Sidney Lumet: an appreciation

03 May 2011

Guest feature: Daniel Singleton is based in Rochester, NY

The movies lost one of their best directors last month, and sadly, they may never recover from the loss. Between 1957 and 2007, Sidney Lumet directed more than forty films, including his first film, 12 Angry Men (1957); my favorite Eugene O’Neill adaptation, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962); the neglected Cold War thriller Fail-Safe (1964), the dramatic response to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964); the Holocaust memory-tragedy The Pawnbroker (1965); Dog Day Afternoon (1975); Network (1976); Prince of the City (1981), in which a crooked detective tries to go straight, but only hurts his friends; The Verdict (1982); Daniel (1983) and Running on Empty (1988), two films about children who suffer for their parents’ crimes. I could also add to this list several lesser titles that do not affect me as strongly as the aforementioned films, yet I would not easily relinquish them: The Anderson Tapes (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Q&A (1990), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), and his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

At first glance, nothing unites these films apart from quality – the way Lumet chooses the correct camera angle, the correct musical cue, the correct take in each film. Watching his movies is like watching a carpenter build a chair: he selects only functional elements, discarding moments that don’t benefit the movie. It’s easy to recognize films by Scorsese, Hitchcock, Lynch, and Bergman, because their distinctive styles often upstage their stories; but Lumet is invisible and anonymous. He’s so reluctant to call attention to himself that viewers who stumble upon his films while channel-surfing fail to recognize them – but that’s how Lumet wants it:

Almost no critic spotted the stylization on Prince of the City. It’s one of the most stylized movies I’ve ever made. Kurosawa spotted it, though. In one of the most thrilling moments of my professional life, he talked to me about the “beauty” of the camerawork as well as of the picture. But he meant beauty in the sense of its organic connection to the material. And this is the connection that, for me, separates the stylists from the decorators. The decorators are easy to spot.

As he told Peter Bogdanovich: “[T]he camera – like everything else in the piece – has to relate to what’s going on dramatically. You have to cast your camera the way you cast an actor.” Jay Boyer writes:

There is nothing particularly startling about the camerawork; on first viewing, Lumet seems to be using “establishing shots,” functional shots that are necessary to establish the dimensions of the space in which the drama will occur. And yet, we know that something is not quite right.

The Verdict, 1982
Something is different

Lumet’s films are as stylized as films by Bergman or Scorsese, but often the effects are so hidden that only a trained eye can detect Lumet’s influence, his smooth hand that guides the story without calling attention to the director. Boyer points to one of his strengths – his effects are mostly unconscious; he can direct the viewer to notice X or Y without alerting him to the fact that he is “noticing” X or Y. Reading his book, Making Movies (1995), which is equal parts autobiography, film criticism, and behind-the-scenes documentary, one discovers stories like this:

Some of the best scores I’ve heard cannot be remembered at all. I’m thinking of Howard Shore’s superb score for Silence of the Lambs. When seeing the movie, I never heard it. But I always felt it. It’s the kind of score I try to achieve in most of my pictures… I feel that the less an audience is aware of how we’re achieving an effect, the better the picture will be.

Lumet expresses his love for form by subjugating it to content. You will not find “technique just for the sake of itself”. Instead of imposing “decoration” on films that cannot handle it (or don’t need it), he lets the script dictate camera angles, lighting, music, and pace. Murder on the Orient Express, an Agatha Christie adaptation, requires Old Hollywood glamour, and a big-name cast which includes Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, and Richard Widmark. But Dog Day Afternoon, a story about a homosexual who robs a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation, needs naturalism. Network begins naturalistically, but ends as artificially as a commercial – how else to film a story about the corruptive power of television? The Verdict surrounds its alcoholism and regret with autumnal browns, blacks, and oranges – it’s depressing yet somehow inspirational. The Pawnbroker uses subliminal cuts (barely perceptible three frame shots) to signify the trauma that the Holocaust survivor cannot repress – the trauma that continues to disrupt his life twenty years after the war.

In interviews, Lumet prides himself on the disparity of his films, but close examination reveals that most of his films concern morality and ethics. In many films, he questions whether it is possible for individuals to uphold their values in a world that seems intent on crushing them. Think about how Henry Fonda stands up for the accused in 12 Angry Men. Or think about how the President (Henry Fonda) in Fail-Safe works with the Russians to prevent nuclear war – not a popular position during the Cold War. There is also the bank robber (Al Pacino) in Dog Day Afternoon who wants to please both hostages and cops; the television executive (William Holden) in Network who would rather resign than exploit an insane newscaster; and the lawyer (Paul Newman) in The Verdict who rejects $200,000 in order to bring quack doctors to trial (although it is crucial to note that he also wants to redeem himself). In Daniel and Running on Empty, there are children who suffer for their parents’ mistakes, and parents who suffer for the unnecessary pain they inflicted on their children. And who could forget the cops in Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A, and Night Falls on Manhattan, who risk their lives and reputations to expose corruption within police precincts?

In many films, there is also preoccupation with the past that overwhelms the present. In Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan, the cops wonder whether their fathers, also cops, took brides – some critics argue that they expose corruption in order to clean their family’s taint. (The same theme appears in Daniel and Running on Empty.) The lawyer in The Verdict cannot forgive himself for his past mistakes, to the point that he cannot function – when the film opens, his law practice has almost collapsed, which frees long afternoons for pinball, beer, and desperate visits to funeral homes. Similarly, the Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker cannot erase memories of beatings, barking dogs, and murder that occurred between the camp’s wire fences; everything recalls them, especially the chain-link fence that lines his pawnshop.

Prince of the City, 1981
 The New York films

Like Scorsese, Allen, and Lee, Lumet sets many of his films in New York City. Like those directors, he knows how to capture the city’s essence. Many films and television shows are set in NYC, but most are so anonymous that they could be set in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver – or anywhere. Lumet penetrates the city, reveals its underbelly by pointing to strip clubs and side streets we would otherwise avoid. The transvestite bar in Q&A. The Brooklyn bank and surrounding streets in Dog Day Afternoon. The slums in Daniel, circa 1930, drawn from Lumet’s childhood memories. The hole-in-the-wall restaurants and alleys in Prince of the City. The newsrooms and offices of Network. The dingy Harlem pawnshop in The Pawnbroker. The high rise apartments in The Anderson Tapes:

He knows which architecture or neighborhood fits the atmosphere. Walls and lampposts work as silent players. His characters, like cab drivers at a red light, twitch with the edgy impatience that at any moment may explode into violence… His is a dark city, inhabited by people who make their livings amid the shadows, unseen by tourists sequestered in the warm neon cocoons of theaters and midtown hotels, unnoted by those who comment in the guidebooks on restaurants with the best wine lists (from Richard A. Blake's Street Smart: the New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese and Lee).

Like John Frankenheimer and Martin Ritt, he came to film from live television. Like theirs, his films are characterized by efficiency and daring – Lumet never shies away from risks:

In live television the director not only had to be good with actors or know how to handle his camera; he had to be technician and editor as well, to be able to improvise, to adapt with split-second thinking. He learnt by experiment; there were no rules as to what you could or could not do as there were in filmmaking at the time. He had to have a dynamic enthusiasm, a sharp visual eye, and probably a good amount of stamina.

His films, like those by Frankenheimer and Ritt, are fresher and looser than those produced by established Hollywood giants such as George Stevens. They have energy that distinguished films lack, which perhaps explain why audiences initially rejected them – they were too fresh, too innovative, and too emotional. But unlike the American New Wave directors, to whom the television veterans are often compared, these directors never replace story and character with self-conscious flourishes that shout “ART!” – they direct actors, camerawork, editing, and music to achieve the emotional impact required by the story. They know that filmmaking is collaborative: art directors built sets; cinematographers light them; actors expose their vulnerabilities; writers design character arcs; directors decide which take appears onscreen. Nobody wants their work to shine; they want their work to coalesce so that the film will shine – they want to “make the same movie.” They guide the piece without controlling or owning it. In his book, Lumet notes that he and the writer each want the movie to “do something,” but on good films, a third intention slowly emerges that neither could predict:

[At the rushes] slowly you give up any expectations of what you’re going to see. You simply sit back with a kind of silent confidence, knowing that what you’re going to see will be surprising but right… When this magic happens, the best thing you can do is get out of its way. Let it tell you to proceed from now on.

He’s humble in success, and takes responsibility for his failures. (I did not mention that he also directed The Wiz in 1978.) The impression that I get when I read his book, study his interviews, or watch his films is that Lumet loved movies more than many of his critics or coworkers, although he never pretended to know their secrets – why one movie works and the other fails. Maybe that was why he could direct so many good, great, and brilliant films. He surrounded himself with talent, and did his best to stimulate them to produce great work, so that he (and his audience) could marvel at the results.

Network, 1976