Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sidney Lumet: 1924 - 2011

When I heard about Sidney Lumet's passing this afternoon, I was shocked and saddened. I shouldn't have been so surprised, of course – after all, Lumet was 86 years old – but I felt the same way about Lumet that I had felt about Robert Altman when he died; he just felt like one of those guys who was going to be around forever. He didn't appear to have lost any of his desire or passion in his later years. His last film was Before the Devil Knows You're Dead in 2007, and it hardly felt like the work of a late master, whose career and life were beginning to slip away. It had the same toughness and vigorous energy that characterised the best films from his 50-year career.

Looking back over that career this evening, I was astonished once again by just how remarkable a career it was. Lumet was a maker of serious, intelligent pictures. He was someone who searched for the most direct and unfussy way to tell a story effectively, and knew how to get the best out of his collaborators. He despised the notion of an auteur, believing it to be self-indulgent and pretentious on the part of a director, and an idea that undermined the collective nature of filmmaking. Much better to describe him as a craftsman; a filmmaker who learned his trade in television and honed it when he made the move into cinema, always refining his technique to the point where his filmmaking appeared effortless.

Instead of drawing the focus away from the story with his filmmaking style, Lumet always ensured the emphasis was on his characters and themes. His body of work is astonishingly varied, but consistent throughout his oeuvre is the interest in observing human nature under extreme circumstances, and an abiding fascination with justice and corruption. In 1964, Lumet made two groundbreaking films; Fail-Safe, which brought cold war fears to life, and The Pawnbroker, the first American film to deal with the Holocaust and the first to receive a Production Code seal despite containing female nudity. It was the 1970's that saw Lumet do his best and most career-defining work, though. His two collaborations with Al Pacino resulted in the gripping true-life stories Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and he joined forces with Paddy Chayefsky to make Network, a film that feels more relevant and brilliant with every passing year. Lumet was incredibly prolific in this decade but he managed to sustain an extraordinary level of quality with it. He also made The Anderson Tapes, The Offense and Murder on the Orient Express, and it was only in 1978 with The Wiz that he really stumbled. That black musical version of The Wizard of Oz certainly stands out as the most bizarre entry on Lumet's eclectic CV.

Perhaps Lumet's greatest quality was his ability to get the best out of his actors. He seemed to know exactly how to give them the space and freedom they needed to develop their performances to the very highest level, and one look at the actors who did arguably their finest work for Lumet tells us how potent his skills were in this area. Sean Connery (The Hill and The Offence), Al Pacino (Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Treat Williams (Prince of the City), Nick Nolte (Q&A), Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Peter Finch (Network); all of these actors did amazing work with Lumet, and we haven't even mentioned the wonderful ensembles that often supported these great leading performances. Lumet was so skilled at drawing us into the real lives of the people in his stories, and that's essentially what he made movies about for fifty years – ordinary people, at their best and at their worst. Few other American filmmakers have traversed that territory with such intelligence and rigour, and I'm not sure if any will ever do it with the compassion, thoughtfulness and longevity of Sidney Lumet.