Prolific director who saved the very best till last . . .
Published 16/04/2011 | 05:00
Sidney Lumet, who died on April 9 aged 86, was the most durable of a distinguished group of film-makers that emerged from the "golden years" of American television in the late 1950s.
He made more than three dozen films, far more than such contemporaries as Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer and Franklin Schaffner.
Lumet's direction helped Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight win Oscars in Network (1976), and Ingrid Bergman win her third for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). He was twice named director of the year by his peers in the Directors' Guild of America -- for his first film, 12 Angry Men (1957) and for his adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, Long Day's Journey into Night (1962).
In critical circles, the jury remained out on Sidney Lumet almost to the last. Widely acclaimed for Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), he baffled many by his eclectic choice of subject and artistic inconsistency. It was difficult to reconcile the gritty realism of his best work with the frivolity of The Wiz (1978), an all-black musical with Diana Ross based on The Wizard of Oz, or Deathtrap (1982), a stagy thriller about rival playwrights.
He was at his best with scripts relating to the police force, especially when they touched on corruption. He tackled it first in Serpico in 1973 and returned to it with even greater impact in Prince of the City (1981) and Q&A (1990).
He was also drawn to Jewish themes. Close to Eden (1992) was set largely among the Hasidic community in New York; in The Pawnbroker (1965) Rod Steiger played a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp; Bye Bye Braverman (1968) was an ill-judged attempt at Jewish humour; and Daniel (1983) dealt in fictionalised form with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for passing atomic secrets to Russia.
Lumet was also strongly attracted to theatrical subjects. He filmed Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending as The Fugitive Kind in 1960; Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in 1961; Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night in 1962; an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull in 1968; and Peter Shaffer's Equus in 1977. Few of these were entirely successful, though Lumet believed the O'Neill adaptation to have been his best work and misunderstood by critics.
"They didn't know cinema technique from a hole in the wall," Lumet complained. "There was more sheer physical technique in that movie, in its editing and camerawork, than anything you are likely to see for 20 years."
Many of Lumet's finest films were set and shot in New York, which he promoted as an east coast alternative to Hollywood. West Coast studios backed him because he delivered the goods on time and within budget.
This discipline was a product of his training in television, where there was no time for self-indulgence. Unless an actor fluffed his lines, he would often accept a flawed take, trading perfection for spontaneity. Dog Day Afternoon, in which bank robbers Al Pacino and John Cazale seem to be acting almost on instinct, was a rich and rewarding example of this. Serpico, less so.
Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924, the son of Baruch Lumet and Eugenia Wermus, who emigrated to America and became pillars of the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Lumet grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, making his acting debut at the age of five at the Yiddish Art Theatre and in radio. Between 1931 and 1932, the family featured in a Yiddish radio serial, The Rabbi from Brownsville, for which they collected a combined weekly salary of $35.
At the age of 11, Lumet made his Broadway debut in Dead End (1935), written by family friend Sidney Kingsley. He also played the young Jesus in Max Reinhardt's production The Eternal Road (1937), and again in Maxwell Anderson's Journey to Jerusalem. The play One Third of a Nation (1939), an exposé of slum landlords, was subsequently filmed and was Lumet's only screen appearance as an actor.
During these years he was educated at the Professional Children's School, progressing to Columbia University in 1942 to study dramatic literature. He dropped out after only one term, however, to enlist in the Army Signal Corps.
Returning to New York after the war, he set up his own drama school.
The breakthrough in Lumet's career came in 1950, when his friend Yul Brynner, then a director with CBS, asked him to join the network as an assistant director. Between 1951 and 1953, Lumet directed some 150 instalments of the series Danger and isolated episodes of I Remember Mama and You Are There. Later, he directed for Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One. Lumet regarded these years as an ideal training ground. "It would take 20 films," he estimated, "to acquire what I learned from on-the-spot television."
These were vintage years for US television and the transfer of Marty to the big screen in 1955 persuaded Hollywood that the small screen was a cheap and untapped source of new talent. Two years later, Lumet directed 12 Angry Men. It was a spectacular start for him, winning the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival and a sheaf of Oscar nominations. His film career, however, instantly stalled.
In television and on Broadway, though, he continued to attract acclaim.
The revival in Lumet's critical and commercial fortunes began in the mid-1970s, as he concentrated on grimy police procedural dramas. His best and most popular works were Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Again Lumet proved unable to sustain it.
Among the best of his latter films were Q&A (1991), about a bad cop bought to book for "justifiable homicide", and Night Falls On Manhattan (1997), with New York beset by hundreds of bad cops and thousands of bent politicians. Perhaps the best of all, however, was his last film, the chronologically complex crime drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007).
Sidney Lumet was married four times: first to the actress Rita Gam; secondly to socialite Gloria Vanderbilt (1956-63); thirdly to Gail Jones (1963-78), daughter of Lena Horne; and fourthly (from 1980) to Mary Gimbel.
With his third wife he had a daughter, Jenny Lumet, who featured in his film Q&A; with Mary Gimbel he had two further daughters.