Sidney Lumet Made New York City Star of His Films

Gloria Vanderbilt and Sidney Lumet in the early 1960s
Gloria Vanderbilt and Sidney Lumet in the early 1960s
 Getty

Say Sidney Lumet and the first images that probably come to mind are of New York City — its skyline, gritty streets, many moods and distinctive characters. The director, who died Saturday morning, shot most of his films in the heart of his adapted hometown. In many ways, New York itself was the most intriguing, domineering character in a spectacularly good collection of movies he made in a career spanning six decades.

The late critic Pauline Kael was never an admirer as she, in my opinion, misjudged and undervalued his considerable talent. But in her review of The Wiz, certainly one of his failures, she admitted, “His gift — and it’s not a minor one — is for urban animal energy, for drive.” In films such as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Anderson Tapes, A View From the Bridge, Network and even his last terrific film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Lumet captured the street rhythms, emotional forces and inexorable curiosity of his favorite protagonist, the city of New York.

Of his first 28 movies as a director, Lumet filmed 22 in New York. His association with the city dates back to 1928, when he made his acting debut at age 4 in the Yiddish theater. In 1935, he appeared on Broadway as one of the original kids in Dead End. Acting lead to directing on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in television in the 1960’s, the so-called “Golden Age of live television.”

His original decision to make studio films in New York rather than Hollywood was rooted not in an artistic desire to delve into psyche of his favorite city but rather his loathing of that era’s studio system. In the late ‘50s, studios still had department heads who could wander onto his set or into his editing room, strangers with their own demands and power. So he stayed in New York.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that his first movie, 12 Angry Men in 1957, was a hit. So he had a enough juice to do things his way. Two consistent elements in his films have been a New York locale and a focus on a man of conscience going up against forces of corruption and power.

In 1965, he wrote: “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, 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.”

In one of his most powerful yet ambivalent pictures, Prince of the City (1981), that man of conscience is a New York police detective who can no longer tolerate the corruption he sees around him in fellow cops and supposed defenders of society. So he agrees to cooperate with the Knapp Commission gathering evidence against cops and drug dealers. He agrees to “wear a wire.”

In the film, Lumet, working from a script he co-wrote with Jay Presson Allen, brilliantly depicts two separate worlds with relentless honesty. One is New York’s underworld, a hairy, nerve-jangling place where as a cop’s wife says, “everyone’s guilty” — Mafia soldiers, junkie informers, bail bondsmen, shady lawyers and cops themselves. This underworld has its own ethos and codes, its own jargon in which “good people” refers to their power and position, not any sense of morality.

The other world is found in attorneys’ chambers and government offices, where its three-piece-suited members make decisions and value judgments about an underworld they don’t understand. They want their cops squeaky clean and their evidence untainted and are full of righteous indignation when they are not.

While praising the film, critics worried about the ambivalence over its protagonist, a cop who informs on fellow cops. When I interviewed him at the time, Lumet admitted that while making the film he didn’t know how he himself felt about the character, based on a real New York police detective, Robert Leuci.

“I was brought up with the age-old prejudice against a rat. It took me a long time to work through the specifics of him and to separate political informing from criminal informing. It wasn’t until I was editing the movie that I felt any sort of resolution for myself about how I felt about him and that was awfully positive.”

That ambivalence is in the movie and it makes the movie a better, more complex portrait rather than the black-and-white morality that infects most crime pictures today.

That film illustrates another Lumet trait: an ability to work extremely fast on New York’s streets and to bring a film in under budget.

The director shot 130 locations with 126 speaking parts in 59 days for $8.6 million instead of the scheduled 70 days for budgeted $10.4 million. He also cast 30 non-pros, some in key roles. It worked beautifully.

“I thought if I could get lucky and find these people, that in a funny way it would give the professional actors something to aspire to: It would keep them from theatricality. Keep them from being false.”

Lumet never found that same sense of reality elsewhere although he came close with the streets of South Boston, an Irish-Catholic community, where he filmed his vigorous examination of the legal system, The Verdict. But New York City remained home to his world of crime and punishment, of his flawed heroes going up against a corrupt system and maybe gaining a little redemption. Maybe.

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