Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sidney Lumet

One night, back when I was at Wesleyland, I was walking down Foss Hill and I saw a helicopter sitting in the middle of Andrus Field. I went over to check it out and found the pilot sitting in the cockpit. I asked him what he was doing there and he told me he had been hired by Sidney Lumet to fly up from New York for a speaking engagement on campus that evening. Although I knew who Lumet was, somehow I had missed hearing that he was coming to Wesleyan. I would have liked to see him. I thought it was pretty cool that he flew up from New York in a helicopter to come talk to a bunch of film students. Who does that?

One of the first times I ever went to see a movie without my parents was when I went to see a Sean Connery movie called The Anderson Tapes with our next-door neighbors. It was a big deal going to see a real grown-up movie on my own and I was pretty excited. I still remember certain scenes from that movie very vividly -- it had a real impact on me. But mostly I remember being very upset afterwards. I don't know why, but I couldn't get to sleep. I just kept thinking about the movie and the characters and the feeling that it was all so real and so intense. The Anderson Tapes really freaked me out. It was a Sidney Lumet movie.

A few years later, our church youth group leader took a bunch of us to see Al Pacino in Serpico, the true story of a New York cop who refuses to go on the take and ends up getting shot in the face by his own guys. We had to get permission slips from our parents because it was rated R, and some kids weren't allowed to go. But I had already read the book, so my parents didn't see any harm. I loved Serpico. I thought Pacino was the coolest. And I loved New York -- Serpico's New York, gritty and grimy and hip and tough. Serpico blew me away. Another Lumet movie.

At Wesleyan I saw several Lumet movies, and began to realize just how great the man in the helicopter really was.

Murder on the Orient Express was an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring the amazing Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, along with an all-star cast that includes Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman. Hard to believe it was made by the same director that made The Anderson Tapes and Serpico, but Lumet was never confined to one type of subject matter or genre. Whatever the tale, Lumet brings it to life with intelligence and style, using his formidable craft to serve the story in any way he can.

Lumet's next movie was about a guy who robs a bank to pay for a sex-change operation for his boyfriend. These days that may seem like no big deal, but when Dog Day Afternoon came out you just didn't have a lot of bisexual movie heroes winning over the hearts of audiences across America. Of course it helps when you have Al Pacino playing the bank-robber, Sonny. But it is Lumet's storytelling genius that puts us so squarely in Sonny's corner right from the get-go, so that when he reveals his true motive for the robbery it makes him even more sympathetic, rather than less.

Lumet was on a roll. His next film was Network. What can you say about Network? Brilliant script by Paddy Chayefsky. Brilliant performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty. Brilliant directing by Lumet. What was once considered cutting edge satire is now reality TV. It doesn't get much better than this.

Lumet went back to his roots in the theater for Equus, adapting the prize-winning play with Richard Burton as the psychiatrist. In a way, the film's exploration of a troubled psyche reminds me of another Lumet gem, Long Day's Journey Into Night, which stands as one of the greatest theatrical adaptations ever filmed. In both, you have characters striving to understand the workings of a tortured mind, only to come face to face with their own dark secrets.

I've always loved courtroom dramas. In The Verdict, Lumet teamed up with Paul Newman and screenwriter David Mamet to give us one of the best ever made. Every moment of this movie is worth savoring. And Newman's final summation to the jury is a perfect example of great writing, great acting and great directing. Lumet, Mamet and Newman should have been given Oscars for that scene alone.

Speaking of courtroom dramas, the first time I served on jury duty, I found myself in a situation similar to Henry Fonda's in 12 Angry Men. Everyone else on the jury thought the defendant was guilty, but I wasn't convinced. I had to explain my position to the other jurors, and even though it wasn't as volatile or dramatic as the movie, I couldn't help thinking of Henry Fonda's performance as I laid out the facts of the case. I was in an awkward position, but I had Fonda as my guide. Eventually I convinced everyone that the facts just weren't there to support a conviction, and we let the guy go free. He'll never know it, but Sidney Lumet saved his ass that day.

When I was getting ready to direct my short film Dante's View, I read Lumet's book Making Movies. In it, he describes the process he used to shoot 12 Angry Men. In order to give the feeling of the room closing in on the jurors during the course of their deliberations, Lumet decided to slowly lower the camera angle throughout the course of the movie, bringing the walls and ceiling more and more into the frame to loom over the actors. To accomplish this feat, he shot the movie completely out of sequence, getting every shot facing one wall, in order, from daytime to nightfall, slowly lowering the camera angle as he went, until he had all the shots he needed. Then he'd start over facing the next wall, repeating the process until he'd covered all four walls. This technique took tremendous planning and organization to match the lighting, the angles, the performances, everything. And when you watch the movie, it's seamless. Totally unnoticeable. But the feeling is there. That's a real director.

Lumet's final movie, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, shows him at the top of his form until the last -- shooting on HD video in the quick and economical style he developed in his early years in television. Lumet insisted on calling the movie a melodrama, which has become a dirty word in the movie business, but once again it shows his mastery of the material. By focusing on the emotional impact of the events on the characters, Lumet elevates what could be a hum-drum crime drama to operatic level, serving the story in the best way possible.

I never did get to see Sidney Lumet, the man in the helicopter, but he's always been there, for all these years, showing me how to do it right.