Lumet, Sidney: Ultimate New York Filmmaker

Part One of Five Articles

Sidney Lumet, who died in April of 2011 at the age of 86, was one of the most accomplished, most prolific, and most distinctly American filmmakers.

In a screen career that had spanned over 50 years and a showbusiness career of six decades, Lumet’s output was impressive: 45 feature films, alongside a large number of television movies and stage plays.

Lumet’s achievements speak for themselves.  Four of his films have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar Award:  Twelve Angry Men in 1957, Dog Day Afternoon in 1975, Network in 1976, and The Verdict in 1982.

Each of these films also garnered Lumet the Best Director nomination, though he had never won a legitimate or competitive Oscar.  Lumet’s films have collectively received more than 40 Academy Awards nominations, many of them in the acting categories.

Lumet was highly respected by his colleagues at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA).  His first DGA Award was bestowed on him for Twelve Angry Men, a film that also won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Lumet won his second DGA directorial award for the adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s classic Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), boasting an all-star cast, headed by Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn.

However, unlike other directors of his generation (Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes), Lumet’s film oeuvre has not been put to much critical scrutiny.  Nor have there been many retrospectives of his work that younger and lesser filmmakers have already enjoyed.  Compared with the vast literature about Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, there have been few books about Lumet’s work and life.

Nonetheless, Lumet has occupied a strategic position among American filmmakers.  He is neither a member of the “old guard” of directors from the 1940s nor of the new “film school” directors of the l970s.  Lumet belongs to a generation of filmmakers who came to the screen from the New York theater and television.  At the same time, he stands out among American directors in working extensively in each and every medium of entertainment: radio, theater, television, and film.

Lumet’s distinctive qualities as a filmmaker are: high regard for actors, reliability as a director, consistency of good work, boundless energy, commitment to New York City as a setting of his films and universe of his vision, and contempt for Hollywood’s commercial pressures.

Lumet’s realistic approach to filmmaking stands in sharp opposition to the current trend in Hollywood which overemphasizes action-adventure, violence, and visual effects at the expense of taut narratives, dramatic tension, lively dialogue, and interesting characters–all attributes of Lumet’s best films.  His films are devoid of special effects, graphic violence, excessive sexuality, or other conventional devices used nowadays to lure audiences back to the movies.  In their varied style, Lumet’s films have refrained from exhibitionism, refusing to flaunt the director’s personality at the expense of his material.  His camera does not intrude with the sharp cuts and tricky angles which have become increasingly common in Hollywood.

What marked Lumet’s lengthy career is a steady flow of films which were, for the most part, artistically and commercially successful.  This consistency of work is one of the most distinguishing aspects of his career; few directors have made such a large number of good and popular pictures.  The main reason for his prolific output–the most New York reason of all–is that he grew up poor during the Depression in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Spending his childhood in poor surroundings and working since the age of four provided the strong drive to work hard and succeed against all odds.

At the same time, the uneven quality of Lumet’s films, often a result of speed and volume of work, continues to be a target for the more intellectual critics.  Which accounts in part for the lack of serious consideration of his films until the 1970s.  Some consider Lumet to be a “late bloomer” because he received formal critical recognition rather late in his career.

In 1980, the film department of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) announced an eight-picture Lumet retrospective.

In the following year, the Office of Film and Television Development of New York State announced Lumet as its winner of the “Made in New York Hall of Fame” Award and a “Lifetime Achievement” Award.  In December l981, Lumet was voted the “holy of holies,” the New York Film Critics Award as Best Director for Prince of the City.  Upon learning of this citation, he reportedly bounced up and down like a 12-year-old. “That’s unbelievable!” he yelled, “I won!”  His expression, a colleague remarked, registered both jubilance and defiance.

In the 1970s, the best decade of Lumet’s career, he scored commercial hits with several well-executed thrillers and police dramas. The based-on-fact drama Serpico (l973), not only made Al Pacino a household word in America, but called attention to crime and corruption in the police force.  The atmospheric, elegant adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery, Murder on the Orient Express (l974), featuring an all-star cast headed by Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, was one of the season’s blockbusters.

Lumet was lauded for a realistic and powerful adaptation of another true-life crime story, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and won an Academy Award for its original screenplay (by Frank Pierson).  As a filmmaker, Lumet enjoyed the greatest commercial triumph of his career in 1976 with Network, which was singled out as Best Picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics and also won three acting Oscars for its wonderful cast.

After decades of directing, one might expect Lumet’s energy and enthusiasm to have waned, but this is hardly the case. Endowed with youthful spirit and boundless energy, Lumet has never ceased working.  This at a time when it becomes increasingly difficult to make serious-adult films–the kinds that Lumet has specialized in.