Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

After decades of refusal (even when he won) to appear at the Academy Awards, Woody Allen was finally persuaded to make a special appearance at the Oscars in 2002, to introduce a segment honouring New York and the movies that were made there.   In his opening remarks, Allen acknowledged that though he may have been a reasonable choice for such an invitation, he thought that someone like Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet would have been a better choice.  Indeed, when one thinks about New York and the movies, one invariably pictures directors such as Allen and Scorsese, and sadly overlook the solid work of Lumet.  Perhaps he never received the pomp and circumstance of a Scorsese or a Woody Allen, but Lumet's films are just as ensconced in the fabric of New York City as anyone's.

A quote attributed to Lumet goes, "If a director comes in from California and doesn't know the city at all, he picks the Empire State Building and all the postcard shots, and that, of course, isn't the city." and Lumet would regularly put his money where his mouth was.   The Philadelphia-born, but New York-raised actor-turned-director would become known for making a string of NYC-based movies that were just as gritty as Scorsese and just as acerbic as Allen.  From Serpico to Dog Day Afternoon to Network to Prince of the City to Long Day's Journey Into Night to Q&A to Garbo Talks and The Wiz even, Lumet gave us New York City not from the postcard shots, but from the real (and often down-and-dirty) city that he grew up in and made his own right up until the end.

Film historian Stephen Bowles notes, "Lumet's protagonists tend to be isolated, unexceptional men who oppose a group or institution. Whether the protagonist is a member of a jury or party to a bungled robbery, he follows his instincts and intuition in an effort to find solutions. Lumet's most important criterion is not whether the actions of these men are right or wrong but whether the actions are genuine. If these actions are justified by the individual's conscience, this gives his heroes uncommon strength and courage to endure the pressures, abuses, and injustices of others."  It is in this aspect that Lumet allows his actors to give everything they have to their roles.

Lumet was possibly the best director (aside from perhaps Kazan) when it came to working with actors and getting as much out of them as he could.  Lumet's final film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though perhaps not up to par with his seventies output (but then what seventies American director still working today, can claim otherwise!?) is nonetheless a sharply designed thriller that easily fits in with both this descriptive of Lumet's style and his way with actors.  Lumet (and those under his direction) could do corruption (of body, mind and soul) better than just about anyone out there.

In the end, Lumet leaves us with a legacy of important and demanding films (including several, such as The Anderson Tapes, Bye Bye Braverman and Lovin' Molly, that I have never seen but intend to soon in a sadly posthumous retrospective) that not only honour the great city he loved so much (even when his film's seemed to rail against it at times) but help to define a certain generation of filmmakers and filmmaking. 

As always, David Hudson has collected a slew of pieces on Mr. Lumet, which can be perused here.

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