Much is being written about the death on Saturday of master director Sidney Lumet at 86 so the focus here will be on the manner in which he exquisitely interacted with master actors and developed critical subject matter.
Lumet stated that, while it was essential to entertain audiences in film, his goal was to supply something more. He did this by tackling some of the most complex and controversial material through showing human beings confronted at critical crossroads.
Henry Fonda was an actor who stood for bedrock truth in the manner of James Stewart and Gary Cooper, but often with a measure of complexity. It was a master stroke to cast Fonda in the lead of Lumet's first film, "12 Angry Men", a gripping look at the controversial subject of capital punishment humanized through the experiences of New York City jurors in a case of a young man being tried for murdering his father.
A younger Fonda had received critical praise for playing an outsider thrown into a rush to judgment by townsfolk to apply lynch law justice to a group of strangers headed by Dana Andrews in "The Ox-Bow Incident", released in 1943. The film, deftly directed by William Wellman, showed the previously rootless and immature Fonda gaining stature and maturity through being a part of the tragic process. By film's end he decides to ride to the town where Andrews' widow lives and deliver the final letter that the innocent victim wrote to her along with his children.
Lumet assuredly saw that stirring portrayal by the young Fonda, who 14 years later endowed his role with added maturity as a quiet and unobtrusive juror seeking justice, an outsider as he had been in his youthful acting period in "The Ox-Bow Incident". Fonda was low key throughout, but he remained doggedly assertive in his search for justice, beginning as the lone jury holdout against an otherwise unanimous guilty vote.
The film's critical moment was reached when Lee J. Cobb, who had been the most vociferous jury adherent for a guilty verdict, broke down and revealed that he had identified the young man whose fate they would decide with his tragic experience with his own son. It displayed Lumet's penchant for dramatically linking the search for answers through gripping human experience. The contrast of the low key but determined Fonda with loud, abrasive extrovert Cobb and his subsequent tearful breakdown marked classic cinema played out by two acting masters.
Fonda as a quiet seeker of truth fit so perfectly into Lumet's style of filmmaking that he was brought back to star as president of the United States in the 1964 suspense drama "Fail Safe". The bone numbing denouement shows Fonda confronted with nuclear war and the imminent loss of his family in New York, the city where Lumet grew up and used as a showcase for most of his films.
The film concludes with swift camera shots displaying a panorama of people going about life's normal functions It was another instance of Lumet focusing on common folk being confronted with overpowering reality, in this case living the final seconds of their lives before being eviscerated by nuclear conflagration.
A powerful Lumet film that has been overlooked compared to others was the 1966 Cold War intrigue drama "The Deadly Affair", which was adapted from a novel by British political suspense master John le Carre. James Mason is cast as a Lumet type outsider working in British intelligence.
Mason becomes entangled in an excruciating love triangle in which his wife, played by Swedish performer Harriet Andersson, strays into the arms of a younger longtime intelligence colleague he had mentored, portrayed by German star Maximilian Schell. Mason's visible pain increases as, buoyed by alcohol, he plods on and discovers that Schell has strayed and works for the Soviet Union.
As in the case of Fonda, Lumet found in Mason an evocative presence that fit into his style and used him again in "The Verdict", a compelling 1982 courtroom drama. While most of his films were set in New York City, this time Boston is the backdrop involving a personal injury case pitting outsider Paul Newman, an attorney with an acute alcohol problem seeking a liberating triumph, pitted against courtroom craftsman Mason.
One generation earlier with "12 Angry Men" Lumet confronted the issue of the death penalty amid the search for justice in the case of a young man being tried for murder. In "The Verdict" he showcases legal interest disparities between outsiders and their search for justice in a civil trial setting pitted against powerfully entrenched forces of wealth and privilege.
The film's conclusion involves a jury deciding against the orchestrated machine of Mason and his potent law firm. It was further assisted by trial judge Milo O'Shea, indicted in a judge's chambers verbal assault by Newman as an unsuccessful lawyer chosen by wealthy local interests to do their bidding from the bench.
Mason even reached into his bag of tricks to use a sexy lawyer from his firm, played by Charlotte Rampling, to become romantically involved with Newman and obtain tactical information in the process. At the end of the day his best efforts prove for naught as jurors, unaware of Mason's spy tactic but thirsting to see that justice is done, opt to hold the defendants liable for a larger amount than Newman sought in his complaint.
It was in two Lumet vehicles that another powerful actor, Al Pacino, received an opportunity to stretch his talents to the maximum. The first was the 1973 blockbuster "Serpico". Pacino played an honest New York City policeman whose fellow officers turned on him after he exposed corruption within the department.
The theme of a lone force bucking the tide against powerful forces was quintessential Lumet material. The true life account was based on a bestseller by Peter Maas.
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