Sidney Lumet

Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix in the heartbreaking final scene of Running on Empty (1988)

Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix in the heartbreaking final scene of Running on Empty (1988)

  • Born: 1924
  • Rank: 19
  • Score: 702.90
  • Awards: NYFC / 2 LAFC / NBR / Golden Globe
  • Nominations: 4 Oscars / 7 DGA / 3 BAFTA / 6 Golden Globes / BFCA
  • Feature Films: 43
  • Best: Network
  • Worst: Gloria

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Network – 1976
  2. The Pawnbroker – 1965
  3. Dog Day Afternoon – 1975
  4. 12 Angry Men – 1957
  5. Serpico – 1973
  6. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – 2007
  7. Running on Empty – 1988
  8. The Verdict – 1982
  9. Murder on the Orient Express – 1974
  10. Deadly Affair – 1966

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1957 – 5th – 12 Angry Men
  • 1964 – 6th – Fail-Safe
  • 1965 – 3rd – The Pawnbroker
  • 1965 – 10th – The Hill
  • 1973 – 5th – Serpico
  • 1975 – 2nd – Dog Day Afternoon
  • 1976 – 3rd – Network
  • 1982 – 3rd – The Verdict
  • 1988 – 6th – Running on Empty
  • 2007 – 5th – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

By 2004 it looked like Sidney Lumet might be done. Since 1990 he had made only five films and none since 1999. One of those films (Night Falls on Manhattan) had been quite good but none of the other four were anywhere close to good. And this wasn’t a new trend, as several of his film in the 80’s had also been pretty bad. Since his artistic peak in the mid 70’s (it’s hard to find five films in a row by a director that are as good as Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Equus) he had never managed to make two truly good films in a row. Plus, he had just turned 80 and the number of great directors who had made great films after the age of 80 can be counted on one hand (John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman – and Bergman did it after 20 years of retirement). Most directors on the list don’t even live to age 80. But then at the age of 82, Lumet made the surprisingly strong Find Me Guilty. And the next year he knocked the film world back on its ass with the incredible Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and we suddenly had the best film ever made by someone over the age of 80. Which I guess really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, because Lumet has found a way to make great films, hitting a home run with his first film (12 Angry Men) and continuing to scatter so many great films over the years that I couldn’t reduce his best of list to only 5. I had to give him his full due. And maybe he’s not done and we might see something more. He’s 85, but Devil feels like a film from a much younger man and there’s hope for more.

Running on Empty – #4 film of 1988

“Fire and Rain” is a rather sentimental song. There are the possibilities of a bigger story behind the lyrics, though those have been dismissed as an urban legend. It is a folk rock song in the emerging 70’s vein of the singer-songwriter. But when placed in context, when say, it has been used very effectively in a film in a party scene and then is brought back for the final scene, it can be overwhelming.

How can you possibly feel anything but unbearable sadness at the end of Running on Empty. While it is a story about a family of radicals, it doesn’t particularly take sides. The mother and father, played in career best performances by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch (Lahti should have won the Oscar but wasn’t even nominated) are devoted to keeping their family together on the run because they once blew up a lab manufacturing napalm and blinded a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be there. But Lahti’s father, a man she derides as everything she hates has a heartbreaking scene with her in the film and we learn that the people we hate aren’t necessarily who we think they are. And there is Lahti’s friend, a fellow radical, whose irresponsible actions put her and her family in danger. There isn’t a political side taken in this film, just a humanistic view at how a family stays together and ultimately must grow apart as children grow up.

Which brings us to River Phoenix and the amazing performance h gave her at age eighteen. Does every generation get this kind of loss? My mother was 13 when James Dean drove his car into immortality. I was 19 when River Phoenix collapsed to the ground outside the Viper Room. My son was 4 when Heath Ledger suddenly was found dead. All amazingly talented actors, all gone before they could show how much they were capable of. And to think of all the talent Phoenix had, how much more enjoyable he was to watch on screen than his brother, to think of the ending of Stand by Me where Gordon mourns his friend and to think that Phoenix didn’t even get to be as old as Chris. Then think of the final scene.

They are out of time. Their identities are in danger. And though Phoenix is finding love, discovering life, he sticks to the family. He takes the time to say goodbye to his girlfriend and meet up with his family. But then he throws his bike in the back and his father tells him to take it out. Then to get on it. Because the parents have come to understand that their son has a chance that they no longer have and they must let him go. And that’s when “Fire and Rain” is playing again. And that’s when you realize the power of such a sentimental song.

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