Lumet, Sidney: The Film Artist–Part 4

There was nothing high-brow about Sidney Lumet as the dean of New York directors for four decades.

His best-known work, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, reflects concern with relevant social issues: urban crime, corruption in the police force, the power and manipulation of the media, etc.   The pretentiousness that Lumet is charged with is unwarranted.  In fact, one doesn’t say “film” on a Sidney Lumet set–one says “movie.”  And one doesn’t talk about the director as an “auteur” with “vision” and “signature.”  “I’m constantkly being asked,” Lumet told a reporter in l982, ‘what’s the overall theme in your work?'” “I’m not an intellectual, and if there is a theme, I don’t want to know about it.  To me, the death of a great many awfully good creative people has been pretention.  They start believing what the ‘serious’ critics say about them.  It’s as if when the flag of protest–which is what a lot of us start with–is ripped out of their hands, they’re afraid to delve further into themselves.  So they take someone else’s definition and start trying to fit into that.”

The choice of themes and dramatic conflicts in Lumet’s movies, and the screen personae he favored have been consistent.  Indeed, Lumet’s films lend themselves to a fascinating inspection because of his attraction to particular themes and screen characters.  For example, many of his films are situated in the literary and theatrical worlds of New York (Stage Struck, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Deathtrap).  Several of his films have been personal, or semi-autobiographical.

In 1968, he directedBye Bye Braverman, the story of four Jewish intellectuals who, on their way to a funeral, reminisce about their dead friend Leslie Braverman, an avant-garde writer.  Based on Wallace Markfield’s humorous novel, Lumet described the film as one of “the most personal picture I’ve ever made.  These four post-Depression Jewish intellectuals are everyone I grew up with. Me, in fact.”

Most of Lumet’s protagonists are larger than life, but they are also imbued with extraordinary humanity.  This winning combination of traits, which makes the characters in his movies eccentric and credible, also brings them closer to their public, making them easier as objects of emphaty if not identification.

At heart, Lumet is a moralist, though not of the preachy kind.  Prince of the City (1981) considered by some to be his best film, is seen by Lumet as his “most grown-up piece of work.”  The dilemma of Robert Leuci, the real-life narcotics cop (played by Treat Williams) who went against the code of the police force (“protect your brother officer”) and the laws of ethnicity and class (“protect your friends: don’t rat”), was a nightmare about which no judgments were possible.  All Lumet could do, he said, was to portray the dilemma. “I know this is going to sound hard to believe,” he explained, “but I didn’t know how I felt about Leuci until I saw the rough cut, and then I said, ‘My God, this guy is a damned hero!  Of the twelve reasons why he did what he did, four may have been despicable, but at least that many were selfless.  But until the end I didn’t know it.  That’s why I didn’t want a (Dustin) Hoffman or a (Al) Pacino to play the lead.  You would have been on their side automatically.”

In this film, Jerry Orbach plays the only narcotics detective to remain defiantly corrupt. Orbach remains loyal to the personal code, even though the code is perverse and destructive.  “The reason people applauded when Jerry goes in and knocks over the prosecutor’s desk,” Lumet reasoned, “is that they’re thrilled to see one guy holding ‘true,’ not reversing himself.  But those are the easy emotions.  I’m more interested in the motives that aren’t so easy.  The humanity as well as moral ambiguity.”  This might explain why Prince was not as successful at the box office as Serpico, another police story, though one that had a more traditional hero and a clearer resolution.

“What I’m really interested in,” Lumet said, “is what happens to your compassion, what happens to your grace, your vulnerability, after so many years in the pressure cooker.  I want to know if any humanity remains.”  This theme has been consistent in Lumet’s work.  The stories he likes are built on characterization, plot, and they have a common denominator, an insistence on emotional truth.

Holding that all good directors have been versatile in their choice of subject matter, Lumet has directed a wide range of movies with a good deal of success.  For example, he made forays into elegant psychological thrillers (The Anderson Tapes, Murder on the Orient Express) adaptations of literary classics (View from the Bridge, Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Broadway plays (Deathtrap), musicals (The Wiz), romantic comedies (Just Tell Me What You Want), political satires (Network).  When Lumet is doing “glitz” rather than “grit” (Murder on the Orient Express), he will give it his best professional shot, bring the movie in below cost, then go home to a nice dinner.  However, he is at his best directing urban dramas, police-crime stories (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, Q&A) which became his defining genre and thus his contribution to the American cinema.

These efficiency and versatility have caused Lumet to be attacked by some critics for photographing stage plays, for having no discernible signature as a director, for placing speed and economy above all else in making movies.  “It’s ridiculous to say I lack a style,” Lumet says in response to the critics, “because I don’t have an identifiable ‘look’ to my frames.  Some dopes can only recognize ‘cinematic technique’ if it’s focused on a mountain or the sky.  They keep confusing cinema with scenery.”

“I want to find a way of telling real stories in abstract terms that make it even more real.  Dog Day Afternoon was about as far as he could go with naturalism and improvisation.    Network was a big step away from that: “In the beginning of the movie, everything is done in natural light.  But slowly, everytime Faye Dunaway comes in, it gets more artificial.  By the end, when they’re sitting around deciding to kill Peter Finch, it’s a perfect Ford commercial, and the camera gets corrupt, too.”  Prince of the City is perceived as realistic, but it’s very stylized.  The closest lens to what the eye sees is approximately 35 or 40 millimeter, but those two lenses were never used in the picture.

In The Verdict, everything was auburn, yellow, red, and deep green.  Lumet wanted only “old colors, warm, not cool, which is young.”  His rationale for that was that “this movie is about a man who suddenly realizes he’s getting old and corrupt, and I want the audience to feel what it’s like, damn it.”

In recent years, Lumet’s concentration shifted more from the narrative to the visual elements, because, as he put it, “I take the acting for granted now.  I’m assuming I’m going to get what I want. I’m just too old to fool around.”  Lumet vows he won’t work with “anyone who cokes, or with any kind of exhibitionist.  Who needs it?”  Lumet likes working as an independent director who can control his work from rehearsal to final print.  In Hollywood, he observed, “the costume department, the set department, the cutting department, they all insist on doing things their way….I can’t work like that.”

The stories he likes best are built on characterization, not logic or plot, and they embody emotional truth.  At their best, Lumet’s movies are intelligent, witty, entertaining and challenging of their audiences.  The director’s worldly but lucid perception has served him well in pacing and balancing the comic and dramatic aspects of his screen characters and films’ narratives.