Sidney Lumet: Under Pressure

Sidney Lumet died last year at the age of 86. His death seemed to go under the radar, but, in a way, that was only fitting. Lumet is one of the few directors who could be labeled as both a legend and underrated. Is the term “legend” too strong? Well, Martin Scorsese said that Lumet “had a unique gift with actors, an unusually dynamic feeling for drama, and a powerful sense of place, of the world of the picture. I admire so many of his movies.” Woody Allen remarked that “I’m constantly amazed how many films of his prodigious output were wonderful and how many actors and actresses did their best work under his direction.” Steven Spielberg called Lumet “one of America’s greatest filmmakers.”

As for recognition, Lumet directed four actors to Oscar wins but never nabbed one himself until an honorary award in 2005. Lumet began working between two famous eras of American directors – the classic era (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, George Cukor, Frank Capra, etc.) and the 70s film school era (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, etc.). Lumet, along with other stalwarts such as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, was part of a generation that cut their teeth directing live television in the 50s. That group never got the credit they deserved.

Lumet, for one, never seemed to fit the auteur theory (that the director is the primary creator of the film, same as an author for a book or a painter for a painting). As Owen Glieberman in Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Because of his defiantly unpretentious attitude, Lumet made it easy to regard him as a craftsman rather than as an artist.” One example of the unpretentious attitude that Glieberman describes is how Lumet did not believe in auteurs. He repeatedly discussed the collaborative nature of filmmaking, most notably in his 1995 book Making Movies. Lumet meticulously explains the directing process from start to finish, drawing on lessons he learned throughout his career. He describes how a good director works with writers, actors, cinematographers and editors.

In one of the book’s passages Lumet asks, “How much in charge am I? I’m dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast, who the leading man is in love with. I’m dependent on the talents and idiosyncrasies, the moods and egos, the politics and personalities, of more than a hundred different people ... I’m the boss, but only up to a point. And to me that’s what’s so exciting. I’m in charge of a community that I need desperately and needs me just as badly.” Lumet’s filmmaking expertise and excitement fills his book and every interview of his I’ve seen.

Unlike many directors, Lumet generally insisted on at least two weeks of rehearsal before shooting, a practice he honed in his television work. The rehearsal gave actors time to flesh out the characters and relationships. Together they could map out the characters’ journey from start to finish. Lumet described how this approach encouraged spontaneity, contrary from what one may think. Because the actors were secure in their characters, knew their lines, and knew their marks, they could then feel free to improvise and explore. It also meant that it was easier to shoot out of sequence, since the actors knew exactly where their characters were in every given scene. There’s no doubt that Lumet’s approach worked and that he was truly an “actor’s director.” Just look at a sample of who he worked with: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Sean Connery, William Holden, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Richard Dreyfuss, Ethan Hawke, Lee J. Cobb, Joanne Woodward, Candice Bergen, Peter Finch, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Michael Caine, Jeff Bridges, River Phoenix, Ned Beatty, Marlon Brando, Ralph Richardson, Rod Steiger, Faye Dunnaway, Richard Widmark, James Mason, Christopher Reeve, Nick Nolte, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ossie Davis, John Gielgud, Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Tony Perkins, Charlotte Rampling, Albert Finney, Timothy Hutton, Marisa Tomei, and John Cazale. That’s three generations of some of the world’s finest film actors.

Lumet’s emphasis on preparation and collaboration also meant that he worked quickly. His movies were done on time and under budget, making things much easier for film crews. So actors loved working for him. Film crews loved working with him. The quality is there. So why isn’t Lumet considered an auteur, even by himself?

One reason may be that Lumet did not have a signature visual style. In his book Lumet wrote that “Good style is unseen style.” Lumet would adapt his technique to the story he was telling. For example, The Pawnbroker features a virtuoso jazz score by Quincy Jones. Other films of Lumet’s, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Network, have virtually no music at all.

Auteurs are often said to have themes they return to again and again. For example most of Billy Wilder’s films involve deception. Many of Scorsese’s efforts address how characters handle guilt, self-loathing, or (on the flip side of the coin) hubris. Spielberg’s characters are often searching for a father figure or dealing with the loss of one.

Lumet based many of his films in New York, and some of his most notable efforts involve aspects of the criminal justice system (criminals, cops, courts, and lawyers). Still, Lumet himself wrote that, “I’ve been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all of my work.” Here’s where I beg to differ, maybe even (if I may be so bold), with Lumet himself. Over the past summer, I viewed Lumet’s first film -- 12 Angry Men, along with Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, and his last film -- Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. One theme that emerges repeatedly is pressure. Sure, most films have their characters under some duress. Characters without a care in the world would make for a pretty boring movie. But Lumet’s films go deeper. They explore how pressure slowly builds and permeates people’s hearts and minds. They show how this pressure can cause people to act in ways that might normally be foreign to them. Lumet’s choices, not only in scripts, but in his style illustrate pressure’s impact.

Only a handful of directors began their career as powerfully as Lumet did with 12 Angry Men. Almost all of the action takes place in one room, a jury room where twelve men decide the fate of a young man accused of murder. Seemingly an open-and-shut case, one lone juror (Henry Fonda) implores his colleagues to dig deeper. They do, uncovering new aspects of not only the case, but their own beliefs and prejudices. Reginald Rose’s story was originally a teleplay and then a stage production. In adapting plays to film, directors often try to open the story up, so it does not feel confined. Lumet does the opposite. As the film goes on and tempers flare, Lumet closes the film in, giving viewers an increasingly confined feeling. Lumet uses gradually longer and longer camera lenses, making the room seem smaller in relation to the characters. His close-ups increasingly show the characters’ sweat. We feel the tension and pressure that the characters experience. Lumet shot the first third of the film above eye level, often providing an overhead view. As the discussions intensify, Lumet moves to eye level in the second third, placing you right with the characters. Finally, for the last third, Lumet shot below eye level, so you can see the ceilings. As Lumet wrote, “Not only were the walls closing in, but the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”

While the pressure in 12 Angry Men comes from claustrophobia, in Serpico it comes from isolation. Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is a police officer who refuses to take under-the-table protection money. Eventually he starts speaking out against police corruption and quickly becomes a pariah among his fellow cops. Lumet shot this film very quickly, even by his standards. While Lumet had to do this for financial reasons, he used the quick schedule to heighten the tension in the scenes. Lumet also made the most of Pacino’s skills. Pacino, especially early in career excelled at playing inner turmoil (think of him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather right before Michael shoots Solozzo and McCluskey). As Serpico, Pacino shows the pressure eating away at him, whether he’s being quiet or lashing out. At one point he says “It's incredible ... but I feel like a criminal 'cause I don't take money.” Lumet, as he did with 12 Angry Men, uses longer lenses to great effect, in some scenes making the other cops look like they were right on top of Serpico. In other scenes, even if Serpico is with other people, Lumet frames him by himself. Serpico could be in a crowd of other cops and still feel completely alone. Towards the end, when Serpico is testifying before a commission examining police corruption, Lumet shot through wide-angle lenses, making Serpico seem like he’s miles away from everyone else in the same room. Serpico is completely disconnected, not just from other cops but from the whole criminal justice system.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet, as he did with 12 Angry Men, evokes pressure and tension from a group of people in a confined area. This time it’s a bank, during a hostage situation after a robbery goes horribly wrong. At the very beginning, Lumet clearly establishes that the setting is a very hot New York summer afternoon. From the minute you see Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) you know they are in over their heads. Then, when the police arrive, matters only disintegrate. So the pressure builds from the get-go. But Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson found a way to make the tension even higher. They discovered that the real-life Sonny tried to please everyone, which was incorporated into the film version. Of course the whole reason for the robbery is to pay for the sex change operation of Sonny’s lover Leon. So now Sonny, during a hostage situation, is trying to make the hostages, Sal, and Leon all happy. That’s quite difficult, especially when you’re holding off the police. Lumet shows the sweat growing on the faces of Sonny, Sal and the hostages. He once again evokes a claustrophobic feeling. He also has enough trust in his actors to let them carry scenes. Towards the end of the film, Sonny dictates his will and describes his feelings for Leon. After the first take Pacino was exhausted, but Lumet pushed him to do a second take. So what we see is both an actor and a character who are physically and emotionally spent. The pressure has won out.

If Dog Day Afternoon explores pressure on a group of people, Network probes pressure on society as a whole and the choices that are made in response. As the film begins, long time news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), after learning of his firing, announces on the air that he will commit suicide. No one notices at first. When his colleagues do, most of them are only concerned about how his behavior will affect the network. Later, Beale has a complete nervous breakdown. He then gives his famous “Mad as Hell” speech on the air. As he did earlier with Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet had Finch do an extra take for that speech to show how completely spent Beale had become. The pressure had made him crack, but what about the other characters? Network executives Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) are concerned only with the ratings spike that Beale’s rant produced. Only Howard’s friend and news producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) has the slightest concern with Howard’s welfare. Of course Max is fired. Howard is kept on the air and rants and collapses during every show. When Howard faints, the audiences applaud. The audience’s need for entertainment and the network’s need for profits supersede any kindness or compassion. At the end ratings are plummeting but the network chairman wants to keep Howard on the air. The executives gather to save the network. Hackett says “we could kill him” as a pure business decision. Lumet shoots the group with one master shot and then each person individually, partially covered in darkness. They don’t connect with each other. The pressure to stay on top has won out again, this time over any humanity.

At first glance, the pressure in Prince of the City seems similar to Serpico. After all, both stories involve New York cops turning informant about police corruption. But most of the similarities end there. Frank Serpico never took money and was never a part of the system he fought against. In Prince of the City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) and his partners had profited from corruption. When Danny’s conscience kicks in, he originally believes he can inform on other corrupt cops without involving his friends or partners. As he continues down this path, he slowly realizes that he cannot protect any of them. Lumet once again masterfully shows a character’s world closing in. He repeatedly isolates Ciello in a scene. He also shoots him, especially in front of the courthouse, as a small figure dwarfed by an immense building (or metaphorically, by the criminal justice system). In his book, Lumet notes that he adjusted the lighting scheme as the movie progressed. In the first third, the background was lighter than the foreground. Ciello’s world was his oyster, and he was in touch with everything around him. As Ciello’s fortunes change, the background and foreground are lighted equally in the second third. In the last third, as Ciello realizes he may have to betray those closest to him, only the foreground was lit. Ciello’s world had shrunk as he agonizes over his decision. The whole world was now him and his partners. The final freeze frame shows a man broken and lost.

While Danny Ciello ends adrift, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict begins that way. He tells his mentor early on “Don’t pressure me!” Galvin is an alcoholic ambulance-chasing lawyer that gets kicked out of a funeral home for soliciting business. For much of the early film, Lumet bathes Frank in darkness. The pressure comes initially more from Frank’s own demons than any outside forces. Frank represents a woman whose botched operation left her in a vegetative state. At first seeing the case only as a big payday, Frank has a wordless epiphany beautifully played by Newman, and decides to take the case to court. Still, as his case falls apart, Galvin succumbs to the pressure and tries to settle the case. Galvin’s struggles to handle both the internal and external pressure are much of what make this film so gripping. While in other Lumet films the characters handled pressure by retreating inward, Galvin, in the end triumphs by connecting with others, in this case, the jury. Galvin’s brilliant closing argument appeals to the jurors’ sense of justice. While Lumet could have easily shot this as a close-up, he instead shoots it as a medium-long shot, shooting Galvin with the jury and others in the courtroom. Galvin had to convince himself to do what’s right and now he can convince his fellow man and woman.

You could argue that Lumet’s most pressure and tension filled film was his last, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Lumet shows unwavering dexterity in telling a story, through several different viewpoints, of a jewelry store robbery going so badly it makes the Dog Day Afternoon holdup look like a masterstroke. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead also goes back-and-forth in time. The robbery was planned by two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke). Making matters much worse, it was their parents’ store and their mother is killed during the robbery. Lumet keeps a quick pace as the brothers’ plans and lives unravel. But unlike less experienced directors, he does not cut too quickly. He keeps the camera on the actors, particularly Hoffman, and trusts them to show the anger, fear, and desperation that’s eating up their characters. In one scene Lumet shows Andy in a fetal position. In another scene, Andy is in the foreground and is having a difficult conversation with his father (Albert Finney), who is behind him. Lumet keeps both characters in focus, so you can see the pain they are both experiencing. When Lumet does move the camera it’s usually to keep it on Andy, Hank or their father. As he had done so well, so many times before, Lumet tightens the noose. The characters all lose, and the pressure wins yet again.

Lumet made 12 Angry Men and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead exactly 50 years apart. During that time Lumet made many different types of films, much more than what I have described here. Not all of them were classics, and he had some flops. Still, looking at his career, you see actors doing some of their best work. You see good stories, well told. You see a dedication to his craft and to sharing what he had learned with others. And yes you do see him returning periodically to certain locales, themes and motifs. In my eyes, all of this makes Sidney Lumet one of the greatest directors and, yes, a true auteur, whether he would admit it or not.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2012

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