been almost two years now since the passing of industry luminary, Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest directors in the history of film… in my ever so humble opinion. He may not have had quite the reputation or track record of a Scorsese, or a Spielberg, but he was a true master and he deserves to be mentioned right up there with them. Unfortunately, with the exception of a fine tribute on the Turner channel, Lumet’s career and impressive body of work has not been met with much… well, fanfare, since his passing. Sure, it was reported amongst all the usual news outlets. A google of his name will result in the usual obits from The New York Times, etc. But, unless it’s just my imagination, there really hasn’t been a proper celebration of his films.
It just bothers me that, even before his death, Lumet never really got the credit or press I felt he deserved. He would always be discussed as a brilliant filmmaker, don’t get me wrong, but it even took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until 2005 to award Lumet an honorary Oscar, which to their credit they appropriately called a “consolation prize for a lifetime of neglect.” Therefore, I’ve decided to pay my respects to the late grand auteur with this little piece. However, this time, instead of just running down a laundry list of his incredible work, I’m going to briefly discuss a pair of Lumet’s films—that I got acquainted with over the holiday weekend—that he did with one of his biggest collaborators, Sean Connery.
I decided to sit down to watch The Hill from 1965 and The Offence from 1972 that were the first and third of five collaborations made by the two men, with the others being The Anderson Tapes (‘71,) which stars Connery as an ex-con who devises an intricate plan to loot a posh New York apartment building, unaware that his every move is being watched; the star-studded Agatha Christie thriller Murder On The Orient Express (’74) and Family Business (’89) featuring Sean, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick as three generations of a New York family of thieves who want to swipe a secret high-tech formula.
Lumet was all about New York City, and while a majority of his films were set in and concentrated on life in the town, these two particular movies took place nowhere near The Big Apple. The Hill takes place during World War II at a British military prison in the North-African desert where Connery is brought in as a new prisoner, along with a host of other soldiers. Connery’s character has already been the scuttlebutt of the prison for his crimes that have branded him a coward. We find out later, that that’s not really the case. Incidentally, Connery was looking to take on a role that was a departure from his monstrously popular James Bond character in order to show more of his range. I would have to say, “Mission accomplished,” because while I thought the film itself was understated in some ways (in a good way), Connery was great in a performance that was obviously more emotionally dynamic than his Bond films. Anyway, the prison is run by the ruthless and brutal Regimental Sergeant Major, played by Harry Andrews and his even more sadistic underling guard, played by Ian Hendry. The facilitators of the prison continuously torture the inmates, with the main form of punishment consisting of the inmates being made to constantly ascend and descend the massive man-made dirt mound of the title. Eventually, one of Connery’s cellmates dies of heat exhaustion due to Hendry’s unrelenting and excessive harassment, leading Connery to decide he’s going to attempt to file a murder charge against Hendry.
The film wonderfully explores the human power dynamics within the military and prison system, and while the ending was a bit abrupt and surprising, I felt it to be a decent and fitting resolution. Performances were tremendous across the board, and that’s definitely a credit to Mr. Lumet. No one really knew how to quite direct actors like he did, which makes sense since he grew up as a theater actor, himself. Additionally, the real feather in his cap is that Sidney brilliantly used his actors to define his style (which often involved the exploration of his characters’ conscience), stating in his memoir that, “Good style, to me, is unseen style. It is style that is felt.” Hear, hear!
The Offence was set in England, where Connery plays a gruff London detective who has let the job get to him after twenty years of being privy to the most heinous crimes. The film is primarily told in one giant flashback (jumping around in time), but in the beginning of the movie we learn that Connery has snapped and savagely beaten a man (Ian Bannen, in a fantastic and slimy turn) suspected of a string of child molestations. He’s then suspended and subject to a review. The rest of the film is then basically split into three parts chronicling an extended conversation between Connery and his wife, the interview with his superior (Trevor Howard), and what really happened with Connery and Bannen in the interrogation room. It’s an intense and compelling character study that’s a tour de force for Connery. It’s not a groundbreaking vehicle, but one that’s incredibly engaging, suspenseful and just plain well-done overall. I have to be careful what I say here, because I don’t want to ruin the resolution of the film for those who haven’t seen it. It was, after all, one of Lumet’s less successful efforts not viewed by many, but over the years has been gaining a bigger audience, thankfully due to the DVD era. However, I must state that I absolutely loved the shift in the production where it became less about the guilt of Bannen’s character and more about what was going on inside Connery’s. Yet, for all of Lumet’s engrossing tales that deftly delved into moral and social problems and themes, and despite being lauded as a crusader, he once admirably and humbly stated in an interview, “I don’t think art changes anything…” “I do it because I like it.” Sidney Lumet certainly was an artist, and definitely not a show business phony.
So, from the time my 10th grade English teacher showed me his first feature film 12 Angry Men, to Dog Day Afternoon that was a game changer and well ahead of its time, to his final production Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead that I felt was one of the year’s best, I have always considered myself a fan. RIP Mr. Lumet. Your work will always be celebrated by yours truly.