Serpico was the first Sidney Lumet film I saw in a movie theater. It was also the first film to make me cry. The scene that got me was the one towards the end where the title character (in an Al Pacino peak) lies in a hospital bed, a bullet hole in face, the result of a movie-long struggle to expose corruption in the New York City Police department—his superiors are trying to give him his detective’s shield, which Pacino swats away as if it were a nest of maggots.
Lumet’s best films had that effect: no viewer could watch Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City or The Verdict without feeling the empathic disquiet that pervaded stories whose resolutions were always less that satisfying. Morality was his subject, and he never let us off the hook: the limits, the difficulty of doing the right thing was something Lumet conveyed so trenchantly that we in the audience paused to question our own compasses. Some of the best performances ever committed to film were guided by Lumet: Brando, Magnani, Katherine Hepburn, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, Treat Williams and the Oscar-winning trio from Network: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight. But even the bits were done to perfection: Lindsay Crouse (in The Verdict and Prince of the City), Ned Beatty (Network), Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon) and everybody in Murder on the Orient Express shone onscreen as they’ve rarely done before, or since.
Despite 5 nominations, Lumet was perhaps the most accomplished director never to win an Oscar, which illustrates the true value of such things. RIP, and thanks.
Retrospective: Check out one of his last print interviews here.