Sidney Lumet foreshadows appetite for tasteless TV
By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
By Terry Lawson
Sidney Lumet rarely gets mentioned in the same sentences as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, yet he has made as many great films over the course of almost 50 years. His first great feature movie, 1957's "12 Angry Men," was made after a decade of directing television drama.
His last, "Night Falls on Manhattan," was released in 1997.
But like so many of his contemporaries, Lumet hit his stride in the 1970s, making three back-to-back multiple-Oscar-nominated films: his clever 1974 adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express," 1975's naturalistic "Dog Day Afternoon" and 1976's dark satire "Network." The latter two have been newly upgraded to two-disc DVD special editions (Warner), and coincidentally precede the release of a new Lumet theatrical drama, "Find Me Guilty," opening March 17.
"Dog Day" stars Al Pacino as Sonny, who walks into a New York bank with his timid accomplice (John Cazale) and a friend (Gary Springer) and announces what they assume will be a simple robbery. But things go wrong from the get go, and it soon escalates into a hostage situation.
Local TV news — only recently technologically liberated from the studio and unshackled from taste and restraint — is all over it. As the tension escalates, the media discover titillating information about Sonny and his motivation that makes the story even juicier, and at the same time decreases the chance that things can be peacefully resolved.
"Dog Day Afternoon" was based on an actual event, and took few liberties with the facts of the case. "Network," on the other hand, was written by social satirist Paddy Chayefsky, and it gleefully, if often painfully, exaggerated everything to point out the manipulative, mind-sapping domination of TV. In a performance that would win him a posthumous best actor Oscar, Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a veteran network news anchor who is about to be put out to pasture. He becomes increasingly despondent and unhinged, announcing on the air that he is going to commit suicide.
It shocks the public and delights the network brass, represented by Robert Duvall, who decide to exploit Beale's distress with a callous world. Beale is encouraged to continue his rants on the air in the guise of representing all the free-floating fear and anger of the viewers, prompting his famous war cry, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
News director William Holden balks at the move, and is re-placed by ice-cool Faye Dunaway, who never saw a scruple she didn't sneer at sexily.
A new 86-minute documentary about the film's impact focuses on how what once seemed unthinkable has now become commonplace. (At least one local news anchor did commit suicide on TV, and it's impossible to watch Howard Beale without thinking of Bill O'Reilly and all the other "outraged" commentators. Even the once dignified Lou Dobbs is now mad as hell.)
Lumet also talks about how tasteless and exploitative contemporary television has become. The director's commentary for "Dog Day" focuses more on the production itself, reminding us that among other subtle innovations, it was one of the first films of the era to eschew a traditional score, one of the reasons it is almost documentary-like. Lumet delves deeper into the film's origins in a four-part, one-hour retrospective, which also includes observations from Pacino and other members of the cast (all of whom also praise Cazale, who would soon die of cancer). The original mono soundtracks have been adequately enhanced.
It is a very good week for drama on DVD. Joe Wright's excellent recent adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" (Focus), with Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, is laden with extras, including a featurette on author Jane Austen and another on her fictional Bennet sisters.
"Walk the Line" (Fox), the story of Johnny Cash's tumultuous relationship with future wife June Carter, and starring Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, is issued in a single-disc wide-screen version or a two-disc special edition with bells and whistles. (Fox also has released Cash's inspirational Holy Land tour, "The Gospel Road," on disc).
And the best Masterpiece Theatre presentation in some time, the 15-episode adaptation of "Bleak House," Charles Dickens' tale of a legal injustice that plagues a family for generations, is collected in a three-disc set. (BBC).
'LADY AND THE TRAMP'
Calling Disney's classic "Lady and the Tramp" a family comedy really doesn't do it justice, especially in this elegant new digitally restored two-disc edition, (Disney). Disney says it will be available only for a limited time. It now looks even better than the 1999 remastered version, and while I prefer the enhanced 3.0 remix of the original soundtrack, a 5.1 surround option is included. There are also story reel presentations of two cut and previously unseen scenes, and a version of the famous "The Siamese Cat Song," recorded by male vocalists before Peggy Lee stepped in to purr it the way we remember.