Sidney Lumet has not been a director whose films I usually rush out to see, though this is something that I need to correct. For it is films like his Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that serve to remind me of how good movies can be. And here, as with Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet knows when he has a great story and how to run with it.
The story tells of how two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, see above) attempt to rob their parents’ suburban jewelry store goes tragically wrong, seems almost too good not to be true. It’s not. In fact, it’s the creation of first-time scriptwriter and playwright Kelly Masterson.
The film unwinds in a series of flashbacks for each of the three main characters, the brothers and their distraught father (Albert Finney), while it also goes forward to its almost inevitable denouement. This structure enables Lumet and Masterson to constantly unveil new twists and turns about both plot and character. It also helps hold the viewer’s attention to almost the very end; it briefly gets a bit tedious towards the end, but this does not really hurt what is a very satisfying film.
Lumet seems one of those directors who tries to let his scripts speak for themselves (or appear to speak for themselves), which early in his career was considered by some as a liability. For instance, I recall Andrew Sarris. speaking at the 1964 New York Film Festival, when he was the Grand Poobah of the auteur theory in America, claiming Lumet was a not a true auteur, since he simply shot the original script for The Pawnbroker without alteration. I don’t know how much Lumet changed Masterson’s script of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but its energy and assured sense of style marks it is a film made by a consummate professional.
Lumet, who is 83, is perhaps the greatest of the directors whose talents were nurtured in live dramas during the Golden Age of Television. The mechanics of live TV production in the 50s and early 60s, which had some resemblance to live theater, certainly gave writers and actors considerably more leeway than their movie counterparts. Partly because of this, live TV dramas were was often seen as a writer’s medium; indeed, it saw the emergence of such star writers as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Tad Mosel, Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. This, along with his background as an actor on Broadway, helped him hone his skill in working with both writers and actors. But in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead Lumet shows his skills to be considerably broader.