Films rarely vanish as abruptly as Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, a courtroom thriller made with top talent, but one which somehow failed to connect. Lumet is, of course, the director of classics like 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and his return to court must have been widely anticipated, particularly as his subject was the longest court-case in US history, involving a crowd of men accused of having mob connections. Throw in a hot new star, Vin Diesel, sporting a lustrous head of hair, and rising star Peter Dinklage, and you’ve got the ingredients of a classic. But Lumet is a talent who has no interest in repeating himself, and the true story of Jackie DiNorscio is told in a serio-comic fashion that reviewers and audiences didn’t get. The opening credits are at pains to emphasise that the court scenes are based on the actual transcripts; if true, then DiNorscio (Diesel) made a mockery of proceedings. Either way, Diesel is fantastic here as a wide-boy who deals with being ostracised by friends and family, but triumph through his own sense of himself. If you only know this actor through his Fast and Furious/XXX characters, Find Me Guilty shows there’s much more gas in the tank.
Albert Finney was an unlikely choice to play diminutive Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for Sidney Lumet’s 1974 all-star re-enactment of Agatha Christie’s famous who-dunnit, but he makes a decent fist of the role in the heavily-padded style of Brando in The Godfather. Paul Dehn’s screenplay features the murder of Richard Widmark’s Ratchett played out over and over again, allowing each of the stars to been seen holding the knife. Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Rachel Roberts and Jacqueline Bisset are amongst the suspects, and the resolution is strongly delivered through a lengthy exposition by Poirot. Lumet handles his cast well, and Richard Rodney Bennett contributes a notable score; while the mystery isn’t hard to solve, the trappings on this murder mystery make it worth returning to; even Agatha Christie was happy with the result.
Way ahead of its time in terms of disaffection with the media, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 drama is still frequently referenced today; the character of Howard Beale, weatherman turned prophet, has come to stand as a symbol of social anger about the way television in particular can distort and suppress public thought. Played by Peter Finch, Beale is a force of nature, wigging out on air and challenging authorities to stop his messianic message of revolution. Paddy Chayefsky’s knowing script also takes the time to establish firmly what Beale is rebelling against; Faye Dunaway and William Holden do great, if less iconic work as the network execs who try to figure out how best to control and exploit Beale’s sudden popularity. Inspired by a real on-air tragedy, network is a monumental film in the history of media self-analysis.
Sidney Lumet was a master of many genres, from thrillers (Serpico, Q & A) to courtroom procedurals (Twelve Angry Men, The Verdict), and seems to have been the go-to guy for theatrical adaptations (Death Trap). Marlon Brando dropped out of this adaptation of Robert Marasco’s Broadway hit, to be replaced by Music Man star Robert Preston. He plays Joseph Dobbs, a teacher at a boys school who clashes with weak-willed Latin teacher Jerome Malley (James Mason), with Paul (Beau Bridges) as the sporty young American teacher who gets caught in the crossfire. Lumet conjures up a sharp picture of the potential for cruel rivalry in the private-school world, aided by meaty work from Mason, Preston and Bridges. Brando had The Godfather instead; in a career littered by bad films, it’s a shame he had to chose between two good ones.
Sidney Lumet’s last few decades were disappointing in view of the consistently excellent quality of his heyday, from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, but his final feature marked a impressive return to form. In a role that takes on uncomfortable resonance since his 2014 death, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a drug-fuelled real-estate exec whose marriage is on the rocks, and who convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help rob his father’s jewelry store. When the heist goes wrong, Charles (Albert Finney) is compelled to investigate the behavior of his own children, and discovers that Hank is having an affair with Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei). An absorbing crime drama with great performances from a distinguished cast, Hoffman, Finney and Hawke are all at their best, while Tomei excels in a memorable if short appearance.
John Le Carre’s super-spy George Smiley gets a second outing after The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but gets rechristened as Charles Dobbs due to copyright complications in Sidney Lumet’s film. Played by James Mason, Dobbs puts aside his marital discord with Ann (Harriet Andersson) to investigate the apparent suicide of a government employee. Dobbs questions Elsa (Simon Signoret) with the help of Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), but she doesn’t give much away, and the reappearance of Dobb’s old espionage mate Dieter (Maximilian Schell) suggests the problem is close to home. Although the names may have been changed, Lumet’s film nails the drab surroundings and elliptical dialogue for the future George Smiley adaptations, although the funky Quincy Jones score is a bit groovier than the sophisticated story-telling requires.
As part of his deal to star in Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery managed to get Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of John Hopkins play off the ground, and it showcases arguably a career best performance from the Fountainbridge milkman turned actor. As driven policeman Jonson, Connery gives a powerhouse portrait of obsession as he questions suspected child-molester (Ian Bannen) under the watch of Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard). The offence has an intense conceit, and plays cleverly with notions of guilt, and the coverage of the pedophilia plot is sensible and responsible. Bannen and Connery’s game of cat-and-mouse is beautifully played, and while undeniably talky, The Offence is a treat for lovers of thoughtful, meaty cinema.
Peter Shaffer’s play has been successfully revived with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in the lead; in 1977, it was Peter Firth who played Alan Strang, the disturbed boy who comes under scrutiny for blinding several horses. Richard Burton brings all his weight to Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist investigating, delivering straight-to-camera monologues with genuine gravity. How accurately Equus deals with mental health issues is up for debate, but what’s on screen in undeniably compelling, with Sidney Lumet making the best of unfamiliar UK locations and Jenny Agutter excellent is a crucial role.
Ira Levin’s hot Broadway play is transferred intact to the screen under the careful supervision of the meticulous Sidney Lumet. Michael Caine plays Sidney Bruel, the jaded author who meets an aspiring writer Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) who has written a great play. The presence of an armoury of weapons on the walls gives some idea where the verbal sparring will end. Rivalry and jealousy are under the surface, making Death Trap an ideal companion to 1972’s Sleuth. Dyan Cannon is the worldly wife, and the close-quarters sparring is always fun to watch. The conceit may be theatrical, but the playing is a joy.
Anne Hathaway cemented her reputation as a top-drawer actress with Jonathan Demme’s sensitive but eventually explosive drama about Kym, a troubled woman returning home from rehab for her sisters wedding. Conflict with the family is smartly captured, but it’s the disapproving presence of his mother (Terms of Endearment’s Debra Winger) that brings things to boiling point. Hathaway and Winger are both powerhouse performers, and when things get physical, there’s an emotionally lacerating catfight on the cards. Demme displays a rare sensitivity to Kym’s feelings, and the lengthy scene in which she struggles to fit in as the self-congratulatory wedding speeches commence pays off with final act fireworks that illuminate the screen. Written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of director Sydney.