How fitting that By Sidney Lumet, documentary maker Nancy Buirski‘s engrossing career chronicle of the prolific director, begins with a clip from 12 Angry Men in which Henry Fonda‘s reasonable doubt over the case being argued makes him the lone holdout of the dozen jurors. Built around an exhaustive video interview with Lumet recorded three years before his death in 2011, the film provides a detailed survey of his work. It also sheds light on the profoundly moral and inherently democratic sensibility that shaped his output, in which questions of justice and fairness provide a thematic bedrock, albeit one that Lumet claims was formed more by accident than design.
Having the film’s subject be the sole commentator on his artistic achievements might yield a narrow perspective in most cases. But the honesty that characterized Lumet’s most enduring films also applies here to his candid assessment of himself and his screen legacy. Humility is perhaps the wrong word for someone fully aware of having produced a considerable volume of important work. But the absence of self-congratulation, and the detached objectivity of his analysis are refreshing.
Whether it’s the early works that followed his emergence from live television; the celebrated titles that helped define the gritty social consciousness of so much American cinema of the 1970s, like Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network; the critical and commercial failures like Daniel; or the underappreciated treasures like Running on Empty, the abundance of clips here are deftly chosen and play remarkably well out of context.
Appraisals of Lumet’s work have mostly focused on content and style while neglecting to give due credit to his tremendous skill with actors. Even in brief excerpts, the performances in his films of Fonda, Al Pacino, Peter Finch, River Phoenix, Paul Newman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among many others, remain riveting. Having begun his professional career as a child actor — at one time used by Louis B. Mayer for leverage in Metro’s contract negotiations with Freddie Bartholomew — it’s unsurprising that Lumet’s collaborations with his casts were so electric. He says he had no interest in stoking actors’ neuroses the way Elia Kazan did, instead communicating via “knowledge of their craft and empathy with them as human beings.”
Lumet shares recollections of his upbringing as the child of a dirt-poor immigrant family, particularly the formative influence of his father, a volatile actor and producer in New York’s Jewish theater community. He got the family through the Depression on $35 a week from a radio soap, drilling the importance of a disciplined work ethic into his son. Lumet’s background in theater and live TV taught him the value of thorough rehearsals and fast shoots.
Clips from his film of Eugene O’Neil’’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night illustrate the dynamic in a theatrical family in ways that would be echoed in many complex father-son relationships in Lumet’s work. But he dismisses the idea of this as a personal motif, pointing out that family is usually at the root of most human drama.
He does concede, however, that exposure early on to a mutually dependent left-wing underclass informed his attraction to radicalized characters bristling against corrupt authority. And he reflects on such historical scars as the Holocaust, the McCarthy blacklist and the Rosenberg executions, and their exploration in his films, notably in a terrific look at The Pawnbroker.
He acknowledges key collaborators like Paddy Chayefsky, who was at his creative peak when writing Network, using television as a metaphorical prism through which to view the erosion of the American spirit, as nation ceded to corporation. Lumet’s ambivalence about Hollywood comes through here and elsewhere.
His thoughts on Serpico exemplify his love for rebels with the integrity and guts to take on the status quo. Lumet is also unequivocal in his respect for a character like Newman’s ambulance-chasing lawyer in The Verdict, who seeks salvation through an unexpected human connection. But he admits to mixed feelings about the snitching narcotics detective played by Treat Williams in Prince of the City, saying that where he comes from, “A rat is a rat.”
Numerous duds of his career go unmentioned — among them the bloated musical The Wiz, the thankless remake of John Cassavetes‘ Gloria, and the risible A Stranger Among Us, with undercover cop Melanie Griffith infiltrating a Hasidic community. But the sheer volume of solidly crafted movies Lumet left behind that stand the test of time earns him the privilege of selective recall. (I’ll admit I was a tad disappointed he didn’t touch on his 1966 film of Mary McCarthy‘s The Group, an anomalous entry that’s nonetheless a major guilty pleasure.) Glossy commercial projects that appear to have been strictly for-hire jobs also are largely passed over, though there’s lovely use of a clip from Murder on the Orient Express on the end credits, which ties in with a lingering memory of an experience on a train during World War II.
That recollection of a brutal incident he witnessed in Calcutta effectively frames the documentary. Lumet confesses that his failure to do anything to prevent the situation still weighs heavily on him, an admission given added poignancy by use of Mikis Theodorakis‘ indelible theme music from Serpico. These comments also underline Lumet’s refusal to buy into romantic movie-ish notions of heroism in a real world that invariably isn’t so black and white.
Buirski captures that man of strong convictions in an entertaining, beautifully assembled film that benefits from its restless, non-chronological inquisitiveness and from the unpretentious manner of its engaging subject. Declining to take credit for being guided by any defining moral code, Lumet says with a typical down-to-earth shrug, “All I was ever interested in was the next job.”
Production companies: Augusta Films, RatPac Documentary Films, Thirteen Productions, Matador, Anker Productions
Director: Nancy Buirski
Producers: Nancy Buirski, Christopher Donnelly, Scott Berrie, Robin Yigit Smith, Joshua Green, Thane Rosenbaum
Executive producers: Brett Ratner, James Packer, Michael Kantor
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Editor: Anthony Ripoli
Special advisor: Martin Scorsese
Not rated, 104 minutes