Sidney Lumet, 1924 - 2011

David Hudson

"Sidney Lumet, a director who preferred the streets of New York to the back lots of Hollywood and whose stories of conscience — 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, Network — became modern American film classics, died Saturday morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 86." Robert Berkvist in the New York Times: "'While the goal of all movies is to entertain,' Mr Lumet once wrote, 'the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.' Social issues set his own mental juices flowing, and his best films not only probed the consequences of prejudice, corruption and betrayal but also celebrated individual acts of courage."

"Nearly all the characters in Lumet's gallery are driven by obsessions or passions that range from the pursuit of justice, honesty, and truth to the clutches of jealousy, memory, or guilt," Stephen E Bowles has written for Film Reference. "It is not so much the object of their fixations but the obsessive condition itself that intrigues Lumet. In films like The Fugitive Kind, A View from the Bridge, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker, The Seagull, The Appointment, The Offense, Lovin' Molly, Network, Just Tell Me What You Want and many of the others, the protagonists, as a result of their complex fixations, are lonely, often disillusioned individuals. Consequently, most of Lumet's central characters are not likable or pleasant, and sometimes not admirable figures. And, typically, their fixations result in tragic or unhappy consequences… Lumet's recently published memoir about his life in film, Making Movies, is extremely lighthearted and infectious in its enthusiasm for the craft of moviemaking itself. This stands in marked contrast to the tone and style of most of his films. Perhaps Lumet's signature as a director is his work with actors — and his exceptional ability to draw high-quality, sometimes extraordinary performances from even the most unexpected quarters."

"Lumet took a memorable final bow with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, an acclaimed crime saga that proved its creator was still a force to be reckoned with," writes the Guardian's Xan Brooks. 'The veteran director Sidney Lumet may be 84 years old,' wrote Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw in January 2008. 'But in this superb heist thriller, he breaks out the shocks — and the twists — with the ferocity of a hungry youngster.'"

Viewing (ca 18 min). Jamie Stuart spoke with Lumet in 2007. Page through Sidney Lumet: Interviews, a book edited by Joanna E Rapf in 2006 and Frank R Cunningham's Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision (2001). They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? has a bibliography, links and more. TCM's page features a biography and notes.



Updates: David Lowery on how reading Making Movies changed his life: "Each cog and gear was momentarily taken from its bearings and explained in language simple and efficient enough for anyone with a passing interest in motion pictures to understand. But for those of us with more than a passing interest, there was detectable a latent ardor threaded through that explication, which grew from one chapter to the next; a passion infused with the sort of tenderness that denotes a longstanding love affair, a love that's stood the test of time."

"To say he lacked a noticeable visual style is a compliment," writes Roger Ebert. "He reduced every scene to its necessary elements, and filmed them, he liked to say, 'invisibly.' You should not be thinking about the camera. He wanted you to think about the characters and the story."

Ray Pride interviewed Lumet in 1998, following the release of Night Falls in Manhattan, and he asked him, "Why has the New York justice system become the backdrop of his most personal films? 'Well, that's where I live,' he says in fast, confidential tones. 'That's where I was brought up. That's the sound I really know. And even though there's been a general interest in my movies in people being fair to one another, I've come to believe that if you have no fair justice system, you have nothing.'"

Updates, 4/10: Glenn Kenny recalls interviewing Lumet in 2007: "He was terrifically self-aware without being self-conscious. He didn't consider himself an intellectual at all and gloried in having catholic tastes without gloating about it. He had a fantastically non-hierarchical mindset, and a refreshingly open approach to technology. His work in television and theater had gifted him with what ended up being an almost innate understanding of genres and the kind of approach/touch any given piece of material needs… He understood the making of art not just as a calling, but as a way of life, and of living, and of making a living, and he did not deplore any of it. Living on 'the edge,' or living 'well'; he understood both."

"Sidney Lumet made movies for grownups," writes Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon. "That's the first thing and the last thing that should be said about this great American director." Matt walks us through several films, and then: "If I had to choose a personal favorite, though, it would be 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, a dramatization of a real-life bank robbery. It showcases one of Al Pacino's funniest, most touching performances, and it brings many of Lumet's fascinations together: psychology, group dynamics, the relationship between individuals and society, and institutions and communities, with a little media satire thrown in… It also politicizes everyday life in ways that modern films wouldn't dare do. The sequence where Sonny riles up the crowd against the cops and FBI by invoking the bloody Attica riots is one of the great populist rabble-rousing scenes in American motion pictures. Equally good is the opening of the movie, a wordless, nearly four-minute mini-documentary set to Elton John's 'Amoreena' that situates the amazing story we're about to see within the context of daily existence in a big city. A line from John's song reminds me of the tough, tender sense of life communicated in Lumet's movies: 'Living/Like a lusty flower.'"

For Edward Copeland, when the special edition of Dog Day Afternoon was released, "Lumet also showed that he's one of the few people who actually recorded DVD commentaries that were worth listening to, sharing many interesting details about the production of this great work which deftly blends the humorous, the tragic and the absurd."

"When Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005, presenter Al Pacino, who had received best actor Academy Award nominations for his work in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, said the director was not being honored for his longevity but for the quality of his work," notes Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. "'A Sidney Lumet movie,' Pacino said, 'has a signature, a stamp of individuality, a point of view, a feeling.… It's real, kinetic energy. You were there as the story was being told.... I'm forever grateful, along with all the other actors and writers who have benefited from Sidney's genius.'"


Lumet "worked with some of the finest writers in the endangered species of social drama," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "He made films from the works of Tennessee Williams, John Le Carre and Larry McMurtry; he shot scripts by Paddy Chayefsky, David Mamet, Herb Sargent and Gore Vidal, and by movie-scenario stalwarts Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), Sidney Buchman (The Group), Walt Salt and Norman Wexler (Serpico) and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon). They provided Lumet with fierce characters and the kind of fiery oratory that actors love to deliver. His job was to get the heat on-screen. He so often succeeded because, when stars wanted to be actors, they came to Lumet. In just his first five films — 12 Angry Men, Stage Struck, His Kind of Woman, The Fugitive Kind and Long Day's Journey into Night — he directed Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards. Later, he freed Sean Connery from his James Bond indenture (in five pictures); he unleashed Al Pacino's holy madman (in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon); he steered Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight to acting Oscars in Network. He got Richard Burton to sober up for Equus and Michael Caine to play a bisexual killer in Deathtrap. For Murder on the Orient Express he persuaded a dozen top stars — including Connery, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar), Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark and Vanessa Redgrave — to work for peanuts just because it would be a lark to be among one another, and because Sidney asked them to."

"5 Essential Life Lessons From the Films of Sidney Lumet," explicated with commentary and clips from Movieline's ST VanAirsdale.

The Observer's Philip French: "'I never did a picture because I was hungry,' Lumet once said, 'Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.' This was never more so than when examining controversial political issues in his TV film, The Sacco and Vanzetti Story about the wrongly convicted anarchists in the 1920s, and in Daniel, a film on a later political cause célèbre about the execution of the Rosenbergs in the Eisenhower era, and the consequences for their children. These were movies made out of conviction."

The New Yorker's Richard Brody looks back on the world into which Network was released, "twelve days after the election of Jimmy Carter… One never knows where outrage will lead. Lumet seems to have been an unabashed liberal, yet the paradox of art is its unpredictabilty; his volatile blend of incensed decency and histrionics broke out of the contours of the conventional and blazed the trail for — even sparked — an altogether different sort of revolt. Four years later, voters, mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more, propelled to the White House a cranky, anti-technocratic nostalgist and actor speaking folksy, moralistic common sense."

Bill Gibron at PopMatters on The Pawnbroker: "He was not the first choice as director. Several known names, including Kubrick, turned it down. In star Rod Steiger, Lumet found another NYC acting ace (he had studied with Stella Adler at The New School) and in the story of a Lower East Side shop owner whose memories of the Holocaust continue to haunt him, the filmmaker also found fertile material. Both the director and the lead would later say that The Pawnbroker was one of the most important movies they ever made. It was one of the first films to even deal with the lingering legacy of Hitler's Final Solution, and its affect on those involved in it. Steiger received universal praise, and Lumet had his choice of follow-ups."



Sidney Lumet was a great master and a huge inspiration to me. So many terrific films. And his book on directing is the best I've read.Sat Apr 09 21:35:28 via Twitterrific for Mac


The BBC has collected tributes from filmmakers, beginning with Woody Allen, who calls Lumet "definitely the quintessential New York filmmaker. I'm constantly amazed at how many films of his prodigious output were wonderful and how many actors and actresses had their best work under his direction. Knowing Sidney, he will have more energy dead than most live people." For Martin Scorsese, Lumet's death marks "the end of an era." He was a "New York filmmaker at heart, and our vision of the city has been enhanced and deepened by classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and, above all, the remarkable Prince of the City."

"As his films make clear, Lumet could be at once both wry and genuine, with a playful candor evident when Vanity Fair's John Heilpern sat down with him in 2009 to discuss his life's work," notes John Lopez.

The Guardian's Xan Brooks collects more clips.

From Brian Baxter's obit in the Guardian: "He was born in Philadelphia to Eugenia Wermus and Baruch Lumet, distinguished Yiddish theatre actors, and was only a few years old when he first acted on stage and on the radio. He appeared in the film One Third of a Nation (1939) and had several roles on Broadway, including a performance as Jesus, in the play Journey to Jerusalem, staged in 1940. After attending Columbia University, Lumet was in the US army signal corps during the second world war, and served in Burma and India. His immediate postwar career was in the theatre, as an actor and a director, until he joined the CBS network in 1950 as a trainee television director. During this golden era of live drama, working alongside directors including Delbert Mann, Robert Mulligan and John Frankenheimer and the writers Reginald Rose and Chayevsky, he amassed hundreds of credits." Then came 12 Angry Men and it was off to the races.

As Florian notes in the comments below, the Archive of American Television has posted a three-hour interview with Lumet conducted in 1999.

Sunday browsing tip. The posters.

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips: "'As far as I can see,' Lumet told Rolling Stone in 2008, after the release of his final picture, 'there is no Lumet style.' But if you have never seen Lumet's 1960 TV version of The Iceman Cometh — all 240 minutes of it — you must. Jason Robards's climactic monologue remains the finest, most anguished Eugene O'Neill ever put on film, or tape. And that includes the very fine 1962 Long Day's Journey Into Night, also directed by Lumet. The way he moves the camera in Iceman and how little he cuts from set-up to set-up has everything to do with economics and spatial limitations. Yet he turned that necessity into invention. Even in Murder on the Orient Express, an atypically stylish period confection from 1974 that came in the middle of his hottest commercial streak, Lumet allowed his starry cast the chance to dine out on scenes without a lot of nervous cutting. Ingrid Bergman's entire Oscar-winning cameo in that film? Single take, with one astutely judged camera pivot midway through, to allow Albert Finney to share more of the on-screen interrogation."

Updates, 4/11: "Lumet might have also become the most influential American director of the last 50 years," suggests the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "Consciously or not, his movies' vitality… is in the DNA of other movies and TV. In 2007 alone, the year of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, you could sense Lumet coursing through the paranoia-driven corruption thriller Michael Clayton and haunting the brotherly divide of We Own the Night and, to some extent, American Gangster, not to mention the fraternal playground of the Ocean's movies and the half-jolly, half-dismayed human touch Spike Lee used for 2006's Inside Man. (When I met with Lumet a couple of years ago, he told me Lee called to warn him that some of that touch was indeed Lumet's.) In fact, mass-media culture has finally gone so bonkers that Network, which Lumet directed from Paddy Chayefsky's nuclear bomb of a script, now seems beyond timeless. One of the great movie satires has become simply the way we live. Who else do we thank for the incarnation of Glenn Beck that has cropped up since Barack Obama's inauguration? And no one's been able to duplicate the movie's combo of acidic comedy and emotional hot-bloodedness — not Lee in Bamboozled or [Paul] Weitz in American Dreamz, but they deserve credit for trying."

The New Yorker's John Lahr passes along an amazing story from Lumet about the making of The Fugitive Kind. Related viewing: Criterion's conversation with Lumet about the film.

Update, 4/13: Phil Nugent: "My favorite of all Lumet's studies of corruption is the forgotten 1980 comedy Just Tell Me What You Want which Warners Archive, that studio's no-frills DVD outlet, has just recently had the kindness to make available to consumers. An explosively funny burlesque of high-society romantic comedies, starring Alan King as a cheerfully crass wheeler and dealer who applies all his heartless ingenuity to winning back the lover who's had an attack of ethics and dumped him in favor of marriage to an insufferable playwright (and with Myrna Loy, in her last movie appearance, as King's secretary), is explosively funny, but earned Lumet the worst reviews of his life, with the possible exception of The Wiz. At the time, appalled critics reached for the smelling salts at the very suggestion that they might laugh at, never mind enjoy vicariously, such cynical, avaricious goings-on, though it wasn't that much longer that the Age of Reagan was well underway and millions had been granted permission to swoon over the antics of both the fictional Carringtons of Dynasty and the real-life Masters of the Universe who had taken over Manhattan."

Sheila O'Malley's running generous excerpts from Lumet's Making Movies.

Listening. Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner discuss Lumet on Slate's Culture Gabfest.

Updates, 4/14: "The vigor of his best films and the hectic energy of the city they capture are undeniable," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "To watch those movies in sequence and with some sense of history — as opposed to an antiquarian, fetishistic attention to clothes and haircuts, cinematographic techniques and vanished neighborhood landmarks — is to encounter an episodic chronicle of societal unraveling. Some characters may cling to an idealized picture of the past, but they tend to do so out of fear and anxiety, as their hopes for the future fray and collapse along with the mores and values of the place they call home. It is only a small exaggeration to say that the six movies I've named [12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Prince of the City] constitute an epic of decline, a sprawling, Zolaesque series of narratives whose common theme — discernible only in retrospect — is the crisis of American civic liberalism, as witnessed in its 20th century capital, New York.

Slate's Dana Stevens: "My sense of what Lumet's working self was like — of what a generous, exacting, inspiring boss he must have been — comes from the director's 1995 book Making Movies, a master class in filmmaking that reads equally well as a practical handbook and as a vivid, earthy memoir. I can't think of another book that so precisely and matter-of-factly captures what a strange endeavor it is to gather several hundred people and a fleet of equipment-laden trucks on a backlot (or, as was the case in most of Lumet's films, on location in New York City) and start to do something as foolhardy as telling a story on film."

At IFC, Stephen Saito lists "Five of Sidney Lumet's Lesser-Known Films Worth Seeking Out."

Update, 4/15: Peter Bogdanovich recalls not only interviewing Lumet twice for his book Who the Devil Made It but also acting for him when he (Bogdanovich) was only 18, and he remembers that he (Lumet) was "very precise; he knew exactly how the scene would cut together, and therefore shot only what he needed, without covering himself with alternate cutting possibilities. (All those hundreds of hours of live television he directed didn't hurt for experience in quick decision-making and urgency.) In the business, it's called 'cutting in the camera,' and it's practically unheard of today. Sidney was perhaps the last survivor of the classic techniques that were common to most directors in the studio system: John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock — antipodes as artists — both cut in the camera. So did Howard Hawks and Orson Welles."

Update, 4/18: Viewing (5'45"). Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club: "Even in Network — a writer's movie if ever there was one — you can see the hand of a filmmaker who's thought every scene through, carefully balancing the cinematic and the televisual for maximum effect. And when the moment arrives, late in the movie, for a wholly unexpected dose of surrealism, Lumet nearly upstages one of Paddy Chayefsky's most inspired monologues. I remembered almost every word of this celebrated meeting between lunatic anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and conglomerate honcho Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), but I'd forgotten that it's every bit as thrilling to the eyes as to the ears, in ways both magnificently overstated and remarkably subtle. You could watch it with the sound off and be impressed."

Update, 4/21: "Concentrating on his official masterpieces (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), the obituaries cast him as a hard-nosed urban realist. That’s part of the story, but if we want a fuller picture of this long-distance runner, we need to trace his path in more detail. That in turn can teach us something about shifting generational opportunities in American cinema." David Bordwell has revisited 23 films and much of the contemporary critical reaction to them.

Update, 4/24: At his Classic TV History Blog, Stephen Bowie takes "a close look at a few of Lumet's live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death, I've been watching some of Lumet's segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded Marty), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet's Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956."

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