We’re now up to SEVEN annual Winter Marathons! Every year we highlight the career of a single director, and we try (with the possible exception of the inaugural Sergio Leone “Man With No Name” marathon) to draw across a wide range of the director’s career. But this is first marathon where we’ve had the opportunity to not only draw across the entire span of a director’s career, but to cover 50 years in doing it.
Sidney Lumet’s career spanned 51 years – from 1957 to 2007 – and he is one of the rare directors whose first and final films are both worthy of a Winter Marathon feature. Of course, he did quite a bit of good work in his career that we didn’t see here, including Network (previously featured at Cinema 1544), Serpico, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and a total of 43 silver screen titles. But of course we selected from the best and came up with his 1957 debut 12 Angry Men, his seminal 1975 portait of a bank robbery gone wrong in Dog Day Afternoon, and his 2007 final feature, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.
This film is actually an adaptation of a 1954 teleplay of the same name, and aside from very brief scenes at the beginning and end it takes place entirely in the jury room on one hot and sticky summer afternoon. At question is the guilt or innocence of an 18-year-old hispanic man in the stabbing death of his father. The case, as you’ll see, is almost entirely circumstantial.
When the jury retires, the foreman calls for a vote to see where the jury stands. And sure enough, there’s that one guy who votes not guilty. (Would have been a pretty short movie otherwise.) The judge has already made it clear that a guilty verdict will result in the death penalty with no chance of leniency – I’m not sure that’s realistic, but it’s out there. So rather than hang the kid and head out to the baseball game, the jury is forced to sit and talk it over. Gradually, the jury begins to call into question the validity of the evidence that has been presented.
It all starts with the murder weapon. The prosecution proved that the accused had bought a carved-handle switchblade knife just like the murder weapon on the day of the murder. The defendant claimed to have lost it through a hole in his pocket. This is an unlikely enough story, but the prosecution argued the uniqueness of the knife – the one bought by the boy had to be the one in his father’s chest. However, our initial doubtful juror had gone out the night before and found an identical knife for sale in a shop down in the slums, suggesting that perhaps the knife the boy bought was not the one the ended up in his father’s chest.
One by one the pieces of evidence prove a bit shaky. The boy was heard yelling “I’ll kill you!”, but just because one says something like this doesn’t mean they intend to – after some badgering one juror is even prodded into unintentionally shouting out the same phrase. The fact that the boy, who was allegedly at the movies during the commission of the murder, couldn’t remember the names of the features or the stars is minimized by the fact that one juror, not under the same sort of stress, can’t remember the same kind of information from only a few days earlier. The testimony of an elderly man who claimed to have witnessed the boy fleeing the scene is questioned on the basis of whether he could have traversed the distance required in the time frame alleged. And the testimony of a woman who heard and saw the murder occur from a window across the elevated train track is also debated. First, could she have heard it at all, given that an “El” was passing at the time? And second, could she have seen it clearly, given the inference that she might not have been wearing her glasses at the time?
Finally, there are eleven men who have changed their vote to “not guilty” and only one angry man who is holding on.
Until finally even he realizes that he’s vengefully holding out for a guilty verdict simply because he has been hurt by his own son, and he relents. Not Guilty. The End.
It’s a great movie, and it’s one of the rare movies that can be essentially a one-act, one-room play and yet is so well-written that it works on film. But after having seen it about three times, this viewing had me looking at the script in a new light. I always had thought that it was about a jury carefully considering the evidence and finding an innocent man innocent. But the interesting thing is that the screenplay doesn’t actually make it clear that the accused didn’t do it. And despite the fact that each piece of evidence has holes in it, I think the best explanation still is that the kid is guilty. He has motive – his father has beaten him all his life, and they fought again on the day of the murder – and nobody else can be found with motive. The convenient loss of the knife. Two eyewitnesses, however many holes their testimony may have. The weak alibi. I know it’s a fictional scenario, but he probably did it. The film is not about finding an innocent man innocent – if it were, the script would introduce positive evidence of his innocence, but it does not. The film is really about defending the standard of reasonable doubt. It’s about requiring the government to fulfill their burden of proof before giving them the right to bring sentence on an accused. And in this case, the government failed to make a good enough case to eliminate reasonable doubt. 12 Angry Men is a film that the audience walks out of feeling good, but most likely for the wrong reason. It is not the acquittal of the accused that we should rejoice – by all evidence we see he’s probably guilty – but rather the triumph of the justice system, the fact that rules are set up to prevent frivolous convictions and that the citizens in whose hands this justice lies take their roles seriously enough to enforce those rules.
Our second film, from 1975, chronicles (apparently relatively faithfully) the events surrounding a bank robbery in Brooklyn in 1972.
On a summer afternoon, right before closing time, Sonny Wortzik (name changed to protect the guilty) and two associates, Sal and Stevie, set about knocking over a bank. Things go awry basically from the start. The first problem is that Stevie gets cold feet right after the robbery begins. It’s one of those things you probably don’t plan for, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sonny allows Stevie to bail out – but sadly has to tell him to leave the car keys as he and Sal are still going to need a getaway vehicle. Naturally, things only go downhill from here. For one, Sonny had info that an armored car deposit was going to be made into the vault that afternoon – but it wasn’t a deposit, it was a pickup. There’s only $1100 total in the vault.
The bank’s security guard has an asthma attack. Deciding to steal some traveler’s cheques due to the paucity of cash in the vault, Sonny takes the step of burning the traveler’s cheque register in a trash can to prevent the ones he’s stealing from being invalidated – but the fire sends smoke out of the building’s ventilation system, alerting those on the outside that there’s some sort of problem.
And, of course, the police show up in full force and Sonny and Sal are forced to take the bank employees as hostages. This is the point when you give up, because there’s really nothing to be gained. The problem, it turns out, is that while Sonny is a level-headed first-time thief who doesn’t want to hurt anybody, Sal is a psychopath and a recidivist who will do anything to avoid going back to prison.
So the hostage situation drags out to its hopeless conclusion. With the long lull in the action, we do get to see Sonny’s famous “Attica” chant that riles up the onlooking crowd in his favor, and we do get to learn a bit about Sonny’s motivation for committing the robbery in the first place.
Sonny is married, you see…and twice, as it were. In addition to having a not-exactly-estranged (female) wife and kids, Sonny has also been married in a church ceremony to the transvestite Leon. Sonny wants about $7500 so that Leon can have gender reassignment surgery, and that’s the whole point of the day’s events. Sonny makes demand after demand, leading up to a request for a helicopter on the roof as a getaway vehicle. Eventually, Sonny allows an FBI agent to come in and check the hostages, and the agent assesses the situation. He quietly tells Sonny to just be cool, and that the FBI will take care of Sal.
With the police claiming that a helicopter can’t land on the roof, a compromise trip to the airport is arranged, with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages going in a van to the airport where they will board a fueled jet bound for Algeria. This is where the police have a bit of a reverse psychology masterstroke. They disguise an officer as a rental car delivery agent who is merely delivering the van, and then appoint another officer to step in as the driver. Sonny immediately rejects the known officer and insists instead that the delivery guy drive the van – and then outsmarts himself. Suspecting from his manner that the delivery guy is a cop, he thinks he sees the police plan and rejects the disguised cop for the originally-offered uniformed cop. The original cop, of course, knows exactly where the gun is hidden in the armrest of the van. When they get to the airport the driver quickly shoots Sal in the head as Sonny is subdued, and the crisis is over without a single civilian casualty. The End.
Another great film, as is to be expected. The thing that really stood out for me on the second viewing is how absolutely hilarious – nearly slapstick-like – the failures of the bank robbery in the first third of the film are. Sonny truly is inept and on top of that, everything goes wrong. In a crowd, the whole situation elicits its fair share of laughter, which is not exactly what you’d expect from a bank robbery film. And the cast is fantastic. Pacino of course, but to me John Cazale’s turn as Sal is a real standout performance. Cazale had an incredibly bright and tragically short career in film. His first screen role was as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather in 1972 when he was 37. He went on to make The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter before tragically dying of lung cancer in 1978. The last of these films had to have its scenes shot out of order to accommodate his illness – he died before it was completed. Amazingly, each one of the five films that he appeared in was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and three won!), this 5-for-5 being a distinction he shares with no other actor ever.
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
Our final film was also Lumet’s final film before his death in 2011 and marked 50 years of directorial excellence. He opened his last film with a scene that would have been unthinkable when he shot his first film.
It’s Andy Hanson and his wife Gina in a nearly NC-17 sex scene. You know, good for them. Andy’s been having some trouble – most notably the fact that he’s been embezzling from his employer in order to support his heroin addiction. And a high-end, shot-up-in-a-penthouse-overlooking-Manhattan-by-a-male-consort-in-a-kimono kind of heroin addiction at that. But on vacation in Brazil, he can cast his cares away. It’s a good thing, because when he gets back from vacation he learns that his department is about to be audited. And while normally an auditor will look the other way on embezzlement as long as it’s for a good cause, the excess of the whole situation might reduce the amount of sympathy Andy is going to get. If it weren’t for that kimono…
While Andy isn’t completely without a plan, he is completely spineless. His idea is to commit a crime and use the proceeds to escape with Gina to extradition-free Brazil for a lifetime of NC-17 and mirrors. And maybe some heroin, if he can still afford it. But he hasn’t got the stones to carry out the crime himself and as a result he decides to pull his younger brother Hank into the plan. Hank has his own problems, though of far more pedestrian nature. He’s in a rough patch and finds himself a couple months short on child support, that’s all. Oh, and he’s having an affair with Gina. So when his trusted elder cuckold pushes and prods, Hank relents and pinky-swears to carry out a crime the details of which Andy will only inform him after agreeing. They’re going to rob a jewelry store.
Mom and Dad’s jewelry store.
Hank’s alarm bells go off, and he tries to back out, but he pinky-swore and Andy won’t let him. Besides, their parents are insured, they know when there will be just one employee and mom and dad won’t be around, Hank can just use a fake gun, Andy has already set up a fence for the jewels through a former contact of his father’s…it’s foolproof.
The problem with foolproof plans is that fools are so ingenious. Hank, who has only a cubic micrometer more spine than Andy, decides on his own to bring in an accomplice – an experienced thief who decides at the scene that he wants to play it his way. His way involves not only a real gun, but leaving the inexperienced Hank in the getaway car lest he need a change of underwear. Ingenious!
Circumstances are circumstances, and the ones of the day in question involved Hank’s mother unexpectedly staffing the store. And unexpectedly pulling a gun on the thief, who, not being Hank, didn’t know that shooting her would be a bad idea. Hence, the firefight which kills not only the thief, but after a week of life support, Andy and Hank’s mother. And they didn’t even get any jewels!
As if being responsible for his mother’s murder isn’t enough, Andy’s employers won’t stop hassling him to come into work after the results of the audit, Gina leaves him while revealing her affair with Hank, and his father, with whom relations have always been strained, is pushing the police to learn who the dead robber’s accomplice was.
For Hank’s part, the deceased robber’s widow and her brother, seedy underworlders both, are basically blackmailing him for their continued silence on his role in the crime. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the brothers, their father has started doing his own snooping and has run across his old nemesis the fence – who as a completely unscrupulous guy simply hands over Andy’s business card. Dad is onto their treachery and begins following them.
Andy, now in the straits of desperation with the knowledge that Hank is being blackmailed, throws his Hail Mary. Bringing Hank along, he kills and robs his kimono-wearing heroin dealer and sets up a meeting with the blackmailers, ostensibly to pay them off. Of course, he has no intention of doing that as he can’t ensure their silence, so instead he kills the brother and then turns the gun on Hank, revealing that he knows about the affair. Hank, whose life can’t really sink much further than it has, basically asks Andy to go ahead and kill him, but before Andy can get up the gumption to pull the trigger he is shot by the widow. Shouldn’t have ignored her.
Hank gets away, and his fate from this point remains unknown, pitiable as it must be. Andy, not fatally wounded, ends up in the hospital. He apologizes to his dad for everything he did, but his dad smothers him with a pillow anyway. The End.
Lumet decided to present this film with a (very slightly) non-linear narrative. While the timeline bounces about a bit, more towards the beginning of the film than the end, it’s not entirely clear why the nonlinearity was used. It does allow Lumet to put the botched robbery right after the titles which permits flashbacks to clarify what has happened here, but I’m just not sure that a linear narrative would have had any less impact. The nice thing about the narrative switch, however, is that Lumet used a simple technique that I can’t recall anybody using previously to indicate the timeshifts – he froze the picture and then did a flashing frame-by-frame interlace (perhaps two or three frames) with the next scene – three or four flashes and the switch to the new time frame was not only obvious but felt natural.
I hadn’t seen Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead coming in, and I was a bit worried that the “botched robbery” theme was going to overlap a bit with Dog Day Afternoon. Obviously, that really wasn’t the case. One complaint that seems common about this film is that there aren’t any characters that it’s easy to sympathize with. Hank is mildly sympathetic in his own loser way, but Andy truly is one of the more sinister psychopaths of film history. If only he had drawn as much attention to his business card as Partick Bateman…