The death of Sidney Lumet, the New York-based director of some of Hollywood's best-known thrillers, was announced yesterday. Perhaps most widely regarded for his first film, 12 Angry Men, the film-maker, 86, had a career that spanned six decades and included more than 50 works, including Network, The Verdict and Dog Day Afternoon.
Last night, Jonathan Romney, chief film critic of The Independent on Sunday, described Lumet, whose family said he suffered from lymphoma, as "the archetype of the classic Hollywood director" and "the gold standard of thriller makers". He was also "the great male actor's director", who brought the best out of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Al Pacino, as well as influencing other film-makers, including Martin Scorsese.
"He was an austere director, who just gave you the bare essentials," said Romney. "Because he was such a proficient storyteller, it was easy to underrate his mastery."
Although Lumet won 33 prizes, and was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards on four occasions, he never did win an Oscar. In 2005, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award for a lifetime's achievement. In a subsequent interview he was asked how that felt, replying: "I wanted one, damn it, and I felt I deserved one."
Lumet's output peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and includes The Anderson Tapes, The Hill and The Offence, though he worked up to very recently, his last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, coming out in 2007 and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"He was absolutely the master of maleness," said Romney. "He had a very sharp insight into the morally conflicted male psyche. It comes out right from the beginning, but as he got older, he discovered how to bring out the finest from actors who were getting older, like Sean Connery."
Having started out as an actor himself, appearing on Broadway as a child in the 1930s, he was known as an "actor's director". But among critics and film students he was considered the master of suspense, and always worked closely with scriptwriters.
"Essentially, he filmed people's scripts," said Romney. "That often makes critics feel that a director is not giving a great deal of himself. There were times when you thought, ho hum, it's just another Lumet film, but right to the end he made fantastic films. The last one was an absolute whammy to go out on – such a taut and clever and complex and quietly fiendish piece of storytelling, a great way to remind people he was a master."
Although a great stylist, and an important proponent of the 1950s neo-realist movement, he wrote in his memoirs: "Good style, to me, is unseen style. It is style that is felt."
Asked why he made films, Lumet said: "I do it because I like it. It's a wonderful way to spend your life."