Director Sidney Lumet is responsible for some of the most memorable and groundbreaking films about the human condition that have been presented in the last five decades. His last film Before The Devil Knows Your Dead was bleak and darkly shocking. It starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in a bravura performance of cupidity and wanton evil that somehow evoked one’s realization that if given the opportunity, anyone would have behaved as his character behaved.
How Lumet managed to direct luminaries like Ethan Hawke, Marissa Tomei, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Al Pacino, Sean Connery, William Holden, Fay Dunaway, Henry Fonda, and many others to shape their characters with authenticity is a talent that he attempts to describe in Nancy Buirski’s documentary, By Sidney Lumet. Though he humbly distills his efforts with comments that he just “happened to be lucky,” by the end of this engaging documentary, we realize Lumet was certainly in the right place, at the right time, meeting other talented individuals who appreciated his stellar qualities and hired him because they knew he was a great filmmaker.
Underlying the themes of Buirski’s tribute to Lumet, we have the opportunity to understand that this sterling director was a singular film visualist and naturalist without parallel. Lumet continually touched upon prescient issues and concepts which we confront today. With his high standards and empathetic treatment of his characters, he emotionally touched audiences and perhaps, whether he was wont to admit it or not, inspired them toward profound realizations about human nature or at the very least helped them to, for a moment, be put in touch with their deepest emotions.
Buirski selects sections of film interviews with Lumet shot in 2008 and threads key commentary and themes Lumet discusses then reveals how they prevail in various scenes in his most trenchant films. Lumet states in the beginning of the documentary two major points. One, he never directs the “moral message.” What he does is manage to capture human interactions and present them to be as real and dynamic as possible. In the interplay of reactions one cannot help but realize the social fabric, the layer of mores and the human essence of individuals because that is what we carry with us whether we are conscious of it or not. And if he directs a situation so that it is believable and moving, the messages and themes come through to the audience. That is when he feels that his work is at its best.
The second major point which Buirski and Lumet hinge this interview and her documentary around is a story Lumet tells which occurred during WWII that was a defining moment in his life. Truly, it is apparent that the event keys in to the types of film properties he chose to direct. Lumet was a witness to what was tantamount to a gang rape of a twelve-year-old girl by soldiers for money that happened on a train. Lumet was shocked by the situation and wrestled in his conscience whether he should do something. He decided against it and, though he protested within his soul, he in effect, countenanced what happened through his silence, neither preventing the attack nor attempting to stop it out of fear of retaliation.
Buirski frames the documentary with Lumet’s commentary about this event and what it signified to him. Sandwiched in between she identifies Lumet’s conclusions about filmmaking, the themes of his films, and his individual directorial choices in some of his finest work. The documentary, like Lumet, is thought-provoking, revelatory and engaging because he is spot-on about human behavior and indicates that the protagonists in his films often struggled through soul trials as they confronted antithetical cultural mores and took a stand against them. During these discussions, we note that Lumet always honed in on his characters’ social context to reveal whether they are aligned with or at odds with their social community.
Buirski’s film is organized as a retrospective on Lumet’s work and his life, showing how one informed the other. After briefly highlighting clips of some of his award winning films (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Twelve Angry Men), the documentarian follows with Lumet’s discussion of his early life as an actor coming from a theater family. She uses black and white photographs of Lumet and his family in Jewish Theater during the depression where everyone was poor and meat and potatoes consisted of 1/4 lb. of shredded meat with a few pounds of potatoes, not a luscious steak with fries.
Chronicling discussions of his years growing up, Lumet reveals how he moved from acting and directing theater to directing television which he was introduced to (in Lumet’s words “a great director”) by Yul Brenner (known for his role as “the king” in The King and I). Lumet directed such powerful programs like “Tragedy in a Temporary Town,” starring Lloyd Bridges in a terrific performance (he was so invested emotionally in the role he said “bastard” on live TV which was verboten).
Lumet also discusses the blacklisting that occurred at the time, his being called to a particular apartment in NYC, his response and his decision to present “The Witch Trial at Salem” as a segment for You Are There in support of Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow of CBS News who were taking a stand against McCarthyism on a news program (seen in the film Goodnight and Good Luck). His transference as a TV director to films he deems again as a lucky shot. However, by this time, he had established himself as a viable director. Moving from shorter to longer works was a step that was seamless. The consummate actor’s director, he employed many of the same techniques that he used for TV in his film direction.
Buirski highlights Lumet’s award nominated films as well as a few of his “flops” all of which illustrate themes, characterizations, and character-types that Lumet most favored throughout his life. We are treated to film clips from The Pawnbroker, Daniel, Bye Bye Braverman, The Verdict, The Prince of the City, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, A View From the Bridge, Murder on the Orient Express (the music), A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and others. Lumet discusses that growing up in New York City, living in a tenement with the streets of New York as his front and backyard made him enamored of the limited screen shot as opposed to panoramic views of mountains, hills, and valleys or nature settings. His films are mostly set in and around New York City or other cities (Boston, NOLA), and the sets are rooms private and public that range from offices in police departments, banks, a jury room, a court room. Many intimate scenes occur in cars where protagonists are traveling over NYC bridges or are sitting and talking to one another, the camera angle facing full front on the characters in a personal, naturalistic way to afford our identification with their interactions.
At the conclusion, the documentarian’s frame closes again on Lumet’s description of his emotional response to the transformative event with the soldiers and young girl. Lumet’s discussion is poignant: he implies that the event stayed with him his entire life as a remembrance, shocking in that the men were most probably regular guys. But for such regular, fine men, their inhuman descent into wanton brutality was incredible. And because of it, he was afraid and found it impossible to decide whether to risk his own life for the girl. He was not ready to take a stand for her; he was not “a hero.” And, there was a consequence; he sacrificed his own good opinion of himself and loathed his fear and cowardice. It is fitting that his films deal with characters struggling with ethics and conscience. Some act heroically, others behave brutally, others with trepidation and timidity. Indeed, Lumet implies that such High Noon heroism is romantic. As for the average individuals’ actions? Weakness often defines them.
By Sidney Lumet is an unvarnished and fine documentary focusing on Lumet’s explanations of the profound substance of his characterizations and film themes. Especially if you are a Lumet fan, it is a must see.