BY JOHN ANDERSON
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Since his death in 2011, Sidney Lumet has loomed ever larger, seeming to occupy a singular spot in the great traffic flow of American cinema. Perhaps it’s because he’s the only one at his particular intersection. Yes, he made sublimely entertaining films. But more than a few were also among the most socially significant of their time—The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973) and The Verdict (1982)—with a resonance that was felt well beyond the confines of a movie theater. Several generations of civil rights-minded law students were no doubt inspired by 12 Angry Men (1957), including Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And when homosexuality was still illegal in California, Lumet was making a hero out of a gay bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Lumet’s career is a link between the Yiddish theater, where hefirst appeared onstage as an actor at the age of 4, and Blu-ray, where most of his films now exist. After learning his craft in live television, he wasn’t just prolific—some 50 movies in 50 years—but eclectic, passionate, and virtuosic. So how to define him? The usual shorthand on Lumet is that he loved dialogue, worked quickly, and was a New York director who, despite several disheveled comedies—Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), Garbo Talks (1984), and the misguided musical The Wiz (1978)—was mostly interested in “issue” movies. This is largely true, although trying to neatly pigeonhole any director with Lumet’s longevity is a losing proposition. But what seemed to attract him consistently—what made him thrive—was the workplace. Any workplace. It didn’t matter whether the work being done was a jury deliberation, a bank robbery, an undercover drug bust on a grimy New York street, or the nightly news being broadcast from the control room of a TV station losing its soul. The depiction of people doing the things that define them provides the electric moments in a Lumet movie—the scenes that crackle with energy.
Lumet made one of the more spectacular feature film debuts in the history of American cinema when he adapted Reginald Rose’s teleplay Twelve Angry Men (1954), which, like Serpico, was a thriller as well as a social critique, and showed what the right director could do with the right cast, the right script, and a single room. There’s always something happening in that jurisprudential hothouse. The shots circle the jurors, who sometimes pass through the frame with their backs to the camera. Ed Begley coughs; Jack Warden tips his hat from the back of his head; Lee J. Cobb looks sadly at a picture of his son; E.G. Marshall adjusts his glasses. There are eerie, disorienting close-ups of the elderly juror played by Joseph Sweeney. A knife—Exhibit A—is presented; another knife—Exhibit B?—is plunged into the table. The light skips around the room, toying with our attention, always playing off this face or that; illuminating a thought, or a doubt. The script could have been played in a theater, but anyone who accuses Lumet of having produced a photographed play isn’t really watching what’s happening on the screen.
12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men established Lumet’s career, and set a precedent for much of what would follow. His better movies would be about the individual against the system—the lone juror of conscience (Henry Fonda) trying to sway 11 other angry men in the face of racism and classism; the lone honest cop, against an inherently corrupt police department in Serpico; the alcoholic outsider, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), finding redemption in The Verdict’s rigged malpractice case.
We know some of Lumet’s likes and dislikes thanks to his generous and tantalizingly discreet 1995 memoir, Making Movies, which is a primer on directing, with generous revelations about style and technique. Yet the book is positively close-mouthed regarding Serpico, which is odd since that film makes the best case for Lumet as the complete director; something he looks like more and more as time passes.
Serpico is a drama involving Lumet’s favorite variety of crime—institutional. Based on the life of New York City cop Frank Serpico, who testified about police corruption before the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s, it’s a political film, a thriller, and a social critique. The film portrays New York with the kind of affectionate despair that Lumet often expressed about his hometown, which he also brought to the fore in Dog Day Afternoon. And, like Dog Day Afternoon, it features a tour de force performance by Al Pacino—maybe his best.
It’s also a movie that makes very clear which side it’s on—unlike Prince of the City (1981), Lumet’s other film about police corruption with which it’s often compared. The real Frank Serpico may not have been as handsome, soulful or unsullied by life as the character in the movie, but the way Lumet lets the camera swim in Pacino’s mournful eyes, and registers his resigned smile, there’s no way to be ambiguous about his always noble intentions.
Not that there aren’t convincingly intimate moments, or a deft directorial hand behind them, in Lumet’s films. One oft-related Lumet story involves Network (1976) and the prelude to the film’s “romantic” breakup between principal characters Max Schumacher, the ruined newsman played by William Holden, and Diana Christensen, the ratings-obsessed succubus played by Faye Dunaway. As the scene evolved during rehearsals, Lumet was dissatisfied with the dynamic between Holden and Dunaway. Prior to shooting, Lumet gave his male actor a single directive: Lock eyes with Dunaway and never look away. The result is one of the more disturbing and effective scenes in the movie, partly because Diana, listening to her colleague/ lover rant about the disintegration of all the values he holds dear, hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s talking about.
Prince of the City (1981)
Lumet knew movies live and die by their casting, and his instinct for putting the right face in the right place means that many of his films are unimaginable with anyone else in the roles. This applies to the relative unknowns, as well as A-list stars he often worked with.
“You empathize with [stars] immediately even if they’re playing monsters,” Lumet said of the well-known faces he did not want for Prince of the City—a movie that dwells in moral twilight. “A major star would defeat the picture with just the advertising. I chose a superb but not very wellknown actor, Treat Williams. This may have defeated the commerciality of the movie, but it was the right choice dramatically.”
On Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) he took the opposite tack. He wanted giants in the roles—Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone, Ralph Richardson as James Tyrone, and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as their sons Jamie and Edmund. He knew that when they fell, as they must, it would be thunderous.
Long Day’s Journey also served as a showcase for Lumet as an imagist storyteller. Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork portrays a day in the life of a famous actor’s family: his sons and fellow alcoholics, and his morphine- addicted wife. The action takes place on the grounds and house modeled after the O’Neill family cottage on Long Island Sound; the work at hand—that of being a family—is a failing enterprise.
As a character study, it’s harrowing, abetted by Lumet’s visual technique. The light on Mary and her less cynical son Edmund, is always gentle and from the front; James and Jamie are lit harder and from above. The light on the three men grows harsher as the drama progresses. Meanwhile, camera positions create their own narrative: The angle on the men gets lower and lower, until the camera is literally at floor level, while the perspective on Mary gets higher, reflecting her opiated state. During the harrowing confrontations between father and son, and the brothers, it all comes together—the lenses get wider, the camera lower, and the light harsher and fading.
The Verdict (1982)
The Hill (1965) may be a less prominent entry in the Lumet canon, but it’s noteworthy as virtually an experimental film. Set in a British army prison in North Africa during World War II, it’s one of five movies the director made with Sean Connery. Each third of the movie is shot with wide lenses (24, 21 and 18 mm), by the great Oswald Morris, on Ilford black-and-white stock, which was beyond high contrast. The point was getting as much of the landscape in each shot, and making it as harsh and harrowing as possible.
Lumet had already applied the same look to human beings in The Fugitive Kind (1960), an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ drama Orpheus Descending, starring Marlon Brando as a Southern sex-toy drifter, and Anna Magnani as an older woman with a dying husband. The lenses punctuated Magnani’s hard, bitter attitude; those used on Brando were longer, the effect softer. Gradually, as Magnani’s character softens, so does the look. Finally, Lumet uses the same longer lens on both characters.
In the end, what one remembers from Lumet’s films isn’t the technical virtuosity but the emotional weight of his stories: the righteous anger, an occasionally melancholic view of the human condition, and wonderful performances. Lumet loved actors, and gave them what they required. If Marlon Brando needed 34 takes to get a scene right in The Fugitive Kind, he got it. If Paul Newman wanted time and space to find his character in The Verdict, Lumet gave it to him. If Ingrid Bergman wanted to play the simple Swedish maid in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), rather than a Russian princess—which Lumet originally had in mind for her—he allowed it. And he was rewarded with some of the best performances of their careers. Many of Lumet’s actors came back to him, time and time again. And of course, so will we.