'Dog Day' Director Lumet Focused On The Little Guy

Gritty streets, cops and human drama dominated many of the films of director Sidney Lumet. Network, 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict are all instantly recognizable and socially relevant to their time. Lumet died Saturday at 86.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The award-winning director Sidney Lumet died yesterday. His legacy is an iconic list of film classics, including "Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico" and "12 Angry Men." NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES: The thing about Lumet's movies is how they hit you right in the gut. His protagonists tended to be isolated men who fought against an institution or a group, and they had to follow their intuition to find their solutions.

Take his first film, "12 Angry Men." This 1957 movie took place in a jury room as one man convinced 11 others not to convict an innocent man of murder. Here's Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda, in a scene where Cobb is the last holdout for a guilty verdict.

(Soundbite of movie, "12 Angry Men")

Mr. LEE J. COBB (Actor): (as Juror Number 3) What do you want? I say he's guilty.

Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (as Juror Number 8) We want to hear your arguments.

Mr. COBB: (as Juror Number 3) I gave you my arguments.

Mr. FONDA: (as Juror Number 8) We're not convinced.

Mr. SIDNEY LUMET (Late Director): It was a complete accident, completely lucky.

KEYES: Lumet told NPR's Bob Edwards in 1995 he never expected the film, shot in just 20 days, to become such a classic.

Mr. LUMET: I never knew that shooting 12 guys in a room would be considered a tour de force, a directorial tour de force.

KEYES: But many of Lumet's movies rose to that level, according to critics. He got his first Oscar nomination for "12 Angry Men" and was nominated for "Dog Day Afternoon" and for "Network," with its iconic line:

(Soundbite of movie, "Network")

Mr. PETER FINCH (Actor): (as Howard Beale) I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore!

KEYES: He was also nominated for "The Verdict." In 2009, Lumet told the American Film Institute that film allowed Paul Newman's character, a broken attorney, to plumb the depths of his soul.

Mr. LUMET: It's more about the personal salvation of the Paul Newman character than it is about the case itself. The case only serves as the instrument by which a man saves himself.

KEYES: Lumet was born in 1924 in Philadelphia, but he was already appearing on stage in productions at the Yiddish Theater in New York at the age of 4. His love affair with the city was legendary, and some critics felt that made him a Hollywood outsider throughout his career. But he kept right on making movies, examining how his characters dealt with life - including his last film, "Before the Devil Knows Your Dead," starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

At the movie's 2007 premiere, Hawke told Red Carpet Diary what it was like to work with Lumet.

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): It's fascinating to work with somebody who has directed movies for 50 years. You know, whenever you think you're a smarty-pants or that you know what you're doing, it's fascinating to be in a room with someone who knows a lot more than you do.

KEYES: Lumet told NPR in 1995 that part of his job as a director is to become whatever an actor needs, and to become whatever helps that actor fulfill what they're doing.

In 2005, as Sidney Lumet accepted an honorary Academy Award, he said: I'd like to thank the movies. I've got the best job in the best profession in the world. Sidney Lumet was 86 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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