Veteran director Sidney Lumet, best known for the Al Pacino-starring 1970s classics Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, has had a rather hit-and-miss time of it in his six decades-long career. Starting out at the dawn of the television era, he made his impressive feature film directorial debut – gaining himself the first of five Oscar nominations in the process – in 1957’s superb courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, before going on to helm the varied but much-loved likes of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Fail-Safe (1964), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Network (1976). Then he fell into a bit of a rut in the 1980s and 90s.
At the age of 83, and two years after being awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, you’d think Lumet would be happy to sit back and relax, gazing back over a career containing plenty to be proud of. But this is a man who’s made more than 50 films during his lifetime and a director keen to leave us all wanting more. He’s not about to retire any time soon – not until mortality gets in the way at any rate.
If Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ends up as Lumet’s last movie – which is by no means certain, as he’s already got another planned for a 2009 release – there could be no more fitting bookend to his career. He’s given us some of the finest films of the last half century.
At this film’s core are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two down-on-their-luck brothers, desperately in need of money. To get out of their credit crisis, the straight-laced and law-abiding pair opt for a drastic measure – a jewellery store robbery that they both think should end up the perfect, victimless crime. With pitch-perfect performances from all involved, including from Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s exasperated wife and the decidedly variable Hawke; this is classic, quality filmmaking, up there with Lumet’s best.
This powerful, character-driven thriller may have a stylish modern touch, but in substance it’s a definite nod back to Lumet’s 1970s heyday. Even the plot could initially seem familiar, as two unlikely robbers soon find that their carefully-planned heist has gone as wrong as it could do, much like Dog Day Afternoon. Chuck in Albert Finney, star of Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express more than 30 years ago, as one of the many impressive co-stars, and it’s hard not to get the impression that this is Lumet’s deliberate attempt to thwart the old assumption that when someone wins a Lifetime Achievement award, it means their career is well and truly over.
It’s hard not to feel that Lumet has gone all out for this latest effort to prove that he’s still got it in him. It’s an attempt that’s been tried numerous times by former big names whose reputations have suffered from a series of duds – most recently by Sylvester Stallone with his revivals of his iconic Rocky and Rambo characters – and more often than not, it fails. But this is one of the all-time Hollywood greats we’re talking about, a director whose name has been mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. So it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of warm satisfaction that Lumet’s managed to pull it off with aplomb. A fitting end to a fine career – albeit one that may not be over just yet, if Lumet has anything to say about it.