There are directors that one follows with slavering abandon; and there are directors that one sometimes forgets about, but every time you see one of his films, it’s a reminder of just how fantastic they were, time and again. For me, Sidney Lumet was the latter kind: I don’t know that I’ve ever once sought out a film specifically because he made it, but spending the afternoon perusing the late master’s filmography, I’m stunned to once again remember how many great works he made in his 50 years as a feature film director (on top of a hugely prolific stint on television), producing some of the finest crime dramas of his generation and pulling one outstanding performance after another from his top-notch casts. At a minimum, he made what I’d consider two stone-cold masterpieces in 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and right off the top of my head, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network are all completely essential works of American cinema. To say nothing of the several major films he made that I haven’t seen; it’s always sad to lose an icon, but there’s no denying that he had a long, well-stuffed career and a laundry list of accomplishments that would be the pride of any artist.
The math works out, but I was still shocked to learn he was 86. His last film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, feels much too energetic and bold to be the work of an 82-year-old, but I suppose that’s the difference between a great director and the rest of us: remaining smart and inventive to the end. We don’t have many of these solid, thoughtful craftsmen of the old school left; Lumet and his effortless ability to tell great stories with a clear, bold visual style will be sorely missed.