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Sidney Lumet

by Peter Bogdanovich
April 14, 2011 10:55 AM
9 Comments
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Early in 1958, Sidney Lumet directed me in a live TV production of Hemingway’s short story, Fifty Grand, starring Ralph Meeker; I was still 18, and it was a bit part: in the boxing sequences, I was the kid who walked around the edge of the ring, holding up a sign of which round it was. As a director, I noticed, Sidney moved fast, in complete control of the set. Everybody—cast or crew alike---were all “darling,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “baby” to Sidney. He was very New York theatrical---having made his stage debut at age four---acting on Broadway and at the Yiddish Theatre, he learned on his feet what actors go through, what they need and what they don’t need. Sidney was also very precise; he knew exactly how the scene would cut together, and therefore shot only what he needed, without covering himself with alternate cutting possibilities. (All those hundreds of hours of live television he directed didn’t hurt for experience in quick decision-making and urgency.) In the business, it’s called “cutting in the camera”, and it's practically unheard of today. Sidney was perhaps the last survivor of the classic techniques that were common to most directors in the studio system: John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock ---antipodes as artists---both cut in the camera. So did Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

Sidney also, like Ford, made it clear to actors that he expected to get the shot within two or three takes, preferably on the first. Lumet knew that actors are at their freshest early on; he used to say that filmmakers who needed 30 or 40 takes simply didn’t know what they wanted. As in the theatre (Lumet directed on Broadway), Sidney liked to rehearse for a week or two, which, he said, enabled him to move quickly during shooting. It was common for Lumet to come in under schedule and under budget. This ability made him a desirable directorial presence into his 83rd year, and he died a few days ago at 86, so he was able to keep going non-stop making features ever since his formidable big screen debut, 12 Angry Men, in 1957. Along the way, he directed a considerable number of now iconic pictures, such as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network. But there were numerous films of his that didn’t achieve as much notoriety which were as good if not better than the hits: Paul Newman’s best performance in The Verdict, River Phoenix’ and Martha Plimpton’s precious work in Running on Empty are just the first that spring to mind, and Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda in The Morning After. Sidney remained as vigorous and controlled on his last film, that terrific 2007 thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, as he had been exactly a half century before on his first. Over those 50 years, his pictures accumulated over 50 Academy Award Nominations, including five for Sidney as best director. The Directors Guild nominated him seven times and gave him their highest lifetime award, the D.W. Griffith Memorial (now renamed; more on that anon). The French government designated him a Commander of Arts and Letters. In 2005, he was given a Special Oscar for his life’s achievement.

Sidney was the first director I ever interviewed---in June, l960---for Film Quarterly magazine; he had only done four films, including the explosive Marlon Brando-Anna Magnani-Tennessee Williams picture, The Fugitive Kind, but was already a serious force in movies. Thirty-five years later, to bring his interview up to date for my book, Who the Devil Made It, we talked again. And it was as though we had spoken just a few days ago---it’s a show-biz thing---leading such gypsy lives, time becomes more relative and troupers may not have seen each other in years, but they’re still in show business so nothing’s really changed. Sidney was the youngest of the 16 directors whose interviews are included in my Devil book, among them, Hitchcock, Hawks, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and naturally he was the last to pass away. With him went a master storyteller and a grand inspiration to actors. He was also a kind and caring person, and a pro who really knew how to make pictures, as further proven by his exceptional handbook, Making Movies. Sidney created a number that will last. He and his abilities will be sorely missed.

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9 Comments

  • Alan K. Rode | June 5, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    I always thought Lumet's best film was PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981) with its rich narrative and huge, ensemble cast of many first time actors. A stupendous achievement that is often overlooked with his other great films. Peter: you are spot-on. With the passing of Sidney Lumet, the old school of directors is officially gone.

  • Viktor Miceli | May 17, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    Just got to watch They All Laughed and i can't describe how much i related to all the characters in that movie. By far the best movie i've watched in a quite while.

  • Bruce Lawton | April 28, 2011 12:07 PMReply

    I was so sorry to hear of Mr. Lumet's passing - as his remarkable filmography speaks for itself. I was also sorry never to have had the opportunity to connect with him over the fact that I uncovered what appears to be an original preview or exhibitors print of FAIL-SAFE (no Columbia logo - no credits superimposed over the opening scenes - and only dark gray leader running where the closing credits should be.) I wanted to ask him the significance (if any) of this print and see what it might have jogged in his memory about it's post-production.

    Thank you Mr. Bogdanovich for everything you do! Not only for your own wonderful talents and legacy as a filmmaker - but for continually shining a light on and honoring the others that came before you and of which you're now very much apart.

  • Rustin Klein | April 21, 2011 7:25 AMReply

    Sidney's book, "Making Movies" is one of the best books on the inside emotions and mechanisms of making motion pictures.

  • Ivan Velez Sneed | April 19, 2011 7:10 AMReply

    I had grown up watching Mr. Lumet's movies since age 11 or 12 years old. But it wasn't until I was in my early twenties (I am 40 now) that I began to pay closer attention to who was behind a film's pulse. I discovered that Mr. Lumet had been responsible for some of my favorite films ever. Films that impacted me and influenced me as a person and future filmmaker. All from 12 Angry Men to Before the Devil knows you're Dead, there's vulnerability and heartbreak in the center of the story that only a master like Lumet can pull off because of the subtlety and surgeon like precision with which he molded the performances and direction of the story.

    He was an under-rated director if there ever was one, possessed this light touch approach like Lubitsch, call it "the Lumet touch" or whatever, in the performances of his actors that was palpable yet invisible. A typical Lumet character was flawed, self-destructive and an idealist all wrapped into one. It is this conflict and fatalist persona that made them so relative to the viewer; the dreamers in all of us and the constant redemption we inherently pursue .

    Frank Galvin, to me, the archetypal Lumet character embodied the frailties and virtues of what it is to be human, the imperfections in all of us that I love about Lumet's films. We all strive to be good but more often than not fail. Yet we try again and again to redeem ourselves.

    I am saddened by this loss but inspired by what a purposeful lived life Mr. Lumet had.

    Give me a career like Sidney Lumet's over many more popular directors, like Spielberg, anytime.

    My top 5 Lumet films, The Verdict, Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Pawnbroker.

    Thank you Mr. Bogdanovich.

    Ivan V.

  • Ron Merk | April 16, 2011 3:32 AMReply

    Peter,
    I had the unique opportunity to observe Sidney Lumet at work, once many years ago when they were just beginning to film Fail Safe at the old Fox Studio in New York, and then many years later, while working on
    The Morning After in Los Angeles. Very little changed from the early days. He was always in charge, personable, and getting exactly what he wanted to get on film very quickly. The cast and crew were always on his side, because they knew he knew what he wanted, and knew how to get it. I remember walking into to see the sets on Fail Safe before the filming began. They were simple, almost to a fault. But when Lumet turned on the lights and set up the camera, they were compelling. In brief, that was his talent. Taking the seemingly ordinary and propelling it into intense drama. He was a master of his work in the truest sense. Very few directors these days have that kind of vision or passion, or discipline. Ron Merk

  • Kathleen Carroll | April 16, 2011 1:05 AMReply

    Hi Peter,

    You have truly captured what it was that made Sidney Lumet so irresistible to both actors and everyone who met him. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time on the set of "Network" while Sidney, who was a bundle of nervous energy, was directing a serious, intense scene with Faye Dunaway. The minute it was over everyone began to laugh and joke. "Faye, darling, your reading is divine," gushed Lumet. Watching every scene from the other side of the room was the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky who insisted he was "a bundle of nerves" because everything was going so well.

  • Keil Shults | April 15, 2011 5:01 AMReply

    Glad to see some love for Running on Empty, which will always be one of my favorite films ever made. A simple story told beautifully should be cherished, not shrugged off and cast aside in favor of other features, merely because they're more revolutionary or complex. Bravo, Sidney. You will be missed, but certainly never forgotten. On the contrary, I believe your reputation and stature will only continue to grow in the coming years.

  • Antonio Nahud Júnior | April 14, 2011 11:44 AMReply

    Lumet is wonderful, Peter. Congratulations for the post.
    Drop by my blog. Leave comments, become a follower. I'll be happy.
    Hugs. Thanks.

    www.ofalcaomaltes.blogspot.com

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