Category Archives: Cop on the Edge

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral. Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

I’m placing me under arrest: The Seven-FIve ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2015)

Pretzels and beer. Soup and sandwich. New York City and police corruption. Some things seem to naturally go together. Not that police corruption is exclusive to the Big Apple, but there is something inherently cinematic about the combo. Serpico…based on a true story. The French Connection…based on a true story. Prince of the City…based on a true story. Cop Land, Bad Lieutenant…mmm, could happen (I think you get the gist).

The story in Tiller Russell’s riveting documentary, The Seven-Five, is not only true, but comes right from the mouths of the perps themselves. The “star” (for wont of a better term) of Russell’s film was once dubbed the “dirtiest cop” in the department’s history by NYC rags (and that’s saying a lot). Michael Dowd headed up a posse of rogue cops who worked the 75th Precinct. For a period stretching from the late 80s into the early 90s, they shook down Brooklyn drug dealers for protection money (among many other things). At the apex of his “career”, Dowd was basically holding down two full-time jobs, one as a cop, and one as a robber. As one of the interviewees observes, “Some cops end up becoming criminals; Michael Dowd was a criminal, who just happened to become a cop.”

When Dowd and his cohorts first popped onscreen, I became a little disoriented. I knew that this was billed as a “documentary”, but surely these were actors; they seemed too much in “character”. I mean, these guys could just as well have strolled right out of a Scorsese film (I could easily picture Dowd saying “Business bad? Fuck you. Pay me.”).

It’s easy to be bamboozled by Dowd’s…charm? But you have to delineate the colorful raconteur from the laundry list of misdeeds he so casually catalogs…he is by any definition a bad, bad man. At least former partner Ken Eurell displays something resembling a conscience (Eurell was a “good” cop…until he fell under sway of Dowd, who never was). Compelling yet disturbing, The Seven-Five tells an all-too-familiar tale that reflects a systemic blight that continues to fester in American cities large and small.

SIFF 2014: Monsoon Shootout **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

Amit Kumar directs this Bollywood crime thriller, a tale of an idealistic rookie Mumbai cop (Vijay Varma) eager to prove his mettle to his partner (Neeraj Kabi), a cynical and world-weary veteran. He gets his chance when he finds himself in a do-or-die face-off with a notoriously slippery assassin nicknamed “The Axe Man”. To shoot, or not to shoot…that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer through a drawn out court trial, or to take arms, blow this pain-in-the-ass recidivist away now and get a promotion. Perchance to dream…and that’s where the film takes a clunky turn into Run Lola Run/Point Blank territory. Ay, there’s the rub; pedestrian execution of its central conceit puts the damper on an otherwise stylish effort.

Schenectady, NY: The Place Beyond the Pines ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2013)

It’s official. Ryan Gosling is the McQueen of his generation. He has already aced the Taciturn Pro Driver (in the 2011 film Drive) and now with this weekend’s opening of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling can add the Taciturn Pro Biker to his Steve cred. And judging from the chorus of dreamy sighs that spontaneously erupted all about the auditorium when his character first appeared onscreen, perhaps “taciturn, ripped and tattooed” would be a more apt description of Luke Glanton, a carny who makes his living charging around the ‘cage of death’ on his motorcycle. When we meet him, the carnival is nearing the end of a run in Schenectady. Killing time between performances, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes) a woman he had a fling with the previous time the carnival blew through town.

Romina is reticent to re-connect with the flighty Luke, for two major reasons: 1) The new man in her life (Mahershala Ali), and 2) A 1-year old bundle of joy named Jason that resulted from their fling. She doesn’t tell Luke about item #2, but he soon finds out anyway. Now, Luke is determined to “do the right thing” and provide for his son. He promptly quits the carnival gig, accepts a job offer from a shady auto repair shop owner (Ben Mendelsohn) and sets about ingratiating himself back into Romina’s life (choosing to ignore that whole live-in boyfriend thing). However, minimum wage isn’t fitting in with Luke’s timetable. In lieu of a raise, his boss helpfully suggests that he try robbing a few banks for supplemental income (a sideline that the auto shop owner himself has dabbled in on occasion). With his special skill sets, Luke discovers that he has a knack; soon earning himself a nickname in the local media as “The Moto-Bandit”.

Luke’s reckless approach to his newfound criminal career puts him on a karmic path with that of another young father with an infant son, a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it is at this point that the film takes some unexpected turns. Without giving much away, we’ll just say Luke’s story is prologue for what evolves into a more sprawling, multi-generational tale in the Rich Man, Poor Man vein. It can also be viewed as a three-part character study, with Officer Cross’s story taking up the middle third, culminating with a flash-forward 15 years down the road involving a tenuous relationship that develops between the now high-school-aged sons of the two men (Dane DeHaan as the older Jason and Emory Cohen as AJ Cross). There’s also a noirish subplot with echoes of James Mangold’s Cop Land; in fact one of its stars, Ray Liotta, is essentially reprising  the same character he played there in Cianfrance’s film.

While it’s tempting to label Cianfrance’s screenplay (co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) as too sprawling at times (tossing everything into the mix…from classic film noir cycle tropes to Sirkian subtexts) he earns bonus points for coaxing uniformly excellent performances from the cast (particularly from Gosling, Cooper and the Brando-esque young Cohen), and for keeping true to its central themes: family legacies, the sins of the fathers, and the never-changing machinations of small town American politics.

Field of nightmares: The Silence ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2013)

Generally speaking, a field of wheat is a field of wheat; nothing more, nothing less. However, in the realm of crime thrillers, such benign rural locales can harbor ominous underpinnings (Memories of Murder, The Onion Field and In Cold Blood come to mind). And so it is in The Silence, a low-key, quietly unsettling genre entry from Germany. In the hands of Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar (who adapted from Jan Costin Wagner’s novel), a wheat field emerges as the principal character; an unlikely venue for acts running the gamut from the sacred to profane, as unfathomably mysterious and complex as the humans who commit them within its enveloping, wind-swept folds.

A flashback to the mid-1980s, involving the disappearance of a 13-year old girl, whose abandoned bicycle is found amid the aforementioned waves of grain, sets the stage for the bulk of the story, which begins 23 years later with an eerily similar incident at the same location involving a girl of the same age. A team of oddly dysfunctional homicide detectives (several of whom worked the former unsolved case) sets about to investigate. However, Odar quickly discards standard police procedural tropes by revealing the perpetrator to the audience long before the police figure out who it is. Interestingly, this narrative choice echoes another German crime thriller (arguably the seminal German crime thriller), Fritz Lang’s M. And, just like the child-murderer in Lang’s film, this is a monster hidden in plain sight who walks “among us”… personifying the banality of evil.

Putting the “mystery” on the back burner allows Odar to focus on the aftermath of tragedy. The loss of any loved one is profound; but the loss of a child, especially via an act of violence, is particularly devastating to surviving family members (so poignantly evident to us all in the wake of Sandy Hook). In that respect, I was reminded of Atom Egoyan’s 1997 drama, The Sweet Hereafter. Like Egoyan, Odar deep-sixes Cause and makes a beeline for Effect, peeling away the veneer of his characters like the layers of an onion, enabling his talented ensemble to deliver emotionally resonant performances. Consequently this haunting film is not so much about interrogations and evidence bags as it is about grief, loss, guilt, redemption…and an unfathomably mysterious field of wheat.

London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”. Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growling fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase.

The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad.

However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies. The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops ’n’ robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. One needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting), and is chock-a-block with crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside.

Most significantly, both characters see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

Friedkin knocks one out of the trailer park: Killer Joe ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 25, 2012)

There’s a hard-boiled American crime film sub-genre one might dub “Texas Noir”, with its roots in the 1958 Orson Welles classic, Touch of Evil.  Other notable examples are Sam Peckinpah’s original 1972 version of The Getaway, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sugarland Express, Wild at Heart, Lone Star, Blood Simple, The Hot Spot, No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Killer Inside Me. These films reside at the crossroads of sun-bleached adobe and permanent midnight; where a wellspring of deceit and malice burbles and roils just beneath the cowboy charm and a laid-back drawl.

The latest genre entry to hit the multiplex is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work called Killer Joe, from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. This is the second collaboration between director and writer, who teamed up in 2006 for the psychological horror film, Bug (which I have never seen).

Emile Hirsch is Chris, a low-level drug dealer who lives with his abusive alcoholic mother. As if his life wasn’t hellish enough, he’s up to his eyes in debt to a  hood, who is threatening to take it out of his hide. This leaves Chris facing deadline pressure, with a short list of options for quick cash. Not being overly fond of his loutish mama, he decides to kill two birds with one stone by (figuratively) throwing her from the train and cashing in on her $50,000 life insurance policy. While he may not be the brightest piece of charcoal in the BBQ pit, he is savvy enough to realize that this will require collusion.

Enter the family: his mouth-breathing auto mechanic daddy (Thomas Haden Church), slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his Lolita-ish nymphet sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who all live together in a cozy trailer home. They tentatively approve of Chris’ plan to hire a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, with the assumption that the insurance will be paid out to Dottie. “Killer” Joe (as our bad, bad cop is known) isn’t happy to learn that Chris doesn’t have the cash retainer. Joe is on the verge of cancelling when the virginal Dottie catches his eye. Hmm…perhaps we can work something out (I told you it was perverse).

While the noir tropes in the narrative may hold few surprises (the requisite red herrings and triple-crosses abound), the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating (I would expect no less from the man who directed The Exorcist, which remains one of the most viscerally unsettling films of all time). That being said, those who appreciate the mordantly comic sensibilities of David Lynch, John Waters or the Coen brothers will find themselves giggling more often than gasping. The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick.

The biggest surprise is McConaughey’s nuanced work as the creepy, quietly menacing Joe. Frankly, I had written him off as an actor who had been steadily obfuscating fine early-career work in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, and A Time to Kill by accepting relatively unchallenging roles in a forgettable string of boilerplate rom-coms (trust me…you won’t soon forget this film). Gershon camps it up with a cartoonish rendering of a trailer park cougar, but that’s what makes her character so entertaining.

Newcomer Temple (daughter of British director Julien), is a revelation. She and McConaughey plunge fearlessly into a seduction scene that recalls controversial moments from Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear (involving Robert De Niro and Julliette Lewis) and Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker’s infamous “porch swing” exchange, which earned the 1956 film a “condemned” rating from the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency).

Judging by the umbrage taken by disgruntled audience members at the screening I attended, Friedkin’s enigmatic fadeout may leave some viewers feeling “cheated”, but those “old enough to remember” will get a chuckle out of the director’s obvious in-jokey homage to his vintage classic, The French Connection (well, that’s my theory). Granted, Killer Joe may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re seeking uncompromising, non-formulaic, adult fare…have a sip.

Motel money murder madness: Rampart ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2012)

In a 1995 interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy said of the protagonists in his (then) current novel, American Tabloid: “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.” Anyone who has read any number of his books will glean this as an ongoing theme in his work. Later in the interview, Ellroy confides that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling new film Rampart (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts.

And there is, indeed, a very bad, bad, bad, bad man at the heart of this story, and he is veteran LAPD Sgt. Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson), who earned his charming nickname in the wake of an incident that resulted in the fatal shooting of a suspected serial date rapist. This is another Ellroy trademark; I was reminded of a scene from L.A. Confidential, wherein Lt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is cheerfully christened “Shotgun Ed” by the chief after gunning down several suspects. As there is a 50-year gap that separates Lt. Exley’s era (the 1950s) from Sgt. Brown’s (his story is set in 1999), perhaps this is Ellroy’s way of telegraphing that the more things change, the more they stay the same…at least regarding those who “serve and protect” the City of Lost Angels.

Based on job description, Dave Brown may be a public servant who “protects”, but the more we get to know him, the more obvious it is that he “serves” no one but himself. Despite a career-long propensity for generally disregarding most of the ethical standards one would expect an officer of the law to uphold, Brown has somehow managed to hang on to his badge.

While he embodies many defining characteristics of that noir staple known as the “rogue cop”, he is not quite so in the same sense as, say, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan (who may be a fascist…but at least he’s a fascist with principles). Nor is he a “conflicted cop”, wrestling with his conscience, because he doesn’t have one. He does have a Code, of sorts; he may be racist, sexist and homophobic (again, a typical Ellroy protagonist) but as he helpfully qualifies at one point, “I hate everyone…equally.”

However, Brown’s karma is catching up with him, particularly after he flies off the handle when his police cruiser is struck by another motorist (who may or may not be a “fleeing suspect”). His subsequent beat down of said motorist is caught on camera, resulting in a Rodney King-sized public relations nightmare for the department that puts Brown at odds with a no-nonsense D.A. (Sigourney Weaver) and an Internal Affairs investigator (Ice Cube).

We see an interesting side to Brown in these grilling sessions; he is quite the silver-tongued devil, articulating his viewpoint with a cool intelligence and developed vocabulary that belies his otherwise thuggish demeanor. Regardless,  reality sets in that he needs to scare up serious coin for a defense lawyer, so he reaches out to a crooked ex-LAPD officer (Ned Beatty) who tips him to an “easy” cash grab. The scheme fails, putting Brown into an even deeper hole.

In the meantime, Brown is becoming more and more alienated from his fellow cops, and (more significantly) his family. His family situation is odd, to say the least. He lives with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who are sisters. He has two daughters (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky), one by each. After witnessing Brown’s on-the-job behavior, I was bracing myself for what I anticipated to be inevitable and horrifying scenes of domestic abuse, but interestingly, they never “go there”.

In fact, with the exception of his youngest daughter, who is likely too naïve to see through his bullshit, he is treated by the exes and eldest daughter like a housecat who keeps getting underfoot at the most inconvenient times. And whenever he’s told to fuck off (which is often), he dutifully slinks away to sulk in the corner. It appears that Brown needs his family much more than they need him; because it is only after they finally boot him out for good that he really begins circling the drain, embarking on a debauched sex, drug and alcohol-fueled midnight alley roam (a la Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas).

Curiously, despite the film’s title (and 1999 time frame), the story has little to do with the infamous Rampart police scandal of the late 1990s, in which over 70 officers assigned to the division’s anti-gang unit were implicated in a shocking laundry list of misdeeds ranging from frame-ups and perjury to bank robbery and murder. There are a few perfunctory references, but I don’t believe that the intention here was to do a docudrama.

Also, the cops involved in the Rampart scandal seemed to operate from a mindless mob mentality; essentially co-opting the gang culture they were supposed to be countering. Brown is a lone wolf, perhaps an anachronism; a sort of “last holdout” to the old school of LAPD corruption that permeates Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet”, a series of four novels that spans the late 40s through the late 50s (including the aforementioned L.A. Confidential).

This is the second collaboration between director, leading man and the film’s co-producer, actor Ben Foster (virtually unrecognizable here in a minor supporting role as a homeless, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet). Moverman, Harrelson and Foster teamed up in 2009 for the outstanding drama, The Messenger. In my review, I noted:

…there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner.

The same can be said for Moverman’s latest project as well. Some viewers may find this approach a little too episodic, especially if one is expecting standard crime thriller tropes. So if you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Like those classic 70s character studies, the film just sort of…starts (no opening credits, no musical cues), shit happens, and then it sort of…stops (no big finale). It’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Harrelson. Larson (as his eldest daughter) is a standout, as is the always excellent Robin Wright (as a burned out defense lawyer), who nearly steals all her scenes with Harrelson.

So, does this bad, bad character ever manage to “come to grips” with his humanity? It may be too little, too late, but he does. It is expressed in an extraordinary, wordless exchange between him and his daughter. Both actors play it beautifully; and it’s so ephemeral that you might miss it if you blink. So don’t blink. Because by the time it registers, Brown has crawled back into the dark urban shadows that spawned him, just another lost angel in the city of night.

SIFF 2012: Polisse ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2012)

Polisse is a docudrama style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City and the now-defunct TV series Homicide. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film. Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist (that’s her in the lower left of the photo above), and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police.

As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them. Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that children would never have to suffer through in a just world. It fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is a challenge, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (likely explaining the Jury Prize win at Cannes in 2011).

Prince of the City: RIP Sidney Lumet

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2011)

I was saddened to hear the news about Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today at the age of 86. We have truly lost one of the great filmmakers of our time. The term “actor’s director” gets thrown around a lot, but he was the actor’s director.

With a Lumet film, you may not necessarily expect a lot of stylized visual flash, but you may always expect a cast working at 110% of their potential. He knew how to tell a good story, without relying on bells and whistles-and that takes someone supremely confident in their craft.

In his 50+ year long career (he cut his teeth working in television drama during its “Golden Age”) he managed to collaborate with almost everybody who was anybody in the acting world; indeed many clamored to work with him. It is possible, however, that the most  fruitful artistic partnership he had over the years was not with a person, but a city.

That would be New York, which served as the backdrop for so many of his classic films. Woody Allen, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any other directors who have had such a symbiotic relationship with the Big Apple. At the end of the day, it’s about the work, so here are my picks for the Top 10 Lumet films:

The Anderson Tapes– In Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. It’s one of the first films that I know of to ruminate on the insidious encroachment of monitoring technology into our daily lives and the resulting loss of privacy (The Conversation was still just a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye in 1971). Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (in his first major feature film role). The tough, smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and an exemplary Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on the package.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead-It’s a real testament to Lumet’s gift that his very last film (which he made in 2007, at the age of 82) was just as vital and powerfully affecting as any of his best work over the course of his 50+ year career. Strongly recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish neo-noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an extremely ill-advised heist that involves a business owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). As frequently occurs in this genre, things go horribly wrong. Great work from the entire cast.

Dog Day Afternoon-Attica! Attica! As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation). Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense thriller from 1964 takes a more clinical look at how a similar wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a little bit on the stagey side; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and that trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who had also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room, but plenty of suspense. The film’s haunting denouement is chilling and unforgettable.

Network– Back in 1976, this satire made us chuckle with its outrageous conceit-the story of a “fictional” TV network who hits the ratings g-spot with a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time”. Now, 35 years later, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). The much vaunted prescience of the infinitely quotable Paddy Chayefsky screenplay goes much deeper than merely prophesying the onslaught of news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” television)-it’s a blueprint for our age.

In the opening scene, drunken buddies Peter Finch (as Howard Beale, respected news anchor soon to suffer a mental breakdown and morph into “the mad prophet of the airwaves”) and William Holden (as Max Shumacher, head of the news division for the “UBS” network) riff cynically on an imaginary pitch for a surefire news rating booster-“Real live suicides, murders, executions-we’ll call it The Death Hour.” A funny punch line back in 1976; sadly, in 2011 we call it the “Nancy Grace Show”. Faye Dunaway steals all of her scenes as Diana Christenson, the soulless, ratings obsessed head of development who cooks up a scheme to turn Beale’s mental illness into revenue (“You’re television incarnate, Diana.”)

The most famous scene, of course is Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” tirade, a call to arms (borne from a “cleansing moment of clarity”) for viewers to turn off the tube, break the spell of their collective stupor, literally stick their heads out the window and make their voices heard. For me, the most defining scene in the film is between Beale and Arthur Jensen (CEO of “CCA”-wonderfully played by Ned Beatty). Jensen is calling Beale on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet still a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which to preach-the “corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen”. It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest moment, savagely funny and spot on. Lumet’s most enduring movie is required viewing .

The Pawnbroker– This brooding character study from 1964 is a textbook example of the “social realism” movement in American film that flourished at the time. Rod Steiger delivers a searing performance as a Holocaust survivor, suffering quite severely from what we would now identify as “PTSD”, who runs a pawn shop. Hostile, paranoid and completely insular, Steiger’s character is a walking powder keg, needled daily not only by haunting memories of the concentration camp, but by the fear and dread that inundates the tough, crime-ridden NYC neighborhood where his business is located. When he finally comes face-to-face with the darkest parts of his soul, and the inevitable breakdown ensues, it’s expressed in a literal “silent scream” that is arguably the most astonishing moment in Steiger’s already impressive canon of astonishing on-screen moments. Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin adapted their screenplay from Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel.

Prince of the City-Lumet revisited the subject of New York City police corruption in this powerfully acted piece based on the true story of narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got completely turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest dramatic performance to date as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised that he will never be forced to “give up” any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”, right? This is one of the best films ever made about big city politics (prior to HBO’s outstanding series, The Wire, which I felt to be a direct descendant of the Lumet oeuvre). Superb performances from everyone in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach) Lumet co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Presson Allen, which they adapted from Richard Daley’s book.

Serpico-Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino go together like soup and sandwich, and this 1973 collaboration between director and star (their first) was the one that set the table. Pacino gets to chew a lot of scenery here as Frank Serpico, an altruistic NYC cop who helps expose the rampant corruption within the department (much to the chagrin of his fellow cops, who come to regard him as a pariah). As per usual, Lumet wrings top-notch performances from his actors, and makes excellent use of NYC locales (captured in all their gritty glory by DP Arthur J. Ornitz, who did the cinematography for a number of “quintessentially New York” films, including A Thousand Clowns, The World of Henry Orient, The Boys in the Band, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman). Writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler adapted from the book by Peter Maas.

12 Angry Men-This is the film that put Lumet on the map as a feature film director. The narrative setup is fairly simple. A Latino boy is on trial, accused of killing his father. His fate lies in the hands of a 12-man jury. Since we are not presented with many details about the trial itself, the film’s dramatic tension lies in the hands of the one juror who happens to hold a dissenting opinion (Henry Fonda). His subsequent attempt to bring the other eleven around to his way of thinking makes for an amazingly riveting drama (despite of how static it might read on paper). The list of actors portraying the “angry men” reads like a Who’s Who of dramatic heavyweights-because it is (imagine Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Ed Begley all cooped up in a hot stuffy room, and all very cranky-can you just smell the ham burning?).

The Verdict– Lumet returned to the courtroom in this outstanding 1982 drama, armed with an incredible cast and a killer David Mamet screenplay. Paul Newman gives one of his career-best performances as a burned-out alcoholic “ambulance chaser” who gets a shot at redemption when he takes a medical malpractice case to trial (after initially planning to take the path of least resistance by going for a quick and dirty settlement). Jack Warden also shines as his best friend and fellow lawyer who helps him build his case. James Mason is also at the top of his game as the opposing attorney (“That guy’s the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” Warden warns Newman, in a wonderfully droll Mamet line reading). Charlotte Rampling is on hand as well, playing her duplicitous character with aplomb. Nice use of the autumnal Boston locales by DP Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Encore! 10 more: Q&A, Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks, Deathtrap, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, The Offence, The Deadly Affair, The Hill.