Director Sidney Lumet turned 83 this year, and his debut feature, 12 Angry Men (1957) turned 50. Most film buffs count that film among the great debut films in history, and Lumet has certainly gone on to make many more classic films: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), The Verdict (1982) and Running on Empty (1988), among others. However, most film buffs also agree that, despite his notable debut, Lumet is more of a superior craftsman than an artist and that his long filmography -- more than 50 movies and TV shows -- contains just as many clunkers as it does hits. But here's the good news about a craftsman: he usually learns from his mistakes and gets better and better. And Lumet's two most recent films, last year's Find Me Guilty and the new Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, are among his best.

The bad news is that when Hollywood people and moviegoers hear the thing about Lumet being 83 years old, they'll probably stay away from the new film, as they stayed away from Find Me Guilty a year ago. Lumet has also made the commercial mistake of telling a jewel heist story and telling it straight, without any of the jokey, self-referential stuff that drives most post-Tarantino crime movies. Lumet's movie is about people rather than jewels or guns. And, at 83, he knows a thing or two about people.

Lumet does modernize his movie by laying it out in a complex series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, which I don't think I could re-create for you without a road map. But the movie does start with the botched robbery itself, a burst of ugly violence that lingers and reeks throughout the rest of the film. An elderly woman is dropped off in front of a jewelry store in a shopping mall. An elderly man tells her he loves her and drives off. A younger man in a ski mask barges in, pulls a gun and tries to steal the jewels. The lady sees her chance, pulls her own gun from the register and fires. The guy goes down but he's not out. He fires back and hits her. She shoots once more and the thief falls, dead, out the front door. His driver, wearing a wig and sunglasses, freaks out and drives off.

Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson use the flashback structure masterfully, dramatically revealing key information after we might have used it, like in Pulp Fiction or Memento, so that we must mentally return to earlier scenes; we're as involved with the structure as we are with the characters. When returning to certain sequences, Lumet changes the camera point of view, so that a character that was previously below is now above, or vice-versa. Perhaps the best reason for this structure, however, is the morally dodgy nature of the characters. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an accountant for a real estate firm; his drug habit keeps him financially in the hole, and he presumably has been manipulating records at the office to stay afloat. Andy's divorced brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is likewise deeply in debt, but mostly because he's paying through the nose to keep his daughter in a ritzy school, on top of his regular alimony. Though Hank is slightly morally superior to Andy, the film quickly paints him as weak and indecisive. He's even having an affair with Andy's beautiful, aloof wife Gina (Marisa Tomei).

The catch, and I hope I'm not giving too much away, is that Andy and Hank agree to rob the jewelry store belonging to their own parents. It's perfect, Andy explains. They've both worked there, they know the alarm system, and they know that, on Saturdays, the little old lady who helps their parents works alone. (Their mother is supposed to have the day off.) The insurance will cover all the stolen items, so it's a "victimless" crime. Regardless of all this, robbing your own parents is pretty darn low. It's the type of thing that, during the Hays Code period of the 1930s and 1940s would have prohibited this movie from being made at all. As the movie goes on, we get to know Hank and Andy's emotionally curdled father (Albert Finney), and we get an idea of just how their twisted way of thinking might have come about. (In some ways, the film is similar to Lumet's 1989 film Family Business, but much better.) As with Find Me Guilty, Lumet asks us -- more or less -- to root for the bad guys. It's an odd experience, and an interesting experiment, and will no doubt turn off many viewers.

Over the years, Lumet has guided some of the finest performances of Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and many others, and it goes without saying that he gets impeccable performances from all four major players (plus Rosemary Harris as the mother and wife), and in some cases the finest work of their careers. Lumet does more than simply coax them to act well, however. He enhances their performances visually with tricks of the light. Throughout Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the light turns hot and bright when things get tense or tight. The result is that he visually captures the sinking feeling the characters must get when something goes from bad to worse. It's that prickly, cold sweat panic that makes the characters human, regardless of their moral flaws.

The title, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, comes from an Irish toast "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." It suggests that even the most despicable people have a right to fair judgment. This is something that the greatest filmmakers have discovered, from Ozu and Hitchcock to Renoir, and Lumet has now joined that list. He proves it with the movie's astounding last scene, a scene that puts this movie over the top and onto the list of the year's best American films.