Lumet, Sidney: Politically Committed Filmmaker

Sidney Lumet, the major Hollywood director, who made over 40 films in a career that spanned five decades, died today, April 9, 2011.  He was 86.   I have met and interviewed several times Lumet, who had a great sense of humor and the kind of wit that could be described as distinctly Jewish.

 “I never set out to be a political moviemaker,” Sidney Lumet once said.  “The pictures I’ve done were picked on the basis of their human conflict, not their message.  None of these movies was designed as pleading a particular cause.  They were designed to reveal human vulnerability, human frailty, human compassion and human conflict.  They’re about individual struggles.”  But Lumet concedes that, “in the end, they are, of course, political.”

Lumet claims that he was not aware of wanting to do movies about the criminal justice system.  But looking back on his career, he realizes there are 8 or 9 movies dealing with the issue.  His reasoning: “I guess when you’re a Depression baby, someone with a typical Lower East Side poor Jewish upbringing, you automatically get involved in social issues.  And as soon as you’re involved in social issues, you’re involved in the justice system.”

“While the goal of all movies is to entertain,” Lumet once said, “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.”

 Lumet worked for CBS-TV during the height of the anti-Communist witch-hunt, led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Commentator Edward R. Murrow’s critical coverage of McCarthy resulted in the network coming under severe attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Because Lumet’s political activities were limited to campaigning for Democratic presidential hopefuls, and because his shows were very popular, initially there was no pressure on him.   But one day, Melvin Block of the Ammident Toothpaste Company, a sponsor of Lumet’s shows, told him that 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 him that he put no stock in his accuser, Harvey Matusow, a government informer and witness. But three weeks later, Leonard Block, Melvin’s brother, called Lumet. “Sidney, we’re sorry,” he said, “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, 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 maintains that he has never gotten over the lesson.  Until then, he was ambivalent about his colleagues who served as “friendly” witnesses for HUAC.  But he admired Zero Mostel for refusing to cooperate with the Committee, though he wasn’t contemptuous of director Elia Kazan for naming names.  “I promise you that I didn’t know what I was going to do that night,” he later said, knowing that “In the final account, what’s left of any of us are our actions.”

In the fall of 1980, Lumet visited Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and East Berlin on a cultural exchange program, sponsored by the International Communications Agency.  He was impressed with the sophistication of these countries’ filmmakers, but he was shocked by the reality of their working conditions.  “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 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.”

 In 1985, Lumet received the Bill of Rights Award from the American Civil Liberties Union–his films were extolled as a continuing testament to freedom, justice, and understanding. It was one of the most important awards he had ever received.