Monday, April 11, 2011

The Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft of Sidney Lumet

Director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Note: the following article contains spoilers.

Back in 1983, I went to a screening in Montreal of Daniel, the Sidney Lumet adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel, which was loosely based on the case of the Rosenbergs, the Jewish spies executed for treason in the United States in 1953. The film wasn’t very good, politically simplistic and hobbled by an overwrought performance by Mandy Patinkin. But I still remember, upon coming out of the movie, my good friend Arnie's comments, said with some measure of relief, that finally here was a Jewish story that was not about Israel or the Holocaust. Arnie wasn’t commenting so much as a filmgoer but as a Montreal Jew, like myself, who felt the community’s pre-eminent, dominant concerns were fixated on only those two subjects, leaving little room for anything else. (Nearly thirty years later it’s still pretty much the case.) In that regard, Daniel was embarking on virgin territory, offering a different take on an aspect of the (American) Jewish community, its long-lived political activism and involvement with communism, that hadn’t been really dealt with onscreen before. (The 1976 ‘blacklist’ comedy The Front, which starred Woody Allen, wasn’t really a Jewish film.) When I heard of the death of director Sidney Lumet on Saturday April 9 at age 86, I realized that Daniel was indicative of most of his films. Whatever their quality; they tended to focus on subject matter and issues that most other filmmakers eschewed, beginning with Lumet’s impactful feature film debut, 12 Angry Men (1957). He routinely staked out his own cinematic territory, offering up more than a few gems and, more often, shepherding some great performances along the way.

Henry Fonda and company in 12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet was incredibly prolific, directing an average of a film a year from 1957-2007, a work ethic that likely emanated from his hectic previous television career, including stints on live shows such as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. He also rarely wrote the screenplays for his films, preferring to delegate that job to prominent playwrights and writers, such as David Mamet (The Verdict), E.L. Doctorow (Daniel), Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) and longtime collaborator Jay Presson Allen (Just Tell Me What You Want, Deathtrap, and Prince of the City, the latter being one of the few films Lumet had a hand in as screenwriter.) And while he wasn’t a visual stylist, there was still a definable, forceful Sidney Lumet style, namely New York-set, hard-bitten urban stories, often ripped from the headlines and ethically complex and humanistic. He was usually drawn to themes such as power and corruption that, more often than not, made for gripping, topical cinema. If his career was often maddeningly uneven in terms of quality, his reasons for choosing projects may have had something to do with it. As he said in 1973: "If I don't have a script I adore, I do one I like. If I don't have one I like, I do one that has an actor I like or that presents some technical challenge." That could and did make for some problematic choices but his workplace philosophy did mean that there was usually something of interest on tap in most of his movies.

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sidney Lumet's films were distinctive in many ways, including the talents they attracted. His movies regularly drew some of Hollywood’s finest actors, from Henry Fonda to Al Pacino, Michael Caine to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who under his deft, sensitive direction, gave some of their career best performances. Who can forget Fonda’s upright juror doggedly arguing and finally convincing his fellows to change their guilty verdicts in 12 Angry Men, thus sparing a young man from an unjust sentence.(If there was an overarching theme common to most of Lumet's films, it was that an individual can make a moral difference.) Or for that matter, erase the haunting image of the American president (again played by Fonda) at the conclusion of Fail-Safe (1964) making the painful, fateful decision to sacrifice New York City to a Soviet atomic weapon, as compensation for the U.S. inadvertently destroying Moscow? This, despite knowing his wife would perish in the nuclear conflagration, too. Then there was Pacino’s desperate bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), who though holding hostages, was able to get the spectators outside the bank on his side with his raucous recitation of “Attica, Attica”, reminding them of the tragedy that went down in the maximum security prison when the inmates revolted and their rebellion was crushed by the authorities. Lumet even drew a rare, fine late career performance out of Jane Fonda in the otherwise negligible The Morning After (1986) where she effectively played an alcoholic actress/party girl who becomes embroiled in murder. (Atypically, this Lumet film was set in Southern California.) And while Network (1976), courtesy of Paddy Chayefsky’s overly declamatory screenplay, may have been a tad obvious in its message, it was still effective movie making and allowed Lumet to capture Peter Finch at his finest, as the prophetic network news anchor Howard Beale decrying the decadence and immorality of television. Not only did the film predict the onslaught of reality television, albeit no one’s been deliberately killed on air – yet! – it also added a phrase to the zeitgeist when Beale ranted “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Peter Finch in Network (1976)
Finch and Chayefsky won Oscars for that film but Lumet, despite several nominations, never did win one, though he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award in 2005. I suspect he didn’t fare better at the Oscars because his movies weren’t sexy or glitzy enough. They were also, except for a few segue ways into comedy (Bye Bye Braverman, Just Tell Me What You Want, Garbo Talks), very serious, but Network and a handful of others aside, they usually unfolded in a low key, unshowy manner, which Oscar rarely notices. Fortunately, they were rarely earnest, because Sidney was not that kind of guy. He was a product of the Great Depression who never forgot to include pertinent social themes in his film, including those that pertained to his Jewish background. Those Jewish movies, in addition to Daniel, were all over the place, qualitatively and thematically. Bye Bye Braverman (1964) was an uneven comedy concerning a group of New York Jewish intellectuals who discourse on love and life while getting lost on the way to a friend’s funeral. A Stranger Among Us (1992), his putative thriller involving New York’s Hasidic community and the undercover policewoman (Melanie Griffiths, at her most vacuous) who has to infiltrate their close knit ranks, was simply ridiculous. It has to be said, however, that The Chosen aside, most American films portraying Orthodox Judaism and its adherents, such as A Price Above Rubies (1998) and Holy Rollers (2010), aren’t much better.

Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1965)
But two of his Jewish-themed films did register strongly with me: Running on Empty (1988) was a powerful drama about a '60s Jewish fugitive from justice (Judd Hirsch) on the run with his family that begins to splinter apart under the pressures of life on the road under assumed identities. Lumet ably directed Naomi Foner’s incisive script which offered up terrific work from Hirsch, Christine Lahti as his wife, and especially the late River Phoenix, in one of his last roles, as their son, and Martha Plimpton as his girlfriend; The Pawnbroker (1965), however, may be Lumet’s most important film. Certainly it was one of his best and an important signifier in the gradually loosening stranglehold of the nation’s Hays Code, when the censors allowed two scenes of topless women, one set in a concentration camp, to be passed intact, recognizing that there was nothing at all salacious in Lumet’s use of them. That was the first time bare breasts were ever shown in a mainstream American movie. Rod Steiger was remarkable in that film as Sol Nazerman, a Holocaust survivor who has hardened himself to his fellow human beings until he is, at last, forced to allow his buried feelings to rise to the surface. Not only was this the first portrait in an American film seen from a Holocaust survivor’s point of view, it also brought forth a difficult reality that made some Jews uncomfortable -- survivors who, as a coping mechanism, made their way in life after the war by denying their own humanity. (A few years later writer Harlan Ellison, scripting an episode of The Young Lawyers for ABC, was told he could not feature a similar type of survivor on the series.) By the time Lumet’s provocative crime drama Q & A (1990), which he wrote, rolled around, the Jews were part of the establishment, with a pivotal scene in the film revealing Jewish politicos conspiring with members of New York’s other racial and ethnic groups to reap the benefits of illegal activities. 

Jack Warden and Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982)
That was Sidney’s way, not going for the easy angle or P.O.V. His finest films took chances like that, as in The Verdict (1982) which startled audiences when Paul Newman’s alcoholic lawyer punches out Charlotte Ramping. Though that film’s tale of redemption could have been oh so Hollywood obvious, it managed to wring complexity and subtle emotions from David Mamet’s straight ahead plot. Prince of the City (1981), his nearly three hour long masterful opus, was a nuanced and very detailed analysis of corruption in the NYPD, to my mind a superior take on the themes Lumet explored in his earlier, and admittedly entertaining, Serpico (1973). Both fact-based films were among the earliest and most thoughtful examinations of police corruption with the former basically giving Jerry Orbach, though it was not his first film, his breakthrough role as Gus Levy, one of New York’s finest who was fingered by Treat Williams’ ‘Prince’. Orbach, of course went on to portray another flawed New York cop, Lennie Briscoe, on TV’s Law & Order. Dog Day Afternoon, likely Lumet’s most viscerally exciting film, dared feature a gay protagonist, who robbed a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. That was novel at the time. So was the controversial gay and revelatory kiss between the characters played by Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap (1982), Lumet’s crisply directed thriller, adapted by Jay Presson Allen from Ira Levin’s clever play. 

The cast of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
In the last decade, Lumet’s career nosedived as his type of contemplative films fell out of fashion. In the interim he created a courtroom drama 100 Centre Street (2001-02) for A & E, employing among others, his friend and fellow New Yorker Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant), another director who found it hard to get film work in his late career. But Lumet did make a comeback of sorts with the inventive and surprisingly sexual love triangle/ thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), his last feature. Memorialized by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as “one of the great chroniclers of our city" and volubly praised by fellow New York filmmakers Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors), Lumet leaves an intelligent, memorable mark on his beloved Big Apple and, though not based in Hollywood, on his industry, as well. His uncommon intellectual like will be sorely missed.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.


  1. A very fine tribute. I think maybe the Toronto Jewish Film Society should consider extending these thoughts and perhaps program The Pawnbroker.

  2. Thanks, Shlomo. I had no idea how many of Lumet's films I'd seen -- only that the first of them, Twelve Angry Men, touched me as a kid and changed my life. For the first time, I witnessed what standing up for the truth might mean, and I never forgot that lesson. Good films really matter. This was a fine tribute.