If you have ever wanted to go to film school, read Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. There is one of the greatest film books by one of the great working directors. It walks you through the process of how people make and made films better than any book I think I’ve ever read. Lumet was a great talker, and knew what he was doing every step of the way.
Sidney Lumet, like his transition-generation peers (John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, both sadly no longer with us) began in television. But for that generation it was more akin to starting with the theater. He transitioned to the big screen with one of the greatest first films in cinema history. 1957’s 12 Angry Men is a director’s nightmare. For roughly 85% of the movie you are shooting in one room, and shooting coverage of twelve actors. It’s all you’ve got. In some ways it sums up a lot of Lumet’s work. It’s both subtle and obvious at the same time. But you have no film without the obvious, so it’s the subtle that stands out. How he manages to place the characters around the table, knowing when to trust the performers to carry a shot, knowing how to use the angle and depth of field to change the familiar. If it’s self-evident that Lee J. Cobb has emotional baggage, and you have no film if they can’t steer course on the verdict, then my only defense is that every single movie poster for a romantic comedy tells you how it’s going to end.The majority of films have obvious ending, it’s how you get there that matter. Lumet knew that better than most.
Cinema – for better or worse – favors the bold and personal over the workmanlike. And Lumet was a worker. He was a craftsman. He had a solid viewpoint, and knew how to shoot. He also was smart to work with strong material. His film The Verdict is one of the best uses of Mamet for the big screen. And The Verdict is kind of a perfect movie. It does everything right, it has great performances, there’s nothing bad you can say about the film. As a worker, it meant that he could follow 1973’s Serpico – which is very much in the new school tradition, and features one of the great Al Pacino performances – with 1974’s The Murder on the Orient Express, which is very much an old-school big-cast, “put on a show” sort of film. In 1975 he made Dog Day Afternoon, and in 1976 Network. Two years later he made The Wiz. It’s not to say that Lumet wasn’t an auteur, but looking at his filmography he had no interest in telling the same stories over and over again. And he would rather be working, which means he could deliver a great script perfectly. But unlike a passionate director like – say, Sam Peckinpah – when Lumet failed there was less to sift through.
He made That Kind of Woman in 1959 with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter, and a year later was adapting Tennessee Williams with a starring performance by Marlon Brando. In The Fugitive Kind, Brando seems to have invented a trick that other actors have borrowed. He’d give the director one take of the good, and another take of the bad. If the director didn’t know the difference, Brando gauged his performance accordingly. Lumet passed.
Lumet is also what is known as an actor’s director. Rod Stieger was often used for his ability to not just chew scenery but choke-hold it in one look or gesture. And yet his work in The Pawnbrokers shows that Stieger could give a controlled performance if working with the right person. By the nature of Stieger it comes across as animal training – and from Lumet’s own words Stieger had a huge ego – but it also had to do with finding the right material and director to shine. Lumet was also one of the first directors to believe that Sean Connery was an actor, not just James Bond, and so you get films like The Hill and The Anderson Tapes. He also got one of the best performances out of River Phoenix.
For most, the best Lumet is in that heady 70’s period. Network is one of his most defining films, but a film owned by Paddy Chayefsky. Network has been trotted out since its release as one of the great satires and satires on media (up there with Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd). It is the work of a bitter and angry man, and it’s screed on television journalism resonates today as it did at the time. A network causing an assassination of their own figure is probably a bridge too far for Fox News (and we hope that Fox isn’t giving the New Black Panthers money), but everything else seems to fit with the national discourse, and it’s hard not to look at Glenn beck and think Howard Beale – even Beck himself has said it. The power of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” is that it can be adopted and subsumed by just about anyone. But – that said – people have been using Network to beat up on network news since it was released. The ability to sink lower is evergreen.
But if two things define Lumet it’s his love and use of New York, and the crime film. He moved into the latter the further his career went along. One of my favorite films of his is the flawed but unmissable Prince in the City. I don’t think we’d have The Wire or The Shield as we do without films like Prince and Serpico.
All directors like Lumet (the skilled craftsman) are going to work to work, and the 90’s – after his “return to form” with Q&A (I put return to form in quotations because I don’t think his form left) – led to a series of studio films that were laughable at the time and likely forgotten to hisory, with one leading Melanie Griffith to pose as a hasidic Jew in an attempt to capture that Witness/Amish magic. It also led to a remake of the John Cassavettes film Gloria with Sharon Stone.
By the time Sidney Lumet – like so many great directors who were nominated but not Ron Howard/Tom Hooper/Mel Gibson good – received his honorary Academy award he was in the middle of post-production on Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. The academy honored that by including a clip of it in the middle of his tribute reel (well, it was toward the end) and effectively killed the film’s theatrical chances. It looked ghastly. And yet the film is rather great. It’s a slow burn, much like The Verdict, a character study and a courtroom drama. Lumet did it right, and Diesel was excellent. He got to follow it with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, where he had a great cast and pretty much great everything. If we must lose Lumet, it’s good that he went out on that note.
Every decade of Lumet offers treasures, and films that bear the mark of someone with good taste. Lumet also represents a dying if not dead breed of directors who were hired for their craft with actors. And the thought of that is sadder than the loss of an old man with a long and fascinating career.