Tuesday, 19 February 2008


Sidney Lumet has been directing feature films for 50 years, starting with 12 Angry Men (1957). he probably had his greatest success, like many directors at the time, during the "Hollywood Renaissance" of the 1970s: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). He continued making films over the next decades, producing occasional greatness, for example The Verdict (1982) and Running on Empty (1988), along with a great deal of mediocrity. Lumet was never known as much of a stylist, and therefore was never seen as much of an auteur. He was felt to be as good as the material he was given.

However, with his most recent film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Lumet has gotten perhaps the best reviews of his career. Moreover, most of the praise is being heaped on Lumet himself as a filmmaker, as opposed to simply the story and the actors (always a Lumet strength with no exception here). With the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster and with more and more films applying a fast cutting style even in dialogue scenes (what film scholar David Bordwell has dubbed "intensified continuity"), there seems to be a greater critical affinity for films employing a classical style of filmmaking. This helps explain the immense critical success of someone like Clint Eastwood as well as the re-emergence of Lumet as another "old master" of the cinema.

All of this is a preamble to my feeling that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, like some recent Eastwood (for example, Million Dollar Baby) is slightly overrated, especially as an example of great directing. No complaints about the performances here, nor with the non-linear story structure of Kelly Masterson (although the film's last act does not work nearly as well as what comes before). And credit should be given to Lumet for not needlessly cutting the film to pieces and allowing mise-en-scene to play an important role. The problem is that the mise-en-scene is often rather mannered and obvious. One example is the still above, a very self-consciously designed shot that seems to strain for seriousness (to paraphrase Andrew Sarris). Lumet's style is caught between an efficient classical style and an art cinema long take approach, and the result never jelled as well as it could given the strong story and performers. A rather awkward fast cutting approach to signal flashbacks also seemed unnecessary and the work of a director fresh out of film school rather than the confident storyteller Lumet is supposed to be.

The film is available on bootleg DVD here in Seoul, and given its critical acclaim it may show up in art cinemas soon. Despite some reservations, a film worth seeing, but not the masterpiece some are claiming.

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