Sidney Lumet is gone, but films like ‘Network’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ endure

I am glad that Sidney Lumet, unlike many directors who are still working well into their 80s, got to exit the stage on a high note, with the critically acclaimed “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”.  A few years before that, he was given an honorary Academy Award for his entire career, but I would like to think that Lumet was well aware that with or without Oscars for his mantle, he left behind a filmography studded with genuine classics, cultural landmarks that helped define great cinema decade after decade, and that his films will be watched and rewatched and studied for as long as we are still sharing movies.

First, if you have any ambition towards becoming a filmmaker yourself, you must immediately find a copy of Lumet’s remarkable book, Making Movies, and read it cover to cover.  Read it several times.  Read it until it starts to sink into you, become part of the way you think.  Lumet’s philosophy on filmmaker was as unadorned and no-nonsense as his actual films, and when you look at his full body of work, you can see his approach in the amazing performances people gave for him, and in the quietly powerful visual approach he took to material.  He was an actor first, working on Broadway and off for many years before he started working in television in the early 1950’s.   He always maintained certain habits from the theater, whether working in television or in film, giving his actors room and time to rehearse together as a group, insisting on it because of the difference it made in every performance, not just the starring roles.

When I think of Sidney Lumet, I think of great performances.  I think of textual depth.  I think of classic storytelling.  I think of class.  He was the sort of director who seemed to not only respect great material… he elevated it.  He could take a great script and find all the wonderful corners in the piece, illuminating things even the author didn’t know they’d done.  He was brilliant at figuring out how to take something from the page to the screen, and one part of his genius… and I don’t thrown that word around lightly… was in casting.  He directed seventeen different actors to Academy Award nominations, and one reason for that is because he could make any actor comfortable enough to stop thinking about ego and start thinking about what is best for a role, something that can be tough when you’re working with movie stars.

For example, as I write this, I’m watching “The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman.  The David Mamet script for the film is a knockout, and when you look at Newman in the film, he is an ugly, broken shell of a man.  Lumet doesn’t sand off the rough edges for the actor… if anything, he cranks them up, making sure we understand just how lost and damaged Frank Galvin is, so that any redemption he attains in the film is an uphill battle, a genuine struggle.  The flaws in his characters do not make them weak, they simply make them human, and that seems to be the great message of Lumet’s career.  He spent his career giving voice to people who might otherwise never have one, and the highlights of his filmography represent some of the most brilliantly human moments in our film culture history.

I think it was important that he came out of television, and in particular, the days of live television.  While I certainly feel that composition and visual acumen is part of what defines a great filmmaker, we have reached an age where people learn visual fireworks without ever mastering the basics of storytelling.  Lumet had a stupendous eye for composition, but without drawing attention to himself.  He simply had a knack for having his camera in the exact right place to capture the details of performance or environment, and it often felt like he worked from an instinctual place, something you learn when working in the pressure cooker of live television. 

By the time he made his first feature film, “12 Angry Men,” he had already directed dozens of television productions, and that’s on top of the experience he had as an actor.  He hit the ground running, and not many filmmakers have ever made a debut picture with the lasting power and cultural relevance of that one.  He continued to move back and forth, from television to film, until a few movies in a row seemed to finally tip him into the feature world for good.  Both “The Pawnbroker” and “Fail-Safe” were incredibly powerful films, dense and dark and unsettling.  He had no interest in making his audience feel safe and comfortable.  He made movies that challenged and provoked, even before the cultural revolution of the ’70s kicked in.  One of the reasons he was able to work so well during the era where Hollywood was taken over by the film school babies like Lucas and Spielberg and Scorsese was because his sensibilities predicted theirs.

He certainly wasn’t a machine, turning out one perfect gem after another.  He once said about his own work ethic that he would start by trying to find a great script, and if he couldn’t, then he’d look for a good script, and if he couldn’t find one of those, then he’d settle for working with an interesting actor.  But when he was able to put everything together, the results felt like miracles, movies so good that they seemed undeniable.  “Dog Day Afternoon.”  “Murder On The Orient Express.”  “Serpico.”  “The Group.”  “Equus.”  He made movies that defined easy categorization, movies that were tough to pin down. 

Maybe my favorite of his movies was an example of him finding one of those great scripts he was always looking for, and when you’re talking about great script, Paddy Cheyefsky’s “Network” has got to be on a very short list of the very best ever written.  Lumet’s film is visionary, accurately predicting a media landscape that had to have seemed impossible in 1976, but which seems clear-eyed and prescient when seen today.  And while Cheyefsky’s script is absolutely the blueprint for the film, Lumet directed it with an almost holy fire burning inside, so the entire film feels like it’s about to come off the rails, just barely in control.  And control certainly feels like an important theme in his work, or rather, the lack of it in the daily lives of most people.  Lumet’s characters struggle against an unjust, uncaring world, determined to leave some indication of their own existence, willing to pay whatever price it demands of them.

I know why young filmmakers often cite the flashy and the spectacular when discussing their influences, but I wish more of them would look to someone like Lumet when trying to figure out who they want to be.  Lumet was never about creating a single signature, recognizable from film to film, but instead would lose himself in each fresh film, and it was that ability to bring all of his considerable gifts to bear on each new piece of text that is his real legacy.  Lumet often deflected personal praise, believing that if you were thinking about him while watching the movies, then he had failed in some way. 

For today, though, let’s honor him by disregarding his wishes.  Whether you watch “Prince of the City” or “Running On Empty” or “Deathtrap” or “The Wiz” or any of the films I’ve already mentioned in this piece, think of the man who worked so hard to create those remarkable moments, to bring all of these wonderful, human characters to life, and for at least today, celebrate him.  After all, the movies will last forever, and as a result, so will Lumet, no matter how hard he worked to hide himself in the work. Anyone capable of creating great films fifty years apart and all along the years in-between has got to be considered one of this industry’s giants. 

We are a lesser world today for his passing, but a better one for his having been here in the first place.