Lumet, Sidney: Committed Agitator or Entertainer–Part 6

“As a Jew, I’m very judgmental.  As a street Jew, doubly so.”

Lumet’s Jewishness could be used as an interpretive factor in explaining his choice of subject matter and attraction to favorite themes.  His commitment to New York can help understand his unique approach to filmmaking, preference for a specific type of actors, and taste.  Sidney Lumet will draw on the director’s Jewish New York origins to further understand his personal perception of the world (as reflected in his movies) and his cinematic style.  His ability to deal professionally with actors stems directly from his earlier work in the New York theater and television.

Lumet worked for CBS at the height of the antiCommunist witchhunt led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Because of commentator Edward R. Murrow’s critical coverage of McCarthy, the network was under severe attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Since Lumet’s own political activities were limited to campaigning for Democratic presidential hopefuls, and since his shows were very popular, he felt no pressure at first.  But one day, Melvin Block of the Ammident Toothpaste Company, Lumet’s sponsor, told him his name had been mentioned in the American Legion Magazine as a Communist.  Block wanted Lumet to talk to Daniel O’Shea, whom CBS had hired to “clear” its staff.

Lumet had a “civilized conversation” with O’Shea, who assured the director that he put no stock in his accuser, Harvey Matusow, a prime government informer and witness.  But three weeks later, Leonard Block, Melvin’s brother, called Lumet in: “Sidney, we’re sorry, but whatever Dan tried to do hasn’t worked.  The pressure against you is enormous.  Would you come to Mel’s apartment and meet with Victor Riesel and Harvey Matusow?” (Reisel was then labor columnist for The N.Y. Daily Mirror).  “I thought about it and for two weeks went through holy hell,” Lumet later recalled, “If I agreed, I might be asked to tell what I knew about the organized left in order to save myself.  I didn’t want to be put in that position, but I also wanted to keep working.  I agreed to the meeting.”

“It was horrible,” he remembered, “the turmoil was so great I walked up to Block’s place at 73rd and Park and I was so upset I was hoping a cab or truck would hit me and decide everything.”  The door opened and I saw these two, Riesel and Matusow, sitting across the room.  I started toward them, cursing and screaming.  Riesel was still in his seat, but Matusow had risen and he said: ‘Don’t get in an uproar, he’s not the one.’ I wasn’t the guy he’d seen in whatever meeting he was talking about.  That was that.”

Lumet maintainms he has never gotten over the lesson.  Until then, he had codemned people in showbusiness who were cooperating with HUAC.  He admired Zero Mostel for refusing to copperate with the Committee, but he was not contemptuous of director Elia Kazan for naming names.  “I promise you that I didn’t know what I was going to do that night.”  In the final account, he claims, “what’s left of any of us is our actions.”

In Fall l980, Lumet visited Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and East Berlin on a cultural exchange program for the International Communications Agency, and though impressed by the sophistication of the filmmakers and students, he was shocked at the reality of their work. “I’ve always been basically worried by the fear, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But that’s a hell of a lot different from: ‘They won’t let me work again.’ The way you get a film project through there is quite similar to what you have to go through here, and you might think the pressure to be commercial is equal to the pressure to be ‘politically acceptable,’ but there ain’t no comparison. “Maybe that neurotic fear has something to do with my sense of urgency.  I’ve always wanted to ask other directors if they feel as I do–I can’t wait to finish a movie.”

For Lumet, the two foremost functions of movies are to be entertaining but also provocative: “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, 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.”  He is one of the few directors to have made intelligent films, which were also commerially successful, some smash box-office hits.  Lumet’s movies usually make money (though not top dollar grosses by current Spielberg-Lucas standards).