Tag: sidney lumet


Serpico (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ever since Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) was a child, he has wanted to be a cop. Fresh out of the academy, he is ready to begin his career in New York City, but he quickly discovers that what he envisions does not match the realities of being a cop. It seems that wherever he turns, cops are taking bribes from crooks. Haunted by the corruption being committed by his colleagues, he turns to his superiors (Biff McGuire, Charles White) who promise action but end up ignoring his claims. When his life is threatened by his angry co-workers, Serpico feels he has no choice but to go public.

Based on the book by Peter Mass, I was not won over by “Serpico” right away because it plays upon the hoary template of a good cop going through endless frustrations and anxieties as he tries to battle bad guys in order to set things right. I wondered at the point the picture is trying to get across. Does he strive to set things straight for the good of the common people or are the changes he wishes to see an attempt to match his adulthood realities with his childhood fantasies?

In its early stages, Sidney Lumet’s picture goes on seemingly desultory directions: some scenes are dedicated to Serpico’s experience with crooked cops and others involve Serpico meeting Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), a woman who just might be the love of his life. This bears mixed results. While the workplace and home life angles are interesting once in a while, they are almost never fascinating at the same time.

The romance did not do much for me; if it were taken out completely, the meat of the film—the conflict occurring in the workplace—would have been much leaner and more focused. A sense of immediacy and calamity within the police force would have been magnified if scenarios of the couple supporting each other and arguing were not there. It is clear that the weaker leg prevents the story from catapulting forward in a more consistent manner.

However, Pacino’s performance is so intense, he demands that we pay attention. Although the protagonist’s definition of what is right or wrong does not waver, there is an arc to the character—divorced from the kinds of facial hair he has at a particular point in time. As we have likely to have seen way too many times, movies with weaker and laughable screenplays would have relied on physical characteristics to create some semblance of an arc—shameless in trying to trick us with a sham journey.

Here, we feel the desperation in Pacino’s eyes and though his way of speaking when no one appears to be willing to listen. What matters most to just about everyone Serpico encounters is the money being accrued in one’s pocket. And when someone chooses to listen, like the well-connected Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) and Inspector Lombardo (Edward Grover), I found myself being very suspicious of them. We take on the way our lead character evaluates a situation.

The screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, which is based on a true story, takes advantage of the idea that, in real life, it is often very difficult, at times almost impossible, to discern between good guys from bad guys. A corrupt person in power might be holding a gold badge or a fancy title next to his last name, but no one can truly know what he or she will be willing to do in order to maintain the status quo or subvert it.

I realized that my suspicion toward well-meaning characters is a testament that I cared about Serpico’s mission even though some of the driving forces behind his motivations are not entirely clear. I wanted to see him get out alive and the venal individuals to get indicted for their crimes.

Running on Empty

Running on Empty (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During the Vietnam War, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) bombed a military research facility that created napalm. They believed that by the time the bomb had exploded, the facility was empty. However, there was a janitor inside and he ended up blind and paralyzed. Annie and Arthur, with their two-year-old son, Danny, go on the run from the FBI. Sixteen years later, they are still fugitives, now a family of four, and have recently moved to New Jersey with new identities.

Written by Naomi Foner and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Running on Empty” is a coming-of-age film with plenty to say about family and responsibility–responsibility to each other and with oneself. It is an effective drama because the family, whose members genuinely love one another but are constantly on edge unmitigated by their unique situation, is on the verge of a potential separation for the sake a young man’s future.

Danny (River Phoenix) has an aptitude for music. After playing a piece on the piano for his music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is so impressed, he books his student an audition in Juilliard. And they want him. But there is a problem. Since the Pope family, known as the Manfields in New Jersey, has moved so often and had to change their names each time, Danny has no school record which is required for his admission.

The film is not blind to its characters’ realities and they are written smart. No judgment is placed on Annie and Arthur either as activists or radicals. They feel bad about the fact that they have ruined a man’s life because of their beliefs but their decision to bomb the research center is not given some sort of pat justification so we can root for them or like them more. Instead, the screenplay focuses on the home and how their bombing continues to change their children’s lives–oftentimes for the worse.

Annie and Arthur struggle to be good parents, taking whatever jobs they can, while keeping in mind that stability is something that they can never provide for their children. As a family, they must adapt quickly with the changes or risk going to jail. Sometimes it is scary, like how Danny and his little brother (Jonas Abry) attempt to evade the FBI in the beginning of the film and meet their parents at a designated spot if they happen to get compromised. And since it is a drama, there is no glamour in people constantly running from the law as, for example, what we expect from an action-thriller. The focus is on the pain in the attachments formed under threat of being broken in a moment’s notice.

A major subplot involves Danny falling for his music teacher’s plucky daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), who has dreams of becoming a writer in New York City. She talks about her hopes for the future, going to college, and everything she is excited to accomplish. Danny listens in silence, head down, knowing that he, as long as he stays with his family, cannot share any of it with her. Nor does he have a chance of forging his own path. There is sadness there because, in a way, he has to choose between his family and his future.

The most moving scene is of Annie meeting her father (Steven Hill) in a French restaurant to ask if he might consider taking Danny so he can have a shot in leading a normal life. They have not seen each other in fourteen years. It is very moving because the reunion works as a foreshadowing in what Annie and Danny might end up having–secret meetings, unable to see each other for a very long time–if her father were to accept.

“Running on Empty” is elegant in construction plot-wise, the way it executes simple scenes, and the manner in which it highlights important yet understated emotions. Notice the scene when Danny and Lorna are at the beach. Lorna’s body tends to stay in one place, but Danny cannot help but lead them forward. With him, there is almost a subconscious discomfort in settling down.


Fail-Safe (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When a group of American bombers, led by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), received a false transmission that they were to obliterate Moscow, leaders from the Strategic Air Command, like General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a scientist (Walter Matthau), and the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) struggled to come up with ways to avoid World War III with the Soviet Union. Based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail-Safe” was a gripping exercise in what soldiers and politicians were forced to do to delay a war when they could no longer stop it. Under Sidney Lumet’s focused and assured direction, the film successfully highlighted the fears of three groups of men confined in one place. All three were fascinating but I found the room where the president, with the help of his interpreter (Larry Hagman), tried to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union to be most sublime. The conversation occurred via telephone but from the minute the president picked up the telephone and a voice from the other line answered, it felt like watching two leaders looking intensely into each other’s eyes and weighing whether to trust the words they heard through a machine. After all, the president warned his translator to be very wary of certain intonations of the Premier’s voice. He could be saying one thing with words but the fluctuations in his voice could mean something else entirely. So I inched toward the screen and listened closely. I had a laugh at myself for realizing a couple of seconds later that I didn’t speak or understand Russian. Fonda was excellent in the role because the air of confidence he carried around with him, combined with his character’s intelligence, made us hope and believe that the mistake’s repercussions had a chance to be circumvented. I also admired Matthau’s turn as the scientist with extreme ideas. I didn’t always agree with his negative vision of society, applicable just to Americans or otherwise, but his sharp insight was undeniable. The film asked a lot of questions about responsibility in terms of human or mechanical error. If the transmission was a simple mechanical error with disastrous consequences, in technical terms, wasn’t it still considered human error because we were the ones who designed (and ultimately relied on) the machines? What I loved was the material didn’t get stuck on who or what to blame. Tragedy was embedded in the images of planes falling from the sky and the fear reflected in the soldiers’ eyes as they obeyed commands that they knew would lead to their deaths. “Fail-Safe,” purposefully claustrophobic so we were forced to look inwards, is more relevant than ever with our reliance in technology and the seeming lack of accountability just because we can hide behind clever inventions and foolish notions of anonymity.


Deathtrap (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) had a dark ideation. Once a successful playwright but now struggling to keep up with his reputation due to his recent flops, he came across a manuscript written by one of his former students named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Sidney invited unsuspecting Clifford to visit his home in order to offer some advice to make the play better, murder him, and pass Clifford’s work as his own. Sidney’s wife (Dyan Cannon) had heart problems in the past but she reluctantly went along with her husband’s devious plan. It took a bit of time for me to get into this film. At first I thought the plot didn’t quite know how to move forward. I also had some problems with its tone. Did it want to be funny or thrilling or both? I wondered, could it have its cake and eat it, too? I also found the acting a bit amateurish, especially Cannon. I was aware that the picture was based on a play written by Ira Levin but her acting felt stuck in that medium. I thought she was annoying, whiny and needy–a damsel-in-distress who stuck by her husband for no good reason. However, after about forty minutes, it gained its footing and the material showed me it had intelligence. Very unexpected twists upon twists were abound but what I liked best about it was it felt like a play but it gained enough power to work in a cinematic medium. The tension became so high to the point where the exaggerations almost felt necessary. Caine impressed me because I’m used to watching him play quieter characters that are almost grandfather-like and humble. It was a breath of fresh air to see him so bitter, so angry, so flawed. His character caught my attention because it was the kind of character that valued his reputation more than anything else. He talked of sociopaths which made me wonder if he was projecting his own characteristics onto someone else. Sidney Lumet, the director, astutely used mood as a weapon to surprise the audiences. At times watching the film was like reading a novel. Just when I thought the picture was over because the mood was reaching a serene plateau, it suddenly came to life and delivered shocking punches. In less experienced hands, it might have felt too contrived or forced. Lumet’s direction certainly helped the sudden shifts in mood to feel as natural as possible. “Deathtrap” did not start off with flying colors but it is difficult to deny that it was a sublime murder mystery once it found a connection with its core. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow but compelling thrillers should eat this one up like candy.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with great logic and acumen. In 1930, a little girl was kidnapped and later murdered in cold blood. Five years later, the murderer boarded a train and was later found dead. Since the train was stuck due to weather, the police couldn’t get to the train. It was then up to detective Poirot to figure out who killed the murderer. (I love the irony.) Aboard the train with him and the murderer were twelve other people (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Michael York) who came from different backgrounds and had unique personalities. The question is, which one or which ones of them did it? I had a lot of fun with this movie even though I found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters. The dialogue was electric; I loved the way Finney used different tactics of interrogation that matched a character’s type of personality. For the longest time, I had no idea who to suspect but even after the mystery was revealed, I still found myself shocked with who committed the crime. However, I have to say that this movie is not for everyone. Although it is essentially a mystery picture, it is very heavy on the dialogue (the main reason why I loved it) and the whole movie consisted of characters being stuck on a train. The movie also started off pretty slow because it took about thirty minutes to introduce all of the important characters. But I think with a little bit of patience and really paying attention to what was happening, people would find this movie worth their time. “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, has a wonderful supporting cast that fascinated me from beginning to end. The big names involved in this project really lived up to their reputation because they were able to inject complexity and dimension to their characters even though they didn’t get much screen time as opposed to, say, when they were asked to carry an entire film. This film had nice twists dispersed throughout so it was never boring once the viewer gets accustomed to its style. For a two-hour film and having more than a dozen crucial characters, the pacing was efficient. I wish there are more modern whodunit films are being released in cinemas these days because I’m just a sucker for them (it probably explains why obsession with board games like “Clue”).

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This film was not difficult for me to love at all because it was able to focus on a number of very distinct individuals in one room and really pick apart their own moralities as well as our own… in about an hour and thirty minutes. If that isn’t filmmaking at its highest level, I don’t know what is. Directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” was about an eighteen year-old boy who was accused of stabbing is own father to death, now on trial to be put in the electric chair, and how one juror (Henry Fonda) out of the twelve (Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber) decided to stand up for what he believed to be right–that is, that a person’s life should not be taken lightly, especially when that decision is in our hands. I thought it was fascinating that although we didn’t know the names of the jurors and we didn’t observe each of them in their respective homes, we learned a great deal about them with the way they argued their point of views regarding the case, how they argued against each other whether it was about the case or not, and how they looked into themselves when a really good point was brought up. Anyone who loves hearing great dialogues in cinema would immediately be interested in this film because it was pretty much like dropping in on a real jury who was deliberating behind the courtroom. Nobody is perfect and the arguments are strong yet they each had their flaws–but that complexity is what I found to be the most beautiful and engaging. This is the kind of film that is timeless because most people today absolutely hate it when they would be chosen to participate in jury duty and they would do anything to get out of it. (Sometimes including myself if I have class or a prior crucial commitment, but there’s a tiny part in me who is very interested on how it’s really like to be a part of the jury.) Although made in 1957, those eleven men are not at all different from people today because everyone has their own problems to face and responsibilities fulfilll; worrying about another person’s life who they consider as less important was the last thing on their minds. As the men tried to sort out the details of the crime, we really come to realize the power and the importance of reasonable doubt. Even if one is not interested in the justice system, this is a fascinating classic film about morals, ethics and what it means to live in a democratic society, the latter of which we most of the time take for granted. If I was ever on trial, I would want to show this movie to the jury before they make their decision.