Sidney Lumet: Angry Young Man | Daily News

Sidney Lumet: Angry Young Man

Between the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and its revival in the 1980s, two generations of American directors made their mark. Freed of the constraints of stars and producers, they made films that appealed to new audiences. Mindful of changing attitudes and responses to popular culture, they explored new themes and subverted conventions, emboldened in no small part by what was happening in the European, particularly French, cinema. The industry was seeing its second major shift after the coming of sound, and it was left to this new generation of directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and actors to set things right. Politically they were all progressive, which in those heady days of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson meant being supportive of the Democratic Party.

Among the first of the two new generations that sprang up after the Second World War was Sidney Lumet. Lumet was not famous or popular in the sense that Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were. A far more elusive figure, he explored new terrains yet never stuck himself to one set of themes. Roger Ebert would later comment that this showed how receptive to and mindful of the intelligence of the audience he was. It also showed that he was restless and perfectionist, that he never found the Big Theme he kept on looking for. It occupied him for half a century: his first, 12 Angry Men, came out 50 years before his last, Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead. I can think of five works of his that occupy high places in the pantheon of the American cinema. In that sense, the man remained unmatched.

Focal lengths

Lumet’s debut film may well be the best among them all. When I first watched 12 Angry Men right after school, I was intrigued not so much by the plot as by the way Lumet shot the whole set-up. In his very evocative account on Making Movies, Lumet tells us how he filmed the whole thing: as the plot progressed, he moved into lenses of longer focal lengths, so as to give the impression of walls closing in on the characters. He also lowered the camera as the film moved into its conclusion, in tune with the change of mood among the characters, a set of jurors, as it reaches its climax. While in the first half of the story the jurors – with the conspicuous exception of Juror No. 8 – assume they are god, by the time of the second half they doubt their own reasoning. This comes out well in Lumet’s visual strategy.

By far my favourite films by Lumet are Murder on the Orient Express and Network. Murder on the Orient Express, of course, was the first full-scale Hercule Poirot movie adaptation, far superior to any feature-length adaptation of a Poirot story that has been made since. On the other hand, Network is a bitingly witty satire on the American media, a satire which, like all good satires, has not aged and indeed rings eerily true today. There is a sequence in the film where the protagonist, a half-mad self-defined prophet of the airwaves, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Peter Finch, declares that he will commit suicide soon, live, on TV. If one realises that such stunts and gimmicks have become part of the contemporary media culture, one discerns how prophetic the film’s director would have been.

In Murder on the Orient Express there is a long sequence where the camera rises up as the eponymous Orient Express starts on its journey. As the camera rises it turns the other way to film the Express escaping and disappearing into the distance. Lumet tells us that simple though the whole set-up in this sequence may seem, it taxed the cast members heavily. At a time when CGI has taken over everything, it takes a Christopher Nolan to make us recall the wonders of achieving such effects without merely staging them. Back in Lumet’s day, those stunts and effects were part and parcel of the filmmaking process. To see these scenes is to appreciate not just the director’s vision, but an attitude and a culture has since gone almost extinct. One can say the same thing of pretty much all Lumet’s other work.

Yiddish theatre

Lumet was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. He studied theater acting at the Professional Children’s School of New York and Columbia University. His parents, Baruch and Eugenia (born Wermus) Lumet, were veterans of the Yiddish theatre, and were Polish-Jewish emigrants to the US. His father was born in Warsaw, while his mother died when he was a child.

He made his professional debut on radio at age four and stage debut Theatre at age five. As a child he appeared in many Broadway productions. In 1935, aged 11, he appeared in a short film titled Papirossen. The film was later shown in a theatrical play. The play and short film appeared in the Bronx McKinley Square Theatre. In 1939, he made his only feature-length film appearance, at age 15, in One Third of a Nation. World War II interrupted his early acting career and he spent four years in the U.S. Army.

After returning from service as a radar repairman stationed in India and Burma, he became involved with the Actors Studio, then formed his own stage workshop. He organized an Off-Broadway group and became its director, and continued directing in theatre, while teaching acting at the High School of Performing Arts. He was senior drama coach when the building of the High School moved to a new location. At 25, Lumet directed the drama department in a production of The Young and Fair. He moved on to television soon afterwards, gaining a reputation for quick and efficient work. After directing more than 200 episodes of various serials and live plays, he made his debut with 12 Angry Men, itself based on a live play shot by Franklin J. Schaffner, another leading light of his generation. A four time nominee of the Best Director Oscar, Sidney Lumet died in 2011 from a blood malignancy. One of the last in that generation to go out, he was perhaps its foremost representative.


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