Friday, July 1, 2016

My Favorite Sidney Lumet Film

Sidney Lumet began his career with "12 Angry Men" and ended it with "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," fifty years later  He had his share of ups and downs in the forty-some films that came between them, but you can't find many directors with a better track record.  One of the highs came in 1976, with a satire about the news media that was so prescient about where television was headed, that four decades later it no longer plays much like satire.  Howard Beale's madness is now such a familiar sight on cable news, it's practically become passé.

But though the Beale character is the most memorable part of "Network," the rest of the film is just as brilliant, critiquing not just the media, but many of the social ills and cultural failings of the 1970s.  Beale (Peter Finch) is the anchor of the UBS Evening News, and facing termination due to declining ratings.  He becomes mentally unhinged, threatens to kill himself, and then begins delivering rants and diatribes to a rapt audience, declaring his outrage at the state of the world.  Behind the scenes, Beale's old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) and the cutthroat Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) fight over programming decisions and a tumultuous romantic relationship.  Christensen succeeds in taking control of the evening news program and capitalizing on Beale's surging popularity, raising him to the status of a demagogue.  However, when Beale's views begin to clash with the financial interests of the network, his career - and more importantly his ratings - are in jeopardy.

The first time I watched "Network," I completely failed to connect sad-sack Howard Beale in the early scenes to the man in the clips I'd seen a thousand times roaring "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"   Peter Finch's performance is stunning, his transformation into a mad prophet one of the most iconic contributions to the cinema in the 1970s.  Paddy Chayefsky also rightly received a great amount of praise for his script, containing some of the most blood-boiling, thunderous monologues he ever wrote.  However, so much of the power and the intensity of the "mad as hell" scene comes from how it's framed. The camera stays low, allowing Howard Beale to loom larger and larger into the frame.  The sound design is built entirely around his escalating diatribe, linking each of the cutaways and feeding back into the main event.  The intensity just keeps building and building, and it's electrifying to watch.

Sidney Lumet's energetic, emphatic filmmaking style was vital to making "Network" what it was.  He specialized in psychodramas and social realism, having started his career in theater and television, and then in hard-hitting contemporary dramatic films like "12 Angry Men."  "Network" was made at the height of his career, when he was directing more polished, but no less ambitious films.  Actors loved him, because it was the performances that were always the main event in his pictures, and Lumet made sure there were ample opportunities for the likes of Al Pacino and Paul Newman to really show us what they were made of.  He made several films about corruption in various forms and other social issues, so "Network" was perfect material for his sensibilities, even if it operated out of a different corner of New York than he usually inhabited.

Lumet was known to prefer naturalism in his visuals, but he was certainly capable of getting fanciful when it suited his aims.  Consider Beale's meeting with executive Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who evangelizes his own gospel of big business in terms as grand and elaborate as Beal's raving speeches.  Jensen is presented as a messianic figure to the deluded Beale, flanked by green shaded bankers' lamps in a darkened boardroom.  Consider the new and improved Howard Beale program, which turns the studio and its audience into a religious revival meeting, or the rest of the network's lineup presented like games from "The Price is Right."  And yet it still feels like a Lumet picture, full of sharp edges and imperfect, unsatisfied characters.

"Network" is one of those films that has grown more and more impressive every time I've seen it, especially as I've caught more of the references and learned more about its chief targets over the years.  The central issues of journalistic integrity and corrosive business tactics remain depressingly relevant, especially as the present day news organizations celebrate their rising ratings thanks to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.  There have been several excellent media satires that have come along since, like "Wag the Dog" and "Nightcrawler," but none have quite managed to encapsulate so much of the sheer amoral ruthlessness of how the corporate media operates the way that "Network" does with so much cynical aplomb.

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What I've Seen - Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men (1957)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Serpico (1973)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Network (1976)
The Wiz (1978)
Deathtrap (1982)
The Verdict (1982)
Family Business (1989)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
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