The death of Sidney Lumet was the death of the last of the classic Hollywood film directors. Among his contemporaries in Hollywood, Lumet was distinguishable as a stage and TV director who turned to making films. He brought with himself values from these mediums and these were evident in his work in films.
A comparison with contemporary Delbert Mann will teach us a lot about Lumet. Both similarly successful TV directors, starting out with adaptations of teleplays, Sidney Lumet with his 12 Angry Men in 1957 and Delbert Mann with his very very successful Marty two years earlier. While Mann continued bringing plays to screen till his 1960 movie, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Lumet stuck to it till 1962’s film Long Day's Journey Into Night. Both moved out of this and since then their worked largely on original screenplays and adapted novels. Mann found success with his next movie, the screwball comedy Lover Come Back (1961), he also got The Outsiders (1961) to rank among classics. But by 1968 and a few movies later Mann had already returned to TV. Lumet made this his momentous phase. The Pawnbrokers and Fail Safe in the same year are viewed as brilliant movies. The latter though failed at the box office it was more because of its similarities to Dr Strangelove, released earlier that year than anything else.
To a stage director to a film director, his transition was becoming. Through his movies we see his astounding adaptiveness. After all, his last film, Before The Devil Knows You Are Dead came out in 2007 when he was 82 years old. We swear it does not look like it. You, like Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman critic may say that the movie is "proof that Sidney Lumet's talent is, in every sense, timeless" but you have to agree that no body survives this long without adapting to the new. To include an example, when Lumet came to film The Verdict, he gave it a visual treatment totally different than any of his past movies.
According to him, he closely collaborated with cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, to get a more stylish result out of each frame. Lumet was always a better friend to his cinematographer than he was to his writer. Always honest about his inability to write, he says- “I can’t write. And I have such respect for writers- I don’t know how two writers collaborate.” This was probably one of the values he brought from television and stage. Former directors of the stage and TV were not required to write. Elia Kazan was not known to write excessively (with exceptions such as America, America, adapted from the novel that he wrote himself) neither were any of Mann, Frankenheimer etc.
Another interesting one of these values was the practice of extensive rehearsals for “a minimum of two weeks” according to Lumet. This would have allowed the actors to master their characters. Not all actors were comfortable with it. It would also have been difficult to continue the practice through time into the 21st century changed movie making. But it was such an effort to give a personal attention to his actors that earned him the title of “Actor’s Director”. We will not forget that not only did he work with the absolute best in acting business but can be credited with making good actors out of many of them.
It was the chase for realism that had probably brought him into films; he considered the theater to be a “totally unreal medium”. He called the difference between the stage and movies, the difference between poetry and prose. And he understood this difference, well while making12 Angry Men where he was trying to bring the worlds of poetry and prose together. The confinement of the jury room in 12 Angry Men is the stage. The first take in the jury room is a 7 minutes long shot with the camera focusing into and out of a different set of characters and moving on to the next set, this while the actors out of focus continue to be in the role; a classic stage phenomenon.
Through the movie the film is moving towards realism. To quote from article Evolution of Twelve Angry Men, “In the movie, director Lumet achieved movement and variety by frequently varying the camera angles. The changes in camera angles multiply as the dramatic tension increases. Also, he progressively lowered the level from which the movie was shot. The first third was shot from above eye level, the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In the last third, the ceiling of the room began to appear, giving a sense that the room was getting smaller.”
This paragraph comprehensively summarizes Lumet’s Art.
With films like Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network, Lumet has proved to be a legendary filmmaker who has adapted to changing times. He not only made films on contemporary issues but also with contemporary filmmaking styles. Lumet had a long lasting career and a very glorious one at that. With more than 50 films in his filmography, he was one of the most active brilliant directors cinema has seen. In his own words from a 1970 interview, "If you're a director, then you've got to direct ... I don't believe that you should sit back and wait until circumstances are perfect before you and it's all gorgeous and marvelous ... I never did a picture because I was hungry ... Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish. Every picture I did I wanted to do ... I'm having a good time."
His death definitely is the death of the best era cinema has yet seen. We remember this legend and pray his soul rests in peace. To cinema! To Lumet!
- An Interview with Sidney Lumet by Peter Bogdanovich,