Saying Goodbye to One of the Best: Sidney Lumet

9 04 2011

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet, one of my favorite film directors, passed away today at the age of 86 from Lymphoma.  Looking through his repertoire of films is like looking through a must-see list of movies over the past 50 years.

Lumet, who was born in Philadelphia, Penn. on June 25, 1924, began his career as an actor in the theatre.  He quickly moved to directing and eventually settled into directing early television productions.  One of his most famous films as a television director is his amazing adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  Centered around a dissenting jury in a murder trail, the film has amazing performances by all the cast, headed by Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.  It easily ranks as one of the best films of the 1950s and is ranked number 87 on the AFI’s Top 100 movies list.

Moving out of television work and into feature films in the 1960s, Lumet had successes with the stark drama The Pawnbroker and the cold war thriller Fail-Safe with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.  In the 1970s, Lumet produced what I consider some of his best films, including: Serpico with Al Pacino, Murder on the Orient Express based on the Agatha Christie novel, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Equus. All of these films rank high among the best pictures of the decade and Network makes an appearance on the AFI Top 100 list as well at number 66.  Other films from Lumet’s extraordinary career include Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running on Empty and his latest film at age 82, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

In 1996, Lumet released his memoir entitled Making Movies. In addition to being a memoir of his life experiences, it also chronicles his ideas and techniques in making motion pictures, making it one of the best sources for aspiring filmmakers to understand the art of the director.  My friend and fellow filmmaker, Dan A. R. Kelly, loaned me his copy of this book a few years ago and I was engrossed in it from beginning to end.  If you ever plan to go into filmmaking, especially as a director, then this is a great book to start with to understand the process and scope of what goes into making a good motion picture.

Lumet was nominated for five Academy Awards in competitive categories, but never won; he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.  Lumet’s ability to command performances and take on vastly different subject matters in each of his pictures are evident in his body of work.  Few director’s have such an impressive career that spans nearly 50 years.  It saddens me greatly to know that I will never have the opportunity to see a new Lumet film come out, but the films he has left us with are testament to his legacy as a filmmaker.


Directors who Started in Other Departments – PART II

25 03 2011

As we move into the second part of this series, we will focus on directors who originally started as cinematographers.  The focus again will be prominent directors who were prominent cinematographers, which excludes one-timers like Christopher Nolan on Following or Gordon Willis’s one foray into directing with 1980’s Windows. Being a cinematographer first and foremost and having recently directed a short of my own, this entry in the series will be the closest to home for me.  As one of the more well known cinematographer-turn-directors, Nicholas Roeg, quoted about directing, “And later I thought, I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography.”

The Cinematographers:

Nicholas Roeg (1928- ) – Roeg began his career in the early 1950s as a clapper-boy, quickly moving up to camera operator by the end of the decade.  In the early 1960s, he continued to work as a camera operator and also had the opportunity to shoot 2nd unit photography on David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia under head DP Freddie Young.  He moved into the role of cinematographer during the 1960s as well, shooting such stark classics as The Masque of the Red Death and Farenheit 451, as well as lighter material such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His first film as a director came in 1971 with his breakthrough debut Walkabout, a film he also took a cinematography credit on.  His directing career would continue with my personal favorite of his Don’t Look Now, the eerily surreal Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie and Insignificance. After the mid-1980s, his output became more sporadic though he has continued to make films as a director, his latest being in 2007.

Andrzej Bartkowiak (1950 – ) – Bartkowiak trained at the esteemed Polish Film School in Lodz, Poland where many well-known Polish and international directors and cinematographers train.  He immigrated to the United States in 1972 and began working in commercials before working on his first feature as a cinematographer, Deadly Hero. His real recognition, however, came in a series of films he shot with one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet.  Bartkowiak’s first film with Lumet was the dark cop tale Prince of the City, and followed this with Deathtrap, The Verdict and Daniel with Lumet.  Other notable films as a cinematographer include Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Twins and The Devil’s Advocate. Bartkowiak moved into directing with Romeo Must Die; his following films as director have all been in the action film genre.  He spent the entire decade of the 2000s directing, though it looks like he is moving back into the cinematographer’s seat for the upcoming Joel Schumacher film Trespass.

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) – Cardiff is, in my opinion, one of the best cinematographers who has ever lived.  His work in early Technicolor is astounding and his ability to manipulate hues to fit the perfect mood for the story is astounding.  Cardiff began his career as a clapper-boy (in the camera department at least, he originally began as a child actor) and moved into being a camera operator a few years later.  His work as operator on Pressburger and Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, led to a relationship with the two directors that would later allow him to be the cinematographer on two of their best known films, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He won an Academy Award for the former.  Following Oscar nominations included War and Peace in 1956 and Fanny in 1961.  His first feature as a director was Intent to Kill in 1958; his most well known feature, however, was Sons and Lovers in 1960.  Sons and Lovers was nominated for seven Academy Awards including a nomination for Cardiff as director.  Coincidentally enough, fellow cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis shot Sons and Lovers and received his first of two Academy Awards for it.   Cardiff continued to direct intermittently into the 1970s, but it seems his true passion was his first love of cinematography; this he continued to do into his 90s with shorts and documentary subjects.

Ernest Dickerson (1951- ) – Dickerson began his career shooting music videos and, as a cinematographer, is probably best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee on such films as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. The same year he shot Malcolm X, he began his career as a director with the film Juice. After several features in the 1990s, Dickerson as has gone on to become a prolific television director.  His television directing credits include episodes of E.R., Heroes, The Wire, Weeds, Burn Notice, Dexter and The Walking Dead, among many others.

Freddie Francis (1917-2007) – Francis spent a short time as a camera assistant in the 1940s before becoming a camera operator and operating through the mid-1950s.  At this point, he began his career as a cinematographer and would go on to win an Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers in 1960 for Best Black-and-White Cinematography.  Following his win, he only shot a few more films before moving into directing with 1960’s Two and Two Make Six. Though most of his directing career was limited to horror and low-budget features, Francis said in an interview, “I got a lot of fun out of being a cameraman, but obviously directing is more interesting. One thing wrong with being a cameraman in Britain is that from the financial point of view you have to keep working all the time and you often have to work with people whose work, frankly, doesn’t excite you. When I got the opportunity to direct I decided to try it and if I wasn’t excited with what I did, well, that would be my own problem and no one else’s. But basically I love making films. If someone asked me now to photograph a film I still would.” (1976).  Interestingly enough, he did return to cinematography in 1980 with the popular film The Elephant Man. This return to cinematography must have revitalized his interest greatly as he continued to shoot films from then until his final feature Straight Story in 1999.  In his second wave as a DP, he would win another Academy Award almost 30 years after his first for the 1989 film Glory.

Ronald Neame (1911-2010) – Neame’s credits as a cinematographer were fairly extensive through the 1930s with Happy until the mid-1940s with David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. His directorial career began in 1947 with Take My Life. He continued his varied career as a director until the short The Magic Balloon in 1990.  His most known films as a director include 1960s Tunes of Glory (his personal favorite film of his own), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scrooge and The Poseidon Adventure. Over his career he received three Oscar nominations which, oddly enough, were not for cinematography or direction; they were two for writing and one for special effects.

Barry Sonnenfeld (1953- ) – Sonnenfeld is probably best known, in cinematography at least, as being the Coen Brothers’ first regular DP before their longtime collaboration with British Cinematographer Roger Deakins.  His credits with the Coens included their debut Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing; other notable credits as a cinematographer are When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and Big. He moved into directing in the early 1990s with the first Addams Family movie and continued with the sequel, Get Shorty and both Men in Black films, among others.  He also dabbled in television with the creation and an Emmy award for the television show Pushing Daisies.

There are certainly other cinematographers who moved into direction from shooting, but none so with the success of these listed.  An honorable mention for this category can be Steven Soderbergh who shoots many of his own films under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”.  However, I have never been a huge fan of Soderbergh’s personally shot movies and being that he didn’t actually begin as a cinematographer, I can’t add him to the main list.  Another honorable (much more so than Soderbergh) mention is Stanley Kubrick who began as a stills photographer for such magazines as Look! in the 1950s and shot his first film Fear and Desire.  Rumor has it Kubrick was also largely responsible for shooting Spartacus after not agreeing with Director of Photography Russell Metty on the look of the film.  As an interesting side note, Metty won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for Spartacus.

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