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Six definitive films: A beginner’s guide to Sidney Lumet

“For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident.”– Sidney Lumet

Better known as the “actor’s director” who had the reputation of working with the best in business, Sidney Lumet was famed for his prolific filmmaking skills and vision that were embedded in a deep humanitarian perspective and social realism. Lauded for his speedy style of filmmaking, Lumet debuted in 1957 and produced nearly one film every year since his debut before retiring in 2007. Born to thespian veterans of Yiddish theatre on June 25, 1924, right after the First World War, Lumet was no stranger to the stage, having made his debut at the age of four. He was a part of various Broadway productions and enjoyed his time there. However, this was briefly interrupted by the commencement of the Second World War which forced him to enrol in the military. While he was stationed abroad, he formed his theatre workshop, not letting the love for theatre die with the paranoia and anxiety kicking in due to the war. 

Lumet’s directorial career began with Off-Broadway productions before he was known as a revered TV director. Working in television helped him develop a lightning speed of shooting and, subsequently, he directed hundreds of episodes in a significantly short time for CBS shows such as Danger, you Are There, Mama and more. The high quality of his directorial dramas was often adapted in motion pictures, further establishing his prowess. Shortly after, his feature debut, the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, was released to critical acclaim and won him a nomination for an Academy Award. The five-time Oscar nominee had never won a competitive award with the institution but did claim an Honorary Award for his exceptional contribution to cinema. Lumet’s feature debut garnered him critical acclaim and he went on to direct various films soon after, namely The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the Verdict, Murder On the Orient Express and more. 

New York City settings were typical of Lumet who would believe in exposing the sleazier and harsher realities of life rather than adding a hint of poetic beauty to it. A self-proclaimed lover of “Woody Allen’s world”, he said that “New York is filled with reality, Hollywood is a fantasyland” and to help his creative gears work, he needed to come to terms with the reality that lay embedded in the city in form of beauty, diversity, corruption, crime and more. Lumet owed his wonderfully dexterous understanding of the camera to his time as a television director.

Lumet, who signalled a good shot with “Print!”, explained his method of filmmaking where he tries to make sense of the “feelings and emotions” of the actors to understand whether the scene is good enough. “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further,” argued Lumet. “It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.” Some of his seminal works such as Serpico is pervaded by the social injustices and brutal corruption that resides within the system. By hinting at the fragility and waywardness of justice, Lumet mirrored the social reality of contemporary times. 

Having worked with the likes of Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn and more, the director’s characters were extremely intriguing, driven by their obsessive nature and passion as they chased truth, honesty, guilt or memory. On the director’s 96th birth anniversary, let us examine six of his films to trace the realistic socio-political tropes that pervaded his films and to understand what makes Sidney Lumet one of the most influential and crucial directors in the history of American cinema. 

“It’s art. It’s commerce. It’s heartbreaking and it’s fun. It’s a great way to live.”

The six definitive films of Sidney Lumet:

12 Angry Men – 1957 

The courtroom drama is based on Reginald Rose’s eponymous 1954 teleplay where a young man with a noticeably shady past is accused of stabbing his father to death. The defence and prosecution rest their case and it is upon the jurors to decide the fate of the young man and whether he is guilty of committing the crime or not. While the case is seemingly simple with all but one reaching a certain conclusion, it soon becomes an intriguing murder mystery where a series of clues and evidence triggers doubt in everyone’s minds. The film, set in the jury room, traces various prejudices and preconceived notions the jurors hold regarding the trial. 

This extremely absorbing and intriguing film is considered to be Lumet’s finest and is the proof of his filmmaking genius. Having worked with cinematographer Boris Kaufman before, Lumet was seemingly aware of the visual aesthetic they were striving for. Lumet later recalled the difficulties of shooting in just the jury room and explained how they made use of the “tight space” to make the film “more claustrophobic” and heightened the anticipation by using quick cuts throughout the film.

“Here, through the slow intensification of performance, and then also through a very subtle use of the camera: use of lenses, use of lighting- not trying to avoid the claustrophobia, but trying to take advantage of it,” continued Lumet, “Make the ceiling feel lower, make it seem as if the walls are closing in on them. We weren’t kidding anybody. We were going to be in one room. Let’s use it dramatically!”

“Well, I’m not used to supposin’. I’m just a workin’ man. My boss does all the supposin’ – but I’ll try one. Supposin’ you talk us all out of this and, uh, the kid really did knife his father?”

The Hill – 1965

Located in the Libyan desert amidst the Second World War, the sadistic prison guard Sergeant Williams inflicts cruel torture on the prisoners to keep them in order. His methods are in direct conflict with that of the more humane guard Harris but Chief Wilson takes no initiative to dismiss or condemn the brutality meted out by Williams. Five new prisoners arrive there and soon clash with the vicious authority, dealing with William’s ruthless ferocity with solemn defiance, revolting against the inconsiderate, oppressive authority. With either party refusing to cave in, a serious conflict arises which leads to unprecedented violence, injuries and even death.  

Exposing the atrocious treatment of prisoners, Lumet said that the film did not have much of a story and focused more on the various characters who were “a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.” With wonderful performance from the cast, namely Sean Connery and Ossie Davis, the sadistic nature of prison guards is well-conveyed as is the unforgettable sass and attitudes displayed by the brace prisoners who are tired of being degraded. The shoot was extremely difficult due to the unforgiving weather and most of the cast and crew were affected. This was the first of the five collaborations between the director and Connery; despite the lack of commercial success, the film contributed to Connery’s development as an actor and prevented him from being typecast as James Bond. Keep an eye out for the 360-degree camera movement which was a rarity back then solidifying Lumet’s genius. 

“New scum and old scum are bad mixes.”

Serpico – 1973

Assisted by Frank Serpico while being adapted from Peter Maas’ book, the film follows the struggles of an honest cop situated in an inherently corrupt system. When he tries to blow the whistle and uncover the deep-seated corruption within the NYPD that shelters various mercenary and notorious police officers, he is situated at the receiving end of various kinds of violence. He refuses to resort to extortion of money from the local criminals that turns his colleagues against him. Alienated and discriminated against constantly, he receives continuous transfers while facing dangers posed to his life. He refuses to cave in and continues to fight till he gets shot in the face. 

Lumet’s prowess as a powerful and compelling filmmaker is cemented via this film. Al Pacino is passionate as the honest Serpico who is juxtaposed to the underlying systemic corruption. Since the film shoot was constricted by Francis Ford Coppola’s elaborate shooting schedule for The Godfather, the team dealt innovatively with Serpico’s iconic beard by shooting the film in reverse where Pacino started off with his shaggy hair and beard, then shaved it before becoming clean-shaven. Sidney Lumet did not have too much time to complete the film and had done so within an “insanely short time”.  The pace was shocking to Pacino who was fresh off shooting a slow schedule with Coppola before realising that the unnerving pace was essential to help the actors retain the state of mind for their respective characters. Talking about Serpico, Lumet said that the film “just physically and in terms of logistics, gives you the problem of keeping your emotional theme work in perspective.”

Lumet continued, “You have to ask yourself not only ‘Where am I physically?’ but ‘Where am I emotionally?’ I think I was more tired after finishing Serpico than almost any movie I’ve ever done. There was also the obligation to the real Frank Serpico – to be honest with his life and not exploit it”.   

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry- it just gets dirtier.”

Dog Day Afternoon – 1975

Based on a true early ’70s story, Sonny, Stevie and Sal gear up to rob a bank. The viewers later come to know that Sonny is in desperate need of money to facilitate his wife Leon’s sex-change surgery. However, their well-crafted plan backfires that compel them to take the people in the bank as their hostages. Sonny’s kindness prompts him to treat the hostages well; he soon discovers that the bank is not as loaded as he would have liked. Although he continues negotiating with the police, he promises to return the hostages to safety if his demand of being provided with an aeroplane to fly out of the country is met. 

Although Pacino initially backed out, scriptwriter Bregman wanted to cast him as he felt that the actor would add the required “vulnerability” and “sensitivity”. Insanely dedicated to his role, Pacino would take cold showers and barely eat or sleep to bring out the character’s exhausted and rugged appearance. Completed nearly three weeks ahead of the scheduled time owing to the director’s speedy style, the film had a lot of improvised dialogues although that was something Lumet did not like. However, the director encouraged the actors to build their own characters to add the hind of realism to his film.

The director, who wanted to emphasise the emotional effect of the film said: “In Dog Day Afternoon, here’s a real-life incident and the actors all portraying real people to whom this actually happened. The picture was about, ‘hey, we’re not these outrageous characters’.”

Lumet continued, “Like Pacino’s character, these people are not the freaks we think they are. We have much more in common with the freaks than we like to admit about ourselves. Now that immediately defined the way the movie was going to be done.”  

“Attica! Attica!”

Network – 1976 

Recipient of four Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Lumet’s 1976 film is a black comedy reeking of irony and satire, based on the screenplay written by Paddy Chayefsky. A veteran news anchor Howard Beale is informed of his show’s low ratings and finds out that she shall be laid out which makes him lose it. He threatens to shoot himself on live news and bursts into an angry rant which boosts ratings and makes him a popular figure. The producer Diana Christensen, much to the chagrin of Beale’s friend and her lover, Schumacher, decides to milk this opportunity and develops a notorious and bolder program which is unsettling and unnerving as well as has devious consequences. 

This lauded film is steeped in cynicism and satire as the deranged Beale is exploited for the network’s profit and this exposes the condition of the profit-hungry news media in contemporary times. Lumet was extremely pleased with the kind of character Paddy Chayefsky ended up creating. He described Howard Beale as someone who never takes any “action”. He goes on to talk about the shocking assassination of Beale where nothing changes and the absurdities of the television form burning holes in the minds of the audience. Both Lumet and Chayefsky wanted to showcase how the media world was operating; Lumet even confessed how he used a particular set of lighting to make the film almost like a documentary where he would expose the manipulation at the hands of the media. 

 “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” 

Garbo Talks – 1984

Gilbert Rolfe, a Manhattan accountant, is troubled over his mother Estelle’s intense social activism. Estelle protests against social injustices and is jailed over grocery prices and her son has to undertake the trouble of aiding her in every miserable situation. Suddenly the duo stumbles upon an uncomfortable truth that Estelle has not more than six months to live due to the brain tumour she has developed. As a part of her dying wish, Estelle requests to meet Greta Garbo, a movie star and Estelle’s idol. Garbo, who has not interacted with anyone in years, is difficult to reach out to. However, Gilbert goes to great lengths to keep his promise to his mother which dries a wedge between him and his wife. While being drawn to a struggling actress at his workplace who aids him, Gilbert’s obsession soon leads to a promising ending. 

It is surprising to see a director of Lumet’s nature step out of his oeuvre and direct a film such as Garbo Talks. While Roger Ebert certainly did not like the film, it is somewhat refreshing and different with a comical side. The movie title has been derived from the titular Garbo’s first-ever non-silent 1930 film Anna Christie. The sheer vulnerability of a doting son and the unpredictable events that lead to these life-changing moments are posited within the beautiful reverie that Lumet creates with the various New York locations. He pays a delicate homage to the elusive Greta Garbo in this dreamy yet realistic Manhattan tale. Gentle and steeped in melancholy, the film is an unusual Lumet which is definitely more of an acquired taste.

“If your head’s in the toilet, don’t blow bubbles.”