BY SIDNEY LUMET (2015) review
produced by: Nancy Buirski, Scott Berrie, Chris Donnelly, Joshua A. Green, Thane Rosenbaum & Robin Yigit Smith
directed by: Nancy Buirski
runtime: 110 min.
U.s. release date: April 22, 2016 (Tribeca Film Festival), October 28, 2016 (at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City) and November 4, 2016 (at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in Los Angeles)
It’s a rare thing when a documentary focusing on a filmmaker features its subject reflecting on his/her career as the sole talking head. It’s even rarer when that director is no longer with us. Such is the case with “By Sidney Lumet” a documentary directed by Nancy Buirski (“Afternoon of a Fawn” and “The Loving Story”) that lives up to its title. If this were a book it would be called Lumet on Lumet, since its reminiscent of those books where directors discuss each of their films. In fact, it almost feels like he directed this since its kind of selective which of the director’s films it covers instead of going over his filmography in sequential order (which would be too exhaustive). It’s almost as if Lumet selected which of his films and what part of his life he wanted Buirski to cover in her doc – and I don’t mind that at all since I consider Lumet to have been one of our great American directors.
If you’re absolutely unfamiliar with Lumet’s work, that’s a shame. I would highly recommend started with his seminal work from the 70s, such as “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Serpico” and “Network” and I’ll even throw in “The Verdict”, which is an 80s gem. Those four films are classics, but if you’re already quite familiar with Lumet’s work, you’ll likely appreciate “By Sidney Lumet” even more, because here you have an auteur sitting down and reflecting on, not just his work, but the motivation and inspiration for many of the themes – such as corruption and ineptness in authority figures as well as social justice issued, usually entwined in family or close relationships – that he revisits throughout so many of his films. It’s an insightful and revealing doc, that will be eye-opening for some viewers who will likely learn a thing or two about the filmmaker.
The footage of the sweater-wearing Lumet is from 2008, when he Buirski captured him on camera for an “American Masters” project. He died three years later at the age of 86, after directing 44 movies in 52 years. He never won an Oscar for Best Director (although he should’ve), but received an Honorary Oscar in 2005 (the Academy’s way of saying “we screwed up!”). Using that footage, and help from two well-known directors, Martin Scorsese and Brett Ratner serving as Creative Supervisors, and I would assume, editor Anthony Ripoli, Buirski was able to compose a personal look at Lumet’s work that intercuts between clips from his movies, still photos of his past (including his childhood and on-set pictures) and the interview footage.
I developing a new appreciation for this humble and resilient man as I watched “By Sidney Lumet”. My respect for his great breadth of work was already intact, but to have a documentary solely focused on his work is a chance to meditate on not only who he is, but also why viewers should like his work. I was reminded about his short-lived acting past as a child and learned that his actor father, Baruch Lumet (also a writer/producer/director), a Polish Jewish emigrant, was a veteran of the Yiddish Theater. Growing up in the performing arts obviously shaped Lumet’s passion for both acting and directing, going from the Actor’s Studio to directing Off-Broadway theater. Then came his television work, where he directed television episodes for CBS, such as show called “You Are There”, a show that aired in the 50s which reenacted historical moments hosted by actors, with Walter Cronkite as host. Lumet directed twelve episodes of the show, including “The Death of Socrates (399 B.C.)” for the show, starred the likes of John Cassavetes, Robert Culp, Barry Jones, Richard Kiley, Paul Newman and E.G. Marshall, which Buirski shows clips of. I can’t help but think how interesting and educational it would be to have a show like this air today, but times have changed.
After Lumet filmed over 200 plays for television on shows like “Playhouse 90”, “Kraft Television” and “Studio One”, it’s fascinating to hear the director talk about how luck and coincidence factored in him landing his first movie, “12 Angry Men”, his 1957 adaptation of the teleplay by Reginald Rose. The captivating story, set in a hot New York City courthouse, follows a hung jury that clashes over the fate of a teenage boy from the slum with a murder charge, boasts a stellar cast led by Henry Fonda, would go on to become a timeless classic dealing with deliberating a verdict on the basis of reasonable doubt and the prejudices and stereotypes that still exist today. Lumet deliberately used camera techniques which emphasized the claustrophobic feeling of the jury room, delivering an impressive feature-length debut.
It’s fitting that Lumet began his movie career with a film that focused on ‘doing the right thing’ when we see him share a shockingly personal story at the beginning of the documentary about his time in World War II as a radio repairman stationed in India and Burma, where he witnessed a group of G.I.’s gang-rap a local girl and failing to stop or report it. It’s a vulnerable moment that Buirski effectively includes in order to support that one of the Lumet’s themes in his work would become the ideas of inaction, morality and injustice. Buirski includes footage from a 1956 episode of “The Alcoa Hour” Lumet directed entitled “Tragedy In The Temporary Town”, which starred a young Lloyd Bridges as the lone man who stands up against an angry mob that seeks justice after a teenage girl gets assaulted at a construction camp. Lumet would examine similar emotions as well as fear in the 1961 drama “The Hill” (also based on a play) starring Sean Connery and return to ‘lone man against a system’ storyline in 1973’s “Serpico” starring Al Pacino, which also includes the recurring themes of corrupt or inept authority figures. Lumet admit that in much of his filmography there is a recurring question, “Is it fair?”, that is asked.
Buirski looks at other consistent and personal and themes in Lumet’s films, such as the internal guilt and grief of surviving war in “The Pawnbroker” (1965) and the conflicting relationships between politically active parents and their children, in both “Daniel” (1983) and “Running on Empty” (1988). Lumet shares how “Daniel”, an adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow novel about the Rosenbergs, starring Mandy Patinkin and Timothy Hutton, that was essentially ignored by critics and audiences, was a personal favorite of his. During this time, Buirski also aptly fits in that heartbreaking father-and-son scene between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney, from 2007’s “Before the Devil Know You’re Dead” his final film, where a broken father apologies to his bitter son. In all his movies, Lumet’s strength is in capturing the struggles and concerns in these moral tales, taking a mirror to society and human behavior. It proves that the director was drawn to certain compelling stories that touched him, first and foremost, not one concerned with a box office hit.
“By Sidney Lumet” also looks at the technical approach the director often employed, specifically how he employed certain color palette choices and production design decisions to fit the proper tone and feel for a movie’s story. In this discussion, he talks about how green, red and gold colors played a factor in the World Trade Center scene depicting Oz in “The Wiz” his unique 1978 musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. We also see him discuss how important it was for 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon” to feel authentic, making sure all the actors and extras wore their own clothes, so there wasn’t an emphasis on one color palette. These highlights aren’t just ‘making-of’ tips, nor are the obvious even to the most avid Lumet fan, which is Buirski’s in-depth and revealing approach should be valued by any fan of Lumet’s work, but also the filmmaking process overall.
I’m thankful to “By Sidney Lumet” for reminding me that although I consider Lumet one of my favorite directors, I have some catching up to do before I can say I’ve devoured his body of work. It’s a documentary that is unapologetically lacking in objectivity, something I expected and had no problems with. It’s moreso simply about how an articulate and compassionate man can be found in his art.