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Thursday, March 9, 2006 03:02 am

Sidney Lumet’s classics

The new release of two ’70s classics should thrill fans of cinema

Fans of the cinema of the 1970s should rejoice over the new DVD special editions of two of that decade’s classics, Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). Both films are the work of Sidney Lumet, a New York-based director who excelled at urban chaos. Consistency is not a hallmark of his career, and he doesn’t display a unifying visual or thematic style to permit him to be classified as an auteur, but when Lumet is at the top of his form, greatness can result. These two films are certainly prime examples. Dog Day Afternoon is a fact-based comedy/drama about a bungled bank robbery that becomes a hostage crisis that becomes a media event. Al Pacino reteams with Lumet after their earlier triumph with Serpico, starring as a criminal with a strange ulterior motive: He is married, but he needs the money for a sex-change operation for his boyfriend (Chris Sarandon). John Cazale, an actor who never appeared in a bad film, lends great support as his dimwitted partner in crime. Dog Day Afternoon is a superb example of Lumet’s exemplary direction of actors. The ensemble cast really shines, but ultimately this is Pacino’s show. Network was Lumet’s next film, giving him an incredible one-two punch. Paddy Chayefsky provided the amazing script that delivers a blistering attack on the television industry’s exploitive anything-for-a-buck mentality. Peter Finch is Howard Beale, a news anchor who suffers a mental breakdown on live television. His proclamation “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” is truly a line for the ages. Ratings soar, leading the network to turn Beale’s news into a hit television show. Lumet’s skill with actors reached its pinnacle with Network, which was the only film to take three of the four acting Oscars. Awards went to Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight; the extraordinary cast also includes William Holden, Ned Beatty, and Robert Duvall. Given the corporate-controlled media’s tendency to avoid real issues today, the sensationalism of the news in the past is looking like the good old days. Major video-rental chains don’t feel that new releases of classics are worth offering to the public. These two films, however, are certainly worth buying. While you’re at it, look for some of Lumet’s other great films, including 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), and The Verdict (1982).
New on DVD on Tuesday (March 14): Good Night, and Good Luck, A History of Violence, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, and How to Lose Your Lover.
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