Sidney Lumet is no one’s idea of an auteur. “Lumet’s direction is efficiently vehicular but pleasantly impersonal,” Andrew Sarris decreed back in 1968, consigning the prolific Lumet to the limbo of “Strained Seriousness.”
Actually, no one is quite sure what to make of the 83-year-old director’s oeuvre. Film Forum’s three-week retrospective, “Lumet,” samples several strains. There’s the maker of middlebrow “mad as hell” blockbusters like Serpico (1973) and Network (1975), which kicks off the series in a new 35mm print. There’s the somber man of the theater, adapting A View From the Bridge (1962), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), and The Sea Gull (1968)—and pairing Marlon Brando with Anna Magnani to self-canceling effect in The Fugitive Kind (1959), from Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending.
The genre schlockmeister is represented by The Anderson Tapes (1971) and The Offence (1973)—both with Sean Connery, who gets to work both sides of the law—as well as Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Lumet’s Euro-art aspirations are present in Fail-Safe (1964), a nuclear-disaster flick with intimations of Antonioni, and The Pawnbroker (1965), which has been dissed as “Last Year at Auschwitz.” These days, Lumet is most appreciated for his New York City films, most notably Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and the crime-commission epic Prince of the City (1983); I have a particular fondness for those that seem to draw on Lumet’s roots in Yiddish theater, even when they’re based on Jewish novels, namely the comic Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and the tragic Daniel (1983). The retro includes Dudley Murphy’s 1939 One Third of Nation, in which the teenage Sidney plays kid nephew to slum goddess Sylvia Sidney; the man himself will make a personal appearance on February 11, in between screenings of Network. February 8 through 28, Film Forum.
Also: One of the most unusual careers in American movies began with a student movie that’s now generally considered a classic. Before Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep was revived last year, his lone critical success was the 1990 To Sleep With Anger, in which Danny Glover’s larger-than-life down-home trickster installs himself at the center of an uneasily middle-class Watts family. Anthology Film Archives’ week-long retrospective, “The Films of Charles Burnett,” includes both of these, as well as two of the thoughtful, formally inventive historical dramas that Burnett has made in the long stretch between features.
Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003) was originally shown as part of PBS’s series The Blues, and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) is a movie about making a movie about the leader of America’s best-known slave rebellion. The unique trajectory of Burnett’s career has resulted in the release of his second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1982), in a completed form. That’s also showing, along with Burnett’s lone commercial feature, The Glass Shield (1994). Miramax cut and dumped this unconventional policier a dozen years ago—perhaps Burnett’s new visibility will prompt the studio to release the original version. February 8 through 14, Anthology Film Archives.