Sidney Lumet Tribute: THR’s Todd McCarthy Remembers the ‘Dynamic’ Director

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The "Serpico" helmer, who died Saturday at 86, “was a man of his time, of his city, anxious to engage with urgent issues, contemporary people, knotty conflicts and difficult moral struggles.”

Other than belonging to the triumvirate, along with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, of defining New York filmmakers, Sidney Lumet most of all exemplified what it means to be a “working director.” Among Americans who began their career in the post-war era, Lumet made more feature films (43) than anyone else (Allen is chasing him closely with 41, while Clint Eastwood lags well behind with 32) and, despite his specializing in contemporary New York stories and stage adaptations, he eventually tried on many genres, settings and eras. Unlike the majority of name directors, who tend to make big splashes early but often lose steam, go astray or become complacent, Lumet learned on the job and began to peak only after more than 15 years of experience. He did make his name (and win an Oscar nomination) with his first film, Twelve Angry Men, capitalizing on his live television experience in dealing with the tight jury room space and pressure cooker situation. But I would surprised if more than one or two of his next 14 films made any money, or even broke even. How does a young director get away with that? By attracting top actors to work with you (Henry Fonda, Sophia Loren, Brando and Magnani, Katharine Hepburn and Sean Connery were just some in the early years), by adhering to tight budgets and by not pretending to be a genius auteur whose fall from grace will be privately sought and relished by rivals and business types.

Other undoubted reasons for this were his dynamic, engaged personality and sheer energy. When I at long last met him in 2007, he was promoting Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, proud of the film's excellent reception but visibly impatient as well to get started on his next picture, which he said was only a few budget details away from happening. Lumet was 83 at the time and in every way appeared at least 20 years younger, maybe more; there were no vocal or mental hesitations, no hand tremors, no uncertainty in walking, no milky pupils or parched skin. If you closed your eyes and just listened to his voice, he sounded anywhere from 35 to 60, but no more. His sense of excitement about the next project, not the one he'd just finished, was palpable, and his vitality was such that no one would have questioned that he could knock it out in a few weeks or a tight budget, which he sadly never got the opportunity to do.

A virtual consensus has formed as to Lumet's best films: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, perhaps The Verdict, 12 Angry Men, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and maybe even Q&A on the level just below, then more selective support for Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Anderson Tapes, Just Tell Me What You Want and Running on Empty. The first group, made between 1973-81, are propelled and enriched by the energy bursts, emotional rhythms, vocal cadences and attitudinal posturings of New York and its denizens in its most down and dirty days, especially the world of cops, lawyers and functionaries. The films reek of and exult in the city's sweat, street smarts, rot, electricity, brazenness, moral queasiness, urgency and confrontational instincts in all their grime and glory.

His touch with working stiffs and low-lifes was intriguing in that he was a show business kid from birth. Lumet was one of the last directors whose professional life reached back to the 1930s, to the Yiddish theater world of his parents, to acting as a boy on pre-war Broadway (Dead End) and in movies (Dudley Murphy's anti-tenement tract One Third of a Nation in 1939, which was shot in New York). He was also the last of the major directors with important roots in live television drama, a group that included Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt and Delbert Mann. Among Lumet's significant work for television were, for Kraft Theatre, an adaptation of All the King's Men and three plays by Tennessee Williams and, for Play of the Week, the legendary The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards.

For all his background with plays and great writers, however, his film adaptations of stage works rank among his least satisfying work. A View from the Bridge, Long Day's Journey into Night and The Fugitive Kind are notable for powerful performances it's good to have records of, but it's amazing how misguided are the films of The Sea Gull, Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, Equus, The Wiz, Deathtrap and Child's Play. The numerous other films that fell flat, sometimes from material that was simply uncongenial or from blind spots that prevented Lumet from recognizing the scripts' shortcomings ultimately lead one to conclude that, when a project called for something more in the way of style, vision or scope, Lumet was not the man for the job. Only on a handful of occasions did he venture into period fare or strict genre pieces. He undoubtedly made the films he did for many different reasons. But in the end he was a man of his time, of his city, anxious to engage with urgent issues, contemporary people, knotty conflicts and difficult moral struggles, keen to keep working, always anxious to get into it, whatever it was.