Lumet – First and Last

February 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“12 Angry Men” (1957) was Sidney Lumet’s first film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” his last, a half century later. “Devil” had gotten good reviews, so I recorded it a while ago. I intended to watch it last night. But when I turned on the TV, “12 Angry Men” was just starting on TCM. I’ve seen it a few times, maybe more, but I had a hard time turning it off. After a half hour or so, I switched on the DVD and went for “The Devil.”

Things change in 50 years.

In “12 Angry Men,” jurors deliberate, exploring the details of a murder case. In the room, personality, emotion, and position affect reason, memory, and perception. We see the group dynamics, the interaction and persuasion. The film is in black and white and has essentially one set, the jury room. There is no “action” (except a moment when one angry man threatens to hit someone but is easily restrained). Characters occasionally stand up and walk to another spot in the room or to the window. That’s the action

[Spoiler Alert]

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” centers on a jewelry store robbery. The store proprietor, a seventyish woman shoots the robber. Then he shoots her. Later, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke (they are brothers) beat a heroin dealer in his apartment, Hoffman shoots the heroin dealer’s customer (nodded out on a bed in the apartment) and then shoots the dealer. They go to the house of a man who is blackmailing Hawke. Hoffman shoots the man, then points the gun at Hawke’s head. While the two brothers are trying to decide whether Hoffman will shoot Hawke, the blackmailer’s wife shoots Hoffman. Later, Hoffman lies in a hospital (the shooting was bad but not fatal). Albert Finney (Hoffman’s father) kills him by suffocating him with a pillow.

Six shootings, one asphyxiation, mostly all in the family, and all shown explicitly on the screen.

Both are good movies, but what a difference. And oddly enough, even though the Angry Men are confined to a single room for nearly the whole film, it’s “Devil” that has more an air of claustrophobia. The characters are trapped in their lives, trapped by their own decisions.

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