Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sidney Lumet RIP

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino

Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet, the American film director who died on April 9 aged 86, was such a frenetic worker that Paul Newman called him “the only man who could double-park outside a whore-house”.

A former actor and veteran of America’s “golden age” of television drama, Lumet directed more than 200 television plays in the 1950s, most of them transmitted live.

He went on to make some 40 feature films, establishing himself as a master of the grimy police procedural drama with such films as Serpico (1973), Prince Of The City (1980), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Q&A (1991).

These were notable for the authentic tawdriness of their settings; yellowing linoleum, strip-lighting, scratched institutional paint-work and row upon row of steel desks. No effort was spared to make characters unattractive. The cops had pot-bellies and dripped sweat; their faces were pasty and unshaven, their suits cheap and their shoes worn. The language was sleazy to fit.

The look might have suggested documentary, but a Lumet drama was invariably shaped to convey a moral message. He considered cinema the “last and only medium in which it is possible to tell a story of conscience outside the printed word” and his theme was cops-or-robbers; he was fascinated by the thin line that divides the policeman from the criminal, legal conduct from illegal.

He established his style with 12 Angry Men (1957), his first feature film and for many, his best. A heated drama of a rash jury won over to a not-guilty verdict by a lone dissenter, the film had outstanding acting shot with few camera movements and plentiful close-ups which Lumet considered “the very essence of cinema”.

This “verismo” gloss became Lumet’s trademark. “We are not doing documentary,” he said. “We are doing drama and everything that implies. Including fakery.”

Much of Lumet’s work flaunted the headline “based on a true story”. He went to great effort with the details of reality, but was prepared to distort facts in the cause of drama and was accused of sermonising, even of being a propagandist. He admitted that he was “essentially romantic” and that his work owed much to his background in the theatre. But what might have been obvious didacticism on stage might become, when backed with the army of cinematic devices, something close to propaganda.

He was particularly indignant that he should be thought of as “anti-cop”.

”I’m not,” he said. “Their lives are sheer hell, absolute hell. Cops like these movies because they’re honest”.

Sidney Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 24 1924. His father, Baruch Lumet, was an actor and playwright who had small roles in his son’s films.

Sidney was a child actor, making his radio debut at four and his stage debut at five. He appeared alongside his father in several plays and at 16 played the lead role of Jesus in the Broadway production of Journey to Jerusalem by Maxwell Anderson.

Between engagements he was educated at the Professional Children’s School, New York and Columbia University.

During the Second World War Lumet served as a radar-repairman in South-East Asia and afterwards returned to acting, taking over from Marlon Brando in the Broadway run of A Flag Is Born.

From 1947 he turned his attention to directing. plays. Three years later he was hired as a television staff director by Columbia Broadcasting. After working on a number of adventure stories and a series entitled You Are There, for which he recreated great moments in history, he began to direct plays for CBS-TV’s Playhouse 90 and NBC-TV’s Kraft Television Theatre.

Among his successes were The Sacco and Vanzetti Story, a vindication of “the poor shoemaker and good fishpeddler” executed for murder in 1927, and a television version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

The latter won Lumet an Emmy award. O’Neill’s widow was so impressed that she granted Lumet rights she controlled to the other plays of her husband and in 1962, Lumet made his fine film of O’Neill’s autobiographical tragedy, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson.

In the 1960s he made several further filmed versions of plays, including Tennessee William’s Orpheus Descending (1960) and Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge (1962).

Lumet’s reputation as a cheap film-maker who came in on schedule ensured that he cantered on at a film a year, feeding mainly off adaptations of novels or non-fiction accounts. He was a reliable, workmanlike director, who occasionally enhanced the original material, as with his gripping version of Le Carre’s The Deadly Affair (1967).

Acting was always his strong-point. To convey the moral ambiguity of his characters, Lumet drew fine performances from the likes of Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Nick Nolte and Al Pacino.

Pacino was a particular favourite, giving bravura performances in Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon.

Both films were based on true stories, and both showed the best - and worst aspects - of Lumet’s rapid approach to his work. Serpico was a dramatised version of the story of Frank Serpico, a New York policeman, who went undercover as a “hippy-freak” and was ostracised for disclosing a massive web of police corruption.

Lumet, who had taken over the direction of the film when John Avildsen fell out with the producer Dino de Laurentis, brought the 130-minute film in under schedule in a little over ten weeks. It worked as a satire, and there was plenty of grit in the setting, and dialogue. But art was sacrificed in the cause of theatrical immediacy, and the film never captured the poisonous paranoia of Frank Serpico’s experience, the narrative ambled to accommodate Pacino’s performance and many scenes were so flat and badly-lit they ought to have been re-shot.

Dog Day Afternoon, again too long at 130 minutes, was “true story”, this time about a bungled bank robbery. For the first half it had a crazed, farcical tone true to life. The villains were as comic as they were threatening, unable to drive the getaway car, and the bank manager more obliging than frightened (“Let’s get you guys fixed up and on your way”). It transpired that Pacino’s character had undertaken the heist to pay for a sex-change operation for his male wife. Lumet then used this twist of human comedy as an opportunity for a great deal of incongruous debate about the prejudices faced by homosexuals. Dog Day Afternoon ended as a shaggy dog story.

Lumet abandoned authentic grit for Murder On the Orient Express (1974), making a plodding film of Agatha Christie ’s book, de-railed by its’ creaking stars. He proved too literal-minded for his version of Peter Shaeffer’s play Equus (1977), turning this pagan poem about a boy sexually obsessed with horses into a lecture on the roots of psychiatric disturbance.

The Wiz (1978) was a black musical version of The Wizard of Oz, set in New York. It was a flop and Lumet returned to cop movies with Prince Of The City (1981), a rambling story of one good policeman in a barrel of rotten ones, for which he used non-professional actors - a mistake for a man so dependent on manufactured drama. The Verdict (1982), with Paul Newman, a solid court-room drama, was an expose of medical and legal ethics.

Among the best of Lumet’s latter films were Q&A (1991) about a bad cop bought to book for “justifiable homicide” and Night Falls On Manhattan (1997) with New York beset by hundreds of bad cops and thousands of bent politicians. He also won praise for Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), made 50 years after 12 Angry Men.

A short, trim man who favoured athletic footwear, Lumet rarely left New York. He energy was described by the producer Paul Graetz as “something that passes human comprehension”.

Sidney Lumet married four times and had two daughters. He is survived by his wife Mary Gimbel.

1 comment:

  1. I've always liked Sidney Lumet's movies, and I've always liked the ideaof Sidney Lumet's movies, the elevation of sheer storytelling craft over self-indulgent personal expression. Lumet had plenty to express, all right, but he did it with a minimum of fuss and always with his full attention on entertaining the viewer in an intelligent way.He will be missed..RIP.