Sidney Lumet, who died yesterday at the age of 86, was one of the most significant film directors of his time, a man dedicated to the cinema as an art form and to the pursuit of truth and social justice as a dramatic theme.
He was born in Philadelphia and raised in New York, the son of parents who worked in the Yiddish theatre. He was shaped by his experiences as a child performer and the depression, becoming known for his sympathetic handling of actors, his understanding of people in crisis, his liberal principles and his feeling for the city that was the setting for so much of his work.
Lumet made his Broadway debut at the age of 11 in 1935 in Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, a social-problem play about the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and appalling poverty in Manhattan. Four years later he appeared in his only feature film, One Third of a Nation, a leftwing work about a slum landlord being converted to the cause of decent public housing.
On his return from the second world war, having served as a radar engineer in the far east, he turned to directing, becoming associated with the Actors’ Studio and creating an off-Broadway theatre. In the early 1950s he entered the heady world of New York television, most of it broadcast live with small budgets, restricted rehearsal time but an invitation to innovate. With Hollywood in the doldrums and TV drama buzzing on the east coast, Lumet was one of a small group of directors who made the transition to the big screen. His debut was a critical – though not box-office – triumph; an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s TV play 12 Angry Men, a tense study in group dynamics starring Henry Fonda as the liberal architect who persuades his fellow jurors to acquit a Hispanic teenager accused of murder.
Taking place entirely in a claustrophobic jury room, it brought Lumet his first Oscar nomination and became a classic. Fifty years and nearly 50 films later he directed his last, at the age of 83, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, another superbly acted film about crime in New York, but this time he jumped back and forth in time and employed numerous locations. Over this half-century, Lumet’s work flows in two main channels that at times converge: adaptations of plays and novels, and films expressing his fascination with the vagaries of the law and the working of the criminal justice system. In direct, unfussy ways, he made film versions of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (with the peerless cast of Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr and Dean Stockwell) and Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending (as The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando), as well as a much undervalued adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, shot on location in Sweden.
More striking perhaps – and mostly set in a New York as gritty and realistic as Woody’ Allen’s Manhattan is clean and romantic – are the movies about cops, lawyers and criminals, imperfect figures going about their fraught lives. Al Pacino gives two of his most notable performances under Lumet’s direction: as a man robbing a bank to raise money for his partner’s sex change operation in Dog Day Afternoon and as a decent maverick cop surrounded by bad apples in Serpico. His finest, or at least most ambitious, film in this area is the epic story of a proud policeman sucked into a world of corruption in Prince of the City. The progress of these films charts growing despair with American urban life, but it always stops well short of detached cynicism.
Lumet also dealt, sympathetically, but never sentimentally, with Jewish New York in The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor living in a predominantly black area, and the wonderfully comic Bye Bye Braverman (based on Wallace Markfield’s novel To An Early Grave) about a party of Jewish intellectuals getting lost driving in a Volkswagen to a friend’s funeral on Long Island.
One of Lumet’s most intriguing collaborations was with Sean Connery, who gave one of his finest performances as a rebellious sergeant incarcerated in a brutal, degrading British military prison in North Africa in the second world war.
In a lighter vein was The Anderson Tapes (1971) with Connery as a big-time criminal, which managed to be both a grand Manhattan heist movie and a perceptive attack on the burgeoning world of surveillance. Connery also figures in Lumet’s immaculate, uncharacteristically light-hearted Murder on the Orient Express, the first and best of the period Agatha Christie whodunits. “I never did a picture because I was hungry,” Lumet once said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” This was never more so than when examining controversial political issues in his TV film, The Sacco and Vanzetti Story about the wrongly convicted anarchists in the 1920s, and in Daniel, a film on a later political cause célèbre about the execution of the Rosenbergs in the Eisenhower era, and the consequences for their children. These were movies made out of conviction.
Lumet had a lively private life with four marriages – first to the film star Rita Gam, then to the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, thirdly to Gail Jones, daughter of singer Lena Horne, and finally to Mary Gimbel. However, when he came to writing a sort of biography, Making Movies in 1995, he didn’t deal with his personal affairs or regale us with anecdotes about Connery and Brando: “Mostly I love the people I’ve worked with in what’s necessarily an intimate process. So I respect their foibles and idiosyncrasies, as I’m sure they respect mine.” Instead he wrote modestly and informatively about the importance of rehearsal, of what he’d learnt from fellow filmmakers, and the process of filmmaking.
He must have been moved when he heard that Sonia Sotomayor, after President Obama appointed her to the US Supreme Court, said that her vocation had been shaped by seeing 12 Angry Men as a young woman. “It told me I was on the right path,” she said. “The movie continues to ring chords within me.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010