See Kenny, Zoller Seitz, Edroso, and this oldie-but-goodie from Dargis. Roy’s post, with its account of Lumet’s setting of Newman’s summation in The Verdict, has many insights but I especially like this one:
His work was uneven, but I don’t know that we’d have the good films he gave us if he husbanded his energies like Kubrick, and made movies less often. His was not a ruminative talent. He got the idea, made the picture, and moved on. This resembles the method of the hack, but Lumet was clearly not only talented, but artistically ambitious — he actually got an NYPD trilogy (Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A) made in Hollywood; who among our auteurs could do likewise? They could sell a superhero property, of course, but a three-film examination of big-city police and political corruption? It wouldn’t even occur to them. Which is just another reason to mourn Lumet’s passing.
Pauline Kael vividly, if too uncharitably. described the approach in her essay about the making of The Group. The two salient features of Lumet’s body of work are the peaks and the fallow periods. But it was a very different trajectory than the burn-bright-and-slowly-fade-away pattern perhaps less prominent in film than in music or poetry but still pretty common. One the one hand, he was always very uneven, following up Serpico with Loving Molly and the Network with an unsuccessful adaption of Equus. On the other hand, what stands to me as his greatest film came out 25 years after Twelve Angry Men, and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead ranks near the top of his canon. I’d like to think that the latter was his last film because he knew he had really nailed one after a lot of partial and full misfires, but Glenn confirms that he never would have thought that way, and the restless energy of his 70s peaks never could have happened any other way.
Since it’s nearly obligatory to note an idiosyncratic favorite, I’ll note that with the exception of James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night might be my favorite filmed theater.