Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

When I think of Sidney Lumet's films, words such as realism, honesty and raw emotions come to mind. Lumet was a craftsman, a technically proficient director, who was adapt at telling a story without having to resort to trickery or self-conscious camera movements. Because of this, the power of the storyline was foremost in his films and his lead actors were able to shine.

I first noticed Lumet's work in Twelve Angry Men (1957), a story of how a jury dissects the case of a young man accused of murder. There was only one set with twelve actors  - the memorable cast included  Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Jack Warden and Lee J. Cobb - a setting that could have been a nightmare for Lumet or any director. I recall commentary from John Frankenheimer for the DVD soundtrack for one of his (Frankenheimer's) lesser-known films, The Gypsy Moths (1969), where he discusses the difficulty of providing enough coverage when filming a scene with more than three characters having a dialogue with each other.

The scene Frankenheimer referred to had five actors, so imagine the technical work Lumet faced with twelve actors in a small room. Watch the film again and note how Lumet stations his cameras and how the scenes are edited. In the story, a few of the jurors are bigoted and want the accused to get what's coming to him, while a few others are much more passionate in their reasoning concerning the testimony. Lumet respects the story and his actors by refusing to shoot at low or high angles, which would communicate a like or dislike toward that character. Rather, he treats them equally, letting the audience decide which jurors are sincere and which are not.

Clearly, Lumet's television experience before this film was of invaluable experience for this as well as future work. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet cut his directorial teeth in the early to mid 1950s on live television dramas, such as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. That training certainly helped him think on his feet and devise plans on how best to bring out the proper atmosphere in his work.

Those qualities are seen in his films that were set in New York City, his hometown. On the commentary tracks for Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Lumet describes how he had scouted out certain locations in the city that had a special look - not the look of midtown Manhattan with its sprawling skyscrapers, but the ethnic neighborhoods with their small storefronts, be they restaurants, dry cleaners or banks. Take a look at these two films and you note the reality of the settings - again, no trickery here, just honesty.

Lumet's filming of the action within the bank lobby in Afternoon is first-rate in its constantly shifting point of view from Sonny (Al Pacino) to the employees of the bank. All of the characters are given their due - we don't have the stereotypical presentations of the overweight or loud employees as in some films where we are invited by the filmmakers to laugh at these characters. Lumet was too sophisticated and sincere in his work to allow that.

Combined with Dede Allen's brilliant editing, Dog Day Afternoon is a marvelous piece of work, at once exciting, exhausting and deeply touching, especially in the portrayal of Pacino's character, who is robbing the bank to pay for a sex-change operation for his male lover (this was a shocking concept for a mainstream Hollywood film in the mid-1970s and Lumet handles it with grace and dignity). Once Sonny enters that bank and holds the employees hostage, we enter that world with him and we see the confusion and weariness of his situation. The marvelous screenplay by Frank Pierson sets the table and Lumet made certain that we, the audience, would embrace the unusual aspects of this story without questioning or making fun of the characters or their circumstances.

Often when a director passes away, words are written about the remarkable performances in that individual's films; to some degree, it's almost become a cliché. But in the case of Lumet, it's proper to list some of these performances, especially as I mentioned above, Lumet first and foremost directed a film to tell the story and in the process, let his actors do their work. Just a few of the performances include Pacino and John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon; Pacino again in Serpico; Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982), Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in Network (1976); Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind (1960- an intriguing film too often neglected in any discussion of Lumet's work); Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker (1965) and of course, the entire ensemble in Twelve Angry Men.

Every one of these marvelous performances were a tribute to the dignity and poise of Sidney Lumet, a great storyteller. He will be missed.

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