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Master work 'Before the Devil' shows why Lumet is one of the greats

We all know the ancient Irish toast: "May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead."

Here's to "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a tough, gritty thriller/domestic tragedy (Elmore Leonard by way of Eugene O'Neill) by the absolute great living master of urban American film, Sidney Lumet, who's 83.

Lumet, to me, has been one of the great living American film masters for almost three decades. He is only just now beginning to be thought of that way, and his incredible New York City movies "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Pawnbroker" and "Prince of the City" are increasingly revered as classics and imitated by some of the least likely people (most recently, in several scenes, by Ridley Scott in "American Gangster"). Lumet has spent decades being patronized and underrated.

Why? Because the greatest American film critic of the past 45 years, Pauline Kael, did so in a piece on the making of Lumet's "The Group," and the condescension stuck for the next three decades, deserved or not -- until, that is, Kael died and people began to understand that in Lumet's best films, there is no one remotely like him, no matter how many try to be. Heaven knows his insistence on being busy has meant that he has made many terrible movies, but the number of great ones that have his name on them in a frenetically busy career is staggering.

And his method, from his first film, "12 Angry Men," has always been the same: Encourage very good actors to act up a storm, if necessary, and pay very close attention to every bead of sweat and every bulging vein in their forehead when they do. And soak as many films as possible in the atmosphere, locations and life rhythms of New York City.

That he is still doing all that as tensely and powerfully as he is in this movie at age 83 is near-unique in American film history (the only comparable figure is John Huston in his remarkable final films "Wise Blood," "Prizzi's Honor" and "The Dead").

If you didn't know Lumet is 83, you'd never guess it from "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," with its raw opening sex scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman congratulating himself on the rarity of satisfying his wife. Admittedly, the dark, bleak joke of the finale might lead you to guess a director at an age where he understands King Lear in his bones and sinew, but everything else seems the detailed mastery and brilliance of a man in his 40s and 50s.

In a plot that jumps back and forth (with complete clarity), Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers whose tenuous grip on their faltering lives is revealed to us slowly. Hoffman is a successful accountant in a stable firm, but he has this little drug problem that causes him to shoot up and nod off on his lunch hours in the plush New York apartment of one of New York's scurviest.

Hawke, as his younger brother, has almost no traction at all in life -- except, that is, with his older sibling's wife whom he is sleeping with. And then his smiling, reptilian, secret junkie brother comes up with a bright idea: Why not rob their parents' mini-mall jewelry store?

Things go as badly from the first, as they should, given such a plan. And everything they do to reinstate stability makes it seem much worse, until the pitiless but brilliant finale. By that point, a dark and impressive crime thriller has turned into a primal family drama about murderous dysfunction.

Albert Finney plays their distraught but brutally tough father, the primal engine of all fate, as children and as grown-ups.

It's terrific stuff. By the time it's over, you know these actors were born to work with Lumet -- even Finney, who went so outrageously over the top as Hercule Poirot in Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express." Hoffman, especially, was to the Lumet manner born.

May Lumet, our reigning cinematic octogenarian, make at least 10 more films before any of us knows he's dead.


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