When acclaimed director, Sidney Lumet, was asked about how he wanted to die, his response was, “I don’t think about it. I’m not religious. I do know that I don’t want to take up any space. Burn me up and scatter my ashes over Katz’s Delicatessen.”
Katz’s Delicatessen was one of Lumet’s favorite delis in New York City.
Sidney Lumet died from lymphoma on April 9th, 2011. Most people wouldn’t say that he died before his time at 86 years old, but the truth is that Lumet was still in his prime. His last film was the ironically titled, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
I saw the film when it was released on DVD in 2008. I had no idea who the director was, but immediately as the credits rolled I looked up his name. I was shocked to find that it was the same director of, 12 Angry Men.
That can’t be right… that film came out decades ago.
Turns out it was right. Sidney Lumet directed a modern masterpiece at 82 years old.
As I scrolled through Lumet’s portfolio I realized that he was a hidden gem. I use the word ‘hidden’ objectively because every time I mention Lumet’s name to anyone I’m met with quizzical looks.
With over 40 films under his belt, and 17 actors/actress nominations from his films it’s surprising that Lumet’s name isn’t muttered in the same breath as the other classical Hollywood giants such as Alfred Hitchock or John Ford.
Popularity shouldn’t be confused with proficiency. Sidney Lumet is a mammoth compared to Hitchock or Ford. The reason why Lumet isn’t as well known is because he chose to do something most modern directors shy away from. Lumet chose story over style.
In the self-authored, universally praised novel, “Making Movies”, Sidney Lumet commented that, “One of the reasons Hitchcock was so deservedly adored was that his personal style was strongly felt in every picture. But it’s important to realize why: He always essentially made the same picture.”
BTW if you’re serious about filmmaking this is a must read. Seriously.
Hitchcock used the same cameraman, the composer, and the same genre for all of his films. It’s quite common even today for directors to use the same production team for each film but Lumet’s choice to shy away from the formula is what has contributed to such a varied portfolio that covers the whole spectrum of human emotions. In the same novel, Lumet commented that, “I’ve tried to work in as many genres as possible. I have cast cameraman or composers the same way I have actors: Are they right for this picture?”
Switching up the crew isn’t the only thing Lumet experimented with in his prolific career. He also pioneered a new method of naturalism in film.
Lumet was approached with an extremely controversial script, Dog Day Afternoon, in the early 70’s. He decided the only way to pull it off was to downplay the controversy rather than submit to the studio’s wish to highlight the tantalizing subject matter.
The script was based on the true events of a bank robbery by a homosexual man strapped for cash. The reason for the robbery? To get enough money to give his boyfriend the sex change operation he wanted.
Today Dog Day Afternoon stands as one of the great masterpieces of cinema despite following a gay bank robber through the course of one long day. How did Sidney Lumet got us rooting for Sonny Wortzik, one of the most polarizing characters in any film? On this topic he wrote, “Hollywood usually thinks that universality means generalization.”
Sidney Lumet went in the opposite direction as generalization for Dog Day Afternoon. He went for authenticity instead. This groundbreaking approach is what redeemed this film from falling on its own face. “I told the actors that we were dealing with material that was sensationalist by its nature. Normally, I’m not concerned about audience reaction. But when you touch on sex and death, two aspects of life that hit a deep core, there’s no way of knowing what an audience will do. They could laugh at the wrong places, catcall, start trying to talk back to the screen- any of a hundred defenses that people throw up when they’re embarrassed… I told the actors that the only way we could preclude this was to portray the characters they played as close to themselves as possible… No costumes. They would wear their own clothes.”
60% of the dialogue in the final film was improvised. Sidney Lumet essentially blurred the line between reality and fiction as much he could. He injected true naturalism in a complex story, to breathe plausibility in it.
Blurring the line was Lumet’s specialty. He shied away from any absolutism both narratively and morally. Even his first film achieved this on a spectacular level.
12 Angry Men sits at #7 on IMDB’s top 250 films as voted by the users of the world’s largest and most compressive film site. 138,731 votes is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering it’s the only black and white film in the top ten. And also the oldest by decades. It still his most successful film both critically (the golden bear 1957 Berlin Film Festival) and commercially with an unparalleled shelf life; boasting one of the most played film on television next to It’s a Wonderful Life.
Put concisely, this film is about jury duty and takes place in one cramped room for the majority of its narrative as the jurors go from a overwhelming majority voting guilty as the tide slowly sweeps towards not guilty by film’s end. The brilliance here truly lies in the film’s ending.
The jurors leave the room to cast their vote and then we are treated to a shot of the jurors walking down the steps. The credits roll. We never find out if he was truly not guilty, we never find out if the jurors were right morally or not in their decision.
Thus the lack of absolutism narratively and morally.
Another notable piece of moral equivoque is carved in the staggering saga of police corruption in Prince of the City. Sidney Lumet commented on his own protagonist that, “Its ambiguity on every level was one of the most exciting things about it. I didn’t even know how I felt about the leading character: was he a hero or villain? I never did find out until I saw the completed picture.”
Craig Detweiler is a producer, screenwriter, author, lecturer, and filmmaker. Most people around Pepperdine know Mr. Detweiler as one of their film professors. He was heavily influenced by the works of Mr. Lumet and when asked about his favorite Lumet film he responded, “I saw Prince of the City when I was seventeen years old. It portrayed such a complex and corrupt police department and justice system. I suddenly understood that doing the right thing was much more difficult than I ever imagined.”
From naturalism to realism, Sidney Lumet jumped styles across his directorial credits. He wrote that, “Someone once asked me what making a movie was like. I said it was like making a mosaic. Each setup is like a tiny tile. You color it, shape it, polish it as best you can. You’ll do six or seven hundred of these, maybe a thousand. (There can easily be that many setups in a movie.) Then you literally paste them together and hope it’s what you set out to do… When we’re sitting at rushes, watching yesterday’s work, the greatest compliment we can give each other is, ‘Good work. We’re all making the same movie.’ That’s style.”
Craig Detweiler added, “He was an actors’ director, he was a New York director, he served the story rather than his individual style. And all those qualities seem to be in short supply nowadays.” Directors are becoming tailored towards the status of movie stars by their ‘style’ blessing them with distinction. Audiences who are watching films by visually stylish directors like Michael Bay or Zack Snyder can almost always tell who directed it just by choice of shot composition/editing.
Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are among some of the titans that Lumet directed in show-stopping performances. One of the first things Lumet writes in the preface of Making Movies, is that, “There’s no right or wrong way to direct a movie.” More specifically, every actor is unique and requires different approaches to extract the performance out of them.
One notable example of Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the role of directing his actors occurred on a picture called That Kind of Woman, “I needed tears from an actor on a particular line. She couldn’t do it. Finally, I told her that no matter what I did during the next take, she should keep going and say the line. We rolled the camera. Just before she reached the line, I hauled off and slapped her. Her eyes widended. She looked stunned. Tears welled up, overflowed, she said the line, and we had a terrific take. When I called, ‘Cut, print!’ She threw her arms around me, kissed me, and told me I was brilliant. But I was sick with self-loathing. I ordered an ice pack so her cheek wouldn’t swell up… If we can’t get it by craftsmanship, to hell with it. We’ll find something else that’ll work as well.”
Lumet writes in his own novel that, “I’ve also been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all my work. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reason I don’t know is that when I open the first page of a script, I’m a willing captive. I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life.” Put simply, Lumet set out to make good films because he is a true disciple to the art form and perhaps our lost prophet.
Craig succinctly summed up the core of his body of work, “Lumet’s finest films placed characters (and the audience) in a moral quandary. The setting could be a jury room, a nuclear facility, a newsroom or a bank robbery but Lumet portrayed everyday Americans as decent people forced to make hard choices. Lumet gravitated toward haunting ethical dilemmas.”
Speaking of haunting, Network is the scariest film I’ve seen in recent years. No it’s not a horror but the similarities of the media perversion in the film is too close to today’s wasteland of ‘entertainment.’ It’s not just a prophetic film but also rests in my top 10 films of all time. Everything about the film is perfect especially the writing. Go see it. (It’s also on VOD)
Mr. Lumet, thank you for setting one of the best examples through each generation. You’re the kind of director I’m aspiring to become, one that serves the story rather than the style.