Capturing the marvel of Sidney Lumet

the Browsers ecstasy

Legendary Filmmaker Sidney Lumet

Several of them sneered at the workmanlike Hollywood directors from the 50s and 60s such as Lumet, Norman Jewison, and Sidney Pollock who made each film as a studio project as versus the more personal and stylised new wave Hollywood filmmakers like Scorsese, Coppola, and Penn of the 70s and 80s. I, on the other hand, came to like and appreciate more and more how these studio directors did such a cracking job of each script/ film they were given to make. They had such sheer technique.

They were quieter about their politics, style and vision but they were fine craftsmen. They had to deliver a gripping film within the limitations of the system, and they often did. A finished film from their hands was always dramatically absorbing, with minimum indulgence and fuss. The performances they got from stars were unfailingly good. They knew how to turn any script into intense, entertaining cinema. Consider Jewison’s two racism-themed thrillers, In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story. It isn’t just about fine suspense and drama, but crackling atmosphere, performances and race politics. And they are tight, economical; beautifully classical in the storytelling.

Exactly how I would characterise the films of Sidney Lumet who died last week, leaving us with a legacy of great to good films. I cannot remember now which old Bangalore movie theatre — Plaza, Rex or Blu Moon — where I first saw Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, but I remember, along with other friends I saw it with, being clearly electrified. Al Pacino’s intense, raving performance and the realistic, detailed way New York City (and those multicultural, urban New Yorkers) was used, thrilled us. It didn’t feel like a movie, but like being there in the bank, trapped with those bank robbers on a sweltering afternoon, nervous as hell about what would happen next.

It’s been years and years since I saw the movie and I don’t know if it feels a little dated now, but it was the first Lumet movie for many of us of that generation. (For an earlier generation it was the black and white classic 12 Angry Men, remade several times since then). Lumet’s other best known films are Network (this I saw at Lido, no forgetting that) Serpico, The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Prince of the City, Q&A, and his last work, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.  

He had a theme running through his work that I was especially drawn to: idealistic men and women fighting for justice. Often it was about cops, lawyers, civil servants rooting out corruption, going against not just crooked politicians and corporate honchos, but having to take on their own kind from within the system. A sense of integrity was central to his characters, but also how costly idealism was, how it can burn you; make you an outsider; ostracise you from your own.

My all time favourite Lumet has always remained The Verdict. Lumet’s great craft and his gift for getting intense performances from his stars — here Paul Newman — comes together here with a top notch script by that other master of theatre: David Mamet.

Newman plays a failed, alcoholic lawyer. He’s a good lawyer, but his integrity is at odds with the justice system and that’s led to the booze. He’s stopped caring. Along comes a case he cares for suddenly — a malpractice case where he has a chance to do right once again.

At the end of The Verdict, Newman sits waiting in the courtroom for the verdict to be read by the jury — the verdict that will decide his fate as well. Will he continue to be a failure and a drunk or will he get his second chance? When the verdict is read, Newman squeezes his eyes shut for a brief second. The emotion he shows so briefly is gone, but he makes you see a whole lifetime flash by in it. In his book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet reveals what went on behind that scene in rehearsals: he hinted to his star that the scene was good, but was missing something. Lumet gently coaxed the star to go deeper into the character, hinting that he could draw on his own darkness.

The next day they shot the scene again, and Newman did what you now see in that scene, and apparently even the film crew was in tears when they wrapped the shot. Newman told Lumet privately later that he had spent the previous night tapping into his own sense of failure. Lumet had the guts and the conviction to shape even the performances of stars, pushing them to explore their own vulnerability, furthering their art. My other personal favourites among his films are Running on Empty, Daniel, Murder on the Orient Express and Deathtrap. For the celebrated Agatha Christie mystery, he assembled a wonderful cast — Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud — the butler did it too! — Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, and Vanessa Redgrave — to convincingly pull off Christie’s deliciously over the top denouement. Lumet understood how exactly the nervous comedy and jittery suspense in Ira Levin’s masterful Broadway mystery, Deathtrap, works and adapted it to film with enough cleverness and craft to make it work again on screen. And what delicious (there’s that word again) performances from Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.

Running on Empty, which by some nice coincidence I saw again (the first time was at Blu Diamond) on DVD just a few weeks ago remains a really cool movie with a risky subject in American cinema: the struggle of radicals. Daniel, adapted from the E L Doctorow novel, is a fictionalised re-telling of the plight of real-life Marxist radicals. It’s the story of the son of the Rosenbergs, communist Americans who became Soviet spies. In Running on Empty a radicalised American family is constantly on the run from federal agents. They move from town to town, job to job, school to school, friends to friends under various identities to cover their tracks from the American government. As young, committed radicals in the 60s, the parents blew up a weapons lab protesting the Vietnam war, and since then have been on the run.

In both films, the story is experienced through the children of these radicals. In what ways and how the politics and choices of parents affect the lives of their own children is evident. I intend to spend the weekend watching the best — and the not so best — of Sidney Lumet, to once again revel in the cinematic craft of a veteran studio director.                  

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