Yesterday the film world lost one of it’s greatest directors, Sidney Lumet. Patrick Felton, the director of The West Viginia Filmmakers Festival, provides us with a detailed rememberance below, and we’ve sprinkled clips of some of Lumet’s amazing body of work throughout, kicking off with a scene from a movie that was a great influence on me, “Network.”
Sydney Lumet (1924-2011)
by Patrick Felton, for PopCult
One of cinema’s greatest technically proficient and ambitious filmmakers died yesterday at age 86 from lymphoma. Philadelphia native Sydney Lumet is rarely considered in discussions of the greatest directors of all time, but he should be. Perhaps this was because it was so hard to pin down “Un Film De Sydney Lumet.” His often New York-based films had none of the artistic panache of Martin Scorsese, none of the textual eccentricities of Woody Allen, and none of the political authority of Oliver Stone. Still to his credit and perhaps their discredit, this freed him from the shackles of trying to make a film in the style of Sidney Lumet and instead let him let the story of each film realize itself.
Sydney Lumet’s career in film spanned literally 7 decades. In 1939 teenage Lumet was cast in the Lief Eriksen vehicle “One Third Of The Nation.”
Lumet spent the first half of the 1940s in the European theater of war during World War 2 .
In the 1950s he would get his big break in the emerging medium of television by being hired to direct an episode of the CBS’s “Crime Photographer” Consistently described by his peers as “lightning quick” the young Lumet was so good at the new medium that he would direct 48 hours of television over the next two decades. These would include a very successful stint working for Walter Cronkite on “You Are There” as well as work on anthology shows such as “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Best Of Broadway” and “Kraft Theater.”
In 1957 Lumet broke onto filmmaking with his adaptation of the Reginald Rose story “12 Angry Men.” Lumet used his chops as a television director of great plays to transform a story of 12 jurors deliberating in a single room into one of the most engaging films of its decade. Despite the film’s warm critical and audience reception, Lumet returned to television, where he would remain for the rest of the decade.
During a 1960 production of “The Iceman Cometh” on CBS’s “Play Of The Week” Lumet met playwright Eugene O’ Neill who suggested he adapt another one of his plays, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” a play which had been previously considered unfilmable due to its frank discussion of drugs.
The resulting film is significant for many reasons. For one thing, every major theater star of its time was in it. Also, it would introduce him to his film editor and trusted collaborator, Ralph Rosenblum. In his memoirs “When The Shooting Stops” Rosenblum described his collaborator’s speed and vision:
“Lumet’s films pictures were edited with tremendous rhythm and pace. Catch “Failsafe” on TV some night, and you’ll see it never stops; it pulls you along like rapids”
Like David Lean and later Anthony Minghalla, Lumet seemed to have a special gift for adapting previously published works into film and television. Perhaps this was because of the respect and faithfulness he showed the works and their authors. For him film was nothing more than a vehicle for great stories to reach the mass in a living-breathing manner. His adaptations have come to be some of cinema’s most definitive takes on the works of Gore Vidal, Arthur Miller, Ira Levin, and Eugene O’Neil. Only Elia Kazan directed Tennessee Williams words more often or well crafted.
Though Lumet would never win a competitive Oscar, he was nominated many times. When he was nominated for “12 Angry Men,” he was the youngest to receive such an honor. He was nominated four times, tying him with King Vidor and Peter Weir for most nominations without a win. In 2005, he Received the academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences’ lifetime achievement award.
It was during the 70s that Lumet would reach some of his creative highs. His shining moment came with 1976’s “Network.” Here Lumet collaborated with friend and playwright Paddy Cheyefsky on the chilling satire of the growing amoral world of network television. Other adapted masterpieces of this era include the Al Pacino starring vehicle, “Dog Day Afternoon” the shocking “Equus”, the under-appreciated true story crime drama’ “Serpico” and the glorious Agatha Christie mystery’ “Murder On The Orient Express,” all of which would garner Academy Award Nominations for his actors.
Lumet seemed to defy the idea of “Director as Auteur” by working collaborating with strong screenwriters, cinematographers, editors and actors. The list of individuals with whom he worked over the years included everyone from legendary editors such as Carl Lerner and Ralph Rosenblum to literary geniuses such as Paddy Chaefsky Eugene O’Neil, David Mamet and Peter Shaffer, and famously difficult actors such as Al Pacino, Katherine Hepburn, Faye Dunaway and even Vin Diesel. He consistently jumped from genre to genre tackling courtroom dramas, lush comedies, tense crime thrillers, dark satires and even, on one occasion, Afro-American fantasy musicals. His work was about just that – the work. He never let his own technical proficiency get in the way of a good movie.
Even so, Lumet wasn’t above taking big chances with his work. When he adapted Eugene O’ Neil’s harrowing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” he refused to change a single word, claiming that the work was perfect as it was. He shocked audiences with the graphic nudity of his Holocaust drama “The Pawnbroker” not as much because of its contents as the revolutionary way it was edited. Perhaps most famously In 1975, he cast red hot macho actor Al Pacino opposite Chris Sarandon’s aspiring transsexual as Hollywood’s first openly gay bank robber in the classic “Dog Day Afternoon”, a decision which he admited to being terrified of at the time.
In perhaps his most cinematically ambitious film “Murder On The Orient Express” the final climax of the film is not a chace scene, but rather an astonishing twenty-minute monologue detailing the resolution of the whodunit, delivered with a Flemmish accent no-less. For Lumet, no decision was too crazy if it helped reveal the truth of the story.
In later years Lumet continued working in and outside of the Hollywood system. The 80s and 90s saw a series of less successful films before he returned to top form with 2007’s “Before The Devil Knows Your Dead” a taut crime thriller in the tradition of “Dog Day Afternoon.” The next year he would help bring another writer’s words to the screen not as director, but as father to struggling screenwriter Jenny Lumet. He would personally mail a copy of her script “Rachel Getting Married” to the film’s eventual director Johnathan Demme.
In a career of so many high points, perhaps it makes sense that it was many of his least seen films that he loved the best. In his memoirs, “Making Movies,” he asserted the expansive gangland flop, “Daniel,” to be his best film, and he opted to show footage of his disastrous 2006 Vin Diesel film “Find Me Guilty” as part of his Academy Award tribute. Like all good filmmakers, his most important film was the one he was working on at that moment, and with the exception of his admittedly miscalculated “The Wiz” he never slighted his movies.
Perhaps the lasting legacy of his films are the plausible realities he instilled within them. It was with this sense of augmented realism that Lumet came closest to having a distinct style. Often his closing credit sequences would be nothing more than a continuation of the final shot of the film extended long after the action was over.
One can’t watch the end of films like “Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon” or Network” and not be left wondering what will become of the worlds they portray. As the Orient Express pulls away from the camera we know in our heart that it will keep running long after we walk out of the theater. Like that train, its not hard to imagine that somewhere up in the sky, Mr. Lumet isn’t in talks with Sophocles, Shakespere and Moses himself planning his adaptations of their greatest literary hits.