Judged on his gems
WHEN he died a year ago at 86, Sidney Lumet was mourned as one of the masters of American cinema. Along with Richard Mulligan, John Frankenheimer, Franklin J. Schaffner and others, he was the most durable of a distinguished group of Hollywood filmmakers to emerge from the golden years of American television in the 1950s, making his name with what was essentially a TV play, the jury room drama 12 Angry Men. The 50-odd films to his credit include masterpieces such as The Verdict, Fail-safe and Dog Day Afternoon, as well as some inexplicable lapses and follies — among them The Wiz, an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz, now best forgotten.
Many would rank Network (Monday, 2.30pm, Movie Greats) his greatest achievement: a ferocious satire on the ethics of American TV news channels, with a biting script by Paddy Chayefsky that seems no less relevant today. The film won acting Oscars for Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight. Also showing this week is Lumet’s brilliant black crime thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Saturday, 8.30pm, Showtime Action), in which a cash-strapped Philip Seymour Hoffman persuades his bornloser brother (Ethan Hawke) to rob a jewellery store for some quick, easy money. Naturally the plan goes terribly wrong. This dark blend of heist movie and wrenching family drama was Lumet’s last film (in 2007); a fitting end to a brilliant career.
One of the recurring themes in his films was official corruption, and I think he would have loved Eric Roth’s screenplay for The Insider (Sunday, 5am, Movie Greats), which combined a penetrating study of the ethics of Big Tobacco with a Network- style expose of a particularly dark episode in the annals of CBS television’s respected news division.
Directed by Michael Mann, it’s one of the best real-life dramas about corporate malpractice, concentrating on the efforts of a middle-ranking tobacco executive (Russell Crowe) to blow the whistle on alleged coverups by his bosses. CBS pressured its 60 Minutes producer (Al Pacino) to pull a segment on the scandal as it was about to go to air. Gripping and sobering entertainment.
For a different perspective on the pains of corporate America, I recommend The Company Men (Monday, 8.30pm, Movie One), directed by John Wells, one of the writers of The West Wing. The US is in the grip of a recession and highlevel execs at GTX, a Boston manufacturing conglomerate, are victims of downsizing. For Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), the shame is the worst part: how to break the news to his wife and conceal it from his troubled teenaged son. For Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), 30 years with the firm, it’s even tougher: perhaps if he dyed his hair and lost a little weight there’d be another opening somewhere. And Kevin Costner can always find jobs for brickies and carpenters. There are moving insights here, and Wells gives the film an oddly inspirational twist by extolling the virtues of honest manual labour — as if the thought had never occurred to us.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Sunday, 6.35am, Showtime Two) looks at the psychological roots of fascism. The setting is a village in northern Germany on the eve of World War I. When a series of troubling incidents disrupts the normal pattern of village life, twin authority-figures (a nobleman and a Protestant pastor) impose harsh discipline and brutal punishments on young offenders. Haneke has said that the children in the film would have grown to be mature adults during the Nazi era. Has their upbringing contributed to the horrors of Nazi tyranny? This is a deeply unsettling and gravely beautiful film that raises many questions and provides no answers.
Monday, 8.30pm, Movie One
Monday, 2.30pm, Movie Greats
Saturday, 8.30pm, Showtime Action
Sunday, 6.35am, Showtime Two
Peter Finch is mad as hell in Sidney Lumet’s Network