From 1957's '12 Angry Men,' to 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'Serpico' and 'Network' in the '70s and 'The Verdict' in 1982, Lumet's movies were searing documents that questioned the social issues of their day. Far from being dated, his movies from each era remain as fresh and as relevant as ever.
(Just go on Youtube to see how many fan mash-ups there are of 'Network's cautionary message about over-reliance on spoon-fed media.)
His movies featured towering performances from Al Pacino, Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, ones that are still considered among their finest work.
Read on to see our list of Lumet's best films.
'12 Angry Men' (1957)
This isn't just a seminal film for Lumet, but a pivotal role for star Henry Fonda. Here he plays the Juror #8, a soft-spoken Everyman who refuses to be swayed by prejudice or pressure from the other men in the room. The drama is still as fresh as we watch them argue and confront each other, not just about the trial, but their assumptions about each other.
'Dog Day Afternoon' (1975)
Essential movie viewing for any film fan: Al Pacino is at his best as a bumbling bank robber who becomes an unlikely celebrity. Unbelievably, it's based on a true story! We've included the famous "Attica, Attica!" scene but you owe it to yourself to watch the whole movie. (Clip is NSFW.)
Sure, you know the "I'm mad as hell," scene by heart, but what happens next when the network decides to cash in on new anchor Howard Beale's madness? See the clip here.
Then 49-year-old Lumet gave young up-and-comers Martin Scorsese ('Mean Streets') and William Friedkin ('The French Connection') a run for their money with this gritty tale of police corruption, featuring one of Pacino's best performances. In the clip below, Lumet comments on a scene that Pacino improvised. (Clip is NSFW.)
'The Verdict' (1982)
Hard to believe that Paul Newman didn't win an Oscar for his role as a conscience-stricken, alcoholic lawyer trying to do the right thing far too late in his career. The film, written by David Mamet, was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
'Prince of the City' (1981)
Yes, it's sort of a redux of 'Serpico,' with an undercover cop (this time played by Treat Williams) tackling rampant police corruption, but Williams and a young Jerry Orbach make the journey well worth it, especially those last 20 minutes.
'Running on Empty' (1988)
River Phoenix was rightly nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as Danny, who's been raised on the run by two Vietnam-era fugitives but who now wants to start his own life. This emotional scene between Christine Lahti and Stephen Hill -- where she asks her estranged father to take Danny in, knowing she'll never see him again -- will break your heart.
'The Fugitive Kind' (1960)
This is a personal favorite. Since it's based on the Tennessee Wiliams' play 'Orpheus Descending,' and takes place in a small Southern town, it's a real departure from Lumet's usual Manhattan milieu, but the intensity of the characters' desires, and the question of whether might makes right is
Perhaps the one film of Lumet's that now feels somewhat dated, if only in comparison to another, very similar film that came out the same year, Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove.' Whereas Kubrick's black comedy laughs in the face of extinction, Lumet's film plays out with an entirely straight face.
'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' (2007)
Lumet's last film follows a pair of ne'er do well brothers (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who scheme to rob their own parents' jewelry store. Lumet, Hoffman and Albert Finney all netted several awards for this family crime drama. "The screen may be full of losers, liars, killers and thieves, but behind the camera is a mensch," New York Times critic A.O. Scott said in his review, an apt summary of Lumet's entire film legacy.