Directors in the Oscar race

Here’s an anniversary to savor: Exactly 50 years ago Sidney Lumet directed his first feature film, “12 Angry Men,” and received the first of his five Oscar nominations for directing. For that timeless classic and for his films “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Running on Empty,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Murder on the Orient Express” “The Hill” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Lumet also received dozens of DGA, BAFTA, Golden Globe, film festival and critics group recognitions.

That astonishing track record of edgy moral fables powered by unforgettable performances is why Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005 for his achievements. It’s also why the pleasures of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” shouldn’t arrive as surprises. But they have.

In a business where hitting age 30 sets off a “youth demo” warning light, Lumet has ignored the tyranny of trendiness and proven that the passionate mastery of one’s craft not only doesn’t diminish, but perhaps even improves, with age.

GENESIS: “I got the script in early 2006, and we started casting almost immediately. I was blessed to have my casting director, Ellen Lewis and we were fortunate to quickly get yesses right away in the key parts. There were several actors I carry around in my head and know that I want them in my repertory company. For instance, I knew I wanted Albert Finney, and he said, ‘As long as you pay enough money to take care of the horsies, dear.’”

VISION: “I made the decision when I read the script that this would be driven by high-intensity performances. So my direction to every actor was to play it to the hilt.”

CHALLENGES: “All of these cliches exist about material. The executives always ask, ‘But who do I identify with?’ Paddy Chayefsky used to say: ‘The hero has a pet-the-dog scene and the villain has a kick-the-dog scene. OK?’ But thank god for Jonathan Demme. He made a hit movie where the hero eats people and the heroine looks scared of her shadow through the entire film, and you’re rooting for the two of them to fall in love.”

MAGIC: “I love digital photography because it frees me to use two or three cameras, just like my beginnings in live TV. For instance, when they’re ripping off the drug dealers, (Philip Seymour) Hoffman and (Ethan) Hawke are in a mess they never could have imagined in their wildest dreams. We couldn’t have that fevered pitch of hysteria unless we could shoot the two performances at once.”

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