Sidney Lumet: A Child of Broadway

When I read the news that Sidney Lumet had died this April 2011, it had a profound effect on me unlike the recent news of Elizabeth Taylor's passing or even Farley Granger's death. Perhaps, it was because the movies of Sidney Lumet resonate with me more than those two. Last year, I had to come up with a list of the best movies of the decade and I came this close to placing Lumet's final film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) on it. I think if I had to come up with a list of best movies of all time, there would be no question that Lumet's first film 12 Angry Men (1957) would be present. It's remarkable how after almost 55 years since that movie's release that it still resonates.
That movie earned Lumet his first Academy Award nomination for directing. He would lose that year to David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai, but, looking back at Lumet's drama about a jury deliberating over a murder case, one can easily see how the issues and prejudices brought up then are still applicable to today. During a podcast, following Lumet's death, David Chen of played a clip of the famous "Mad as Hell" speech from Network (1976), which earned Lumet his third Academy Award nomination for directing. Chen also noted that the issues brought up in that movie and specifically that clip are still applicable, even some thirty years after its release. Lumet again lost that year to John Avildsen for Rocky.
When I posted a link about Lumet's death on Facebook, a friend, co-worker and fellow movie buff, David Gordon, commented that Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the film that earned Lumet his second Academy Award nomination, was his favorite. I would venture a guess that this film is probably most people's favorite film when it comes to movies by Sidney Lumet. Dog Day was highly influential as almost every bank robbery movie that came after it referenced it in some way. Last year, a British TV series known as Emmerdale even referenced Dog Day Afternoon as a movie to watch.
David Poland, the editor-in-chief for, was on the PBS series Ebert Presents At the Movies where he did a retrospective on Lumet. Because 12 Angry Man is one of my all-time favorite films, because I was upset at how his final film was so overlooked at the time of its release, and because his death had hit me so profoundly, I too did a retrospective of Lumet's work. Thanks to NetFlix, in about two weeks, I was able to visit and revisit about half-dozen or more of his films, including some of his most powerful and distinctive.
Reading several articles published about Lumet, which were essentially obituaries, I learned that Lumet was essentially a child of Broadway. Yes, most know him as a filmmaker, which became his passion, but, Lumet got his start as a child actor performing on a Broadway stage. He studied at Columbia University, and moved into film directing.
Yet, almost every movie he did was informed by his love of theatre. He did some original films and quite a few movies based on novels. Nevertheless, Lumet adapted a ton of stage plays for the silver screen. So much so that I decided to make that the focus of the movies I chose from NetFlix. Many of the plays that Lumet adapted weren't just random plays. He went after some of the best plays written by the best playwrights of his or of anybody's time. He went after men like Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov.
THE FUGITIVE KIND (1960) was a film that Sidney Lumet directed based on the Broadway play Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. It starred Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. All three had been Oscar-winning actors already. All three had Broadway experience by then. But, besides playing off a Greek legend, I think the movie also played off A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which also featured one man and two women in a bizarre love triangle.
Brando plays Val Xavier, a 30-year-old musician who perhaps could have been Elvis in another life. At the start, Xavier leaves New Orleans to start a new life away from his musical night life. He arrives in an unnamed small town in Louisana or perhaps in Tennessee. There is a reference made to Memphis, but, nonetheless, he shows up in the rain with only his snakeskin jacket and guitar, which he calls his life companion. Xavier applies for a job at a small department store, run by a woman named Lady Torrance, played by Magnani. Her husband owns it, but he's become bed-ridden and too ill to handle the day-to-day. While at the store, Xavier meets an unkempt young woman named Carol Cutrere, played by Woodward. She takes Xavier jukin', which she later describes in a drunken reverie as like bar-hopping.
One might assume after their initial scenes, Xavier might end up with this young woman, but Lady Torrance who is not as young and not as satisfied becomes more of a likely candidate and love match for Xavier. Both women seemingly make advances toward him. Other women in the small town do as well. Even Lady Torrance's husband remarks on how pretty Xavier is. His smouldering good looks attracts attention, despite being a burnt-out or perhaps cynical musician who's now nothing more than a glorified shoe salesman at this small-town department store.
Despite the caliber of the stars, I think I liked this film less for its acting and more for its writing, as well as the power of grasping what this movie might truly be about. Lumet doesn't really direct the camera with any kind of flair as he would with his later films. Lumet also doesn't have as many striking moments as Elia Kazan did in A Streetcar, but Lumet does give one clearly cinematic setup.
When Xavier is interviewing for the job at Lady Torrance's store, Brando delivers a beautiful monologue about a bird with no legs that only touches the ground when it dies. Lumet positions the camera straight on Brando, closely on his face. The brightly lit room goes dark with the only illumination coming from a spotlight that only allows you to see Brando's eyes and part of his head.
With the writing, I was led to believe that this movie was merely about two characters who want to break free of their old lives, but that might be only what's on the surface. Bubbling underneath may be something even more powerful. It didn't hit me until Brando's final scene, the penultimate scene in the movie.
Up until then, I thought the movie was a modern telling of the Greek legend of Orpheus, but the penultimate scene involves Brando getting hit when a fire hose blasts him with water. In his job interview scene, Xavier mentions jazz names and in a later scene the racist sheriff of the unnamed town calls Xavier the N-word. This movie is set in the 1950s, in the American south, during the start of the Civil Rights Movement. It's just a theory, but I know that Brando, Lumet and Williams were all into social justice. Could this film be a metaphor for what the country was going through at that time?
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962) was based on the play by Eugene O'Neill. The play was not only O'Neill's masterpiece but also was one of the greatest American plays ever. O'Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for it posthumously. On stage, it was four-and-a-half hours long and a study of the guilt and frustration in the family of a retired actor. It was O'Neill's most autobiographical work. O'Neill was the first American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Adapting his masterpiece to the big screen would be an incredible responsibility for Lumet.
It was an incredible responsibility and also an incredible challenge, but, after Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, and even after Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb in 12 Angry Men, I think Lumet was up to that challenge. As far as I'm concerned, Lumet knocks it out the park. Starting with his phenomenal cast and ending with his perfect direction, this movie is beautifully heartbreaking and, emotionally-speaking, is Lumet's strongest.
Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson star as Mary and James Tyrone, an upper middle class and upper middle-aged, married couple whom we first see sitting on the porch of their summer house in the country that we assume is somewhere just outside New York City. It's a beautiful summer day and their conversation starts innocently and casually enough but soon it drifts to the topic of their two adult sons, Jaime and Edmund, played respectively by Jason Robards, Jr. and Dean Stockwell. The two sons join their parents outside. We then follow as the four of them have a series of conversations sometimes between all of them, sometimes between certain individuals, that reveal various neuroses and personal problems.
The film isn't as long as the play. Lumet took a four and a half hour experience and got it just under three hours. What Lumet had to do is get what's basically a three-hour conversation that all takes place in one location and make it interesting. The writing and acting help tremendously. The entire cast, led by Hepburn, just explode this material. They make it pop off the screen, but Lumet had to bring something too. What he brings is a little bit more than he did with The Fugitive Kind.
Here, Lumet is more fluid with his camera. There's only one real moment in The Fugitive Kind where Lumet's camera is fluid. It's the scene where Woodward's character is describing jukin' and how she's drunk and floating through a bar to where Brando is driven her. In Long Day's Journey, on the other hand, Lumet is himself floating through the Tyrone house, not like he's drunk but as if his camera easily moves with the summer breeze.
The first fifteen minutes or so of the movie floats with the family as they move from the porch to the lawn to the garage. It's not all one continuous shot as Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope (1948). There are edits, but we become absorbed into the family's conversation. We so so because Lumet's movements and his cuts are so fluid and natural as to be seemingly continuous.
Once the characters are inside the house, Lumet's camera never really ventures outside. After the first hour, the majority of the movie takes place in the living room. We follow James into the dining room for a brief scene, but that's it. Lumet never removes his camera from the living room, even when the audience may want him to remove us, perhaps to follow Mary upstairs. Yet, Lumet stays true to O'Neill's intentions. He doesn't want the audience to go upstairs because what's implied from the text and the performances is that we don't need to go upstairs. Upstairs is more of a sanctuary anyway. The real drama is in that living room.
Still, Lumet has to make it visually interesting and he does so. One reoccurring trick is Lumet will steadily zoom into an actor's face and then cut to the reverse angle in wide shot and immediately go into a dolly move. Lumet does this several times, often to focus attention on a character's emotion and reaction. Because Lumet is so fluid, that it was only upon my second viewing of this film did I notice and appreciate Lumet's moves. And, I did view this film a second time, immediately after the first, because I was so impressed by it. That's six hours straight that I devoted to it, and with it Lumet carefully and cleverly focuses your attention to character's emotion and reaction.
Through the second viewing, I was able to see the brilliant nuances in each of the actor's performances. Lumet especially spotlights Hepburn who ultimately received an Oscar nomination for her work here and deservedly so. Stockwell, in my opinion, deserved one too, but Hepburn clearly steals the show. Lumet is in love with her. One scene in particular follows her as she circles the room. The camera spins as if sitting on a merry-go-round, but stays locked on her as she pulls us into her neurotic and lonely carousel. The penultimate shot is a slow zoom away from her surrounded in darkness, near black, as she remembers how she used to be happy.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) was based on a 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. The material is mainly from a book, but many of Christie's books had been adapted for the stage. This was just another in a long series of actors and directors tackling her work. The film stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who was Christie's legendary creation. Poirot gets stuck on board a train leaving Istanbul. The train becomes stopped in its tracks by a massive amount of snow. While the train has to wait to be freed, Poirot has to figure out who killed a man on board with about a dozen stab wounds. He does so by interviewing about a dozen suspects. Many of whom were played by well known actors, including Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman.
Despite being a murder mystery, Lumet adds an air of comedy to this film. Perhaps, it's all in Finney's performance, but there is simply never as much seriousness or urgency in any of this that one might expect. Of the Lumet films I watched, this was probably my least favorite. It's light fare that is well written and has a surprise ending, but that ending is really the only compelling thing.
THE WIZ (1978) is light fare as well. It's the adaptation of the hit Broadway musical that won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The play was by William F. Brown with songs by Charlie Smalls. Music for the film was by Quincy Jones. It was produced by Rob Cohen in conjunction with Motown. It featured performances from the Louis Johnson Dance Theatre and starred Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Lion, Richard Pryor as the Wizard of Oz, and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch. This rhythmic, Harlem fantasia of the Frank L. Baum story stands as the only musical that Lumet brought to the big screen.
Besides the singing and dancing, what's most impressive about this movie is the production design. Often Lumet will take wide shots of the scene, if for no other reason then to show off the beautiful and wildly creative sets that were built in Astoria Studios. The one exception is the set for the Emerald City, which was built behind what was the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan with a yellow brick road lit across the Brookyln Bridge. It was a futuristic feel that completely changes color, making every square inch of it the same monochromatic hue. The other sets range from urban ruins, corn stalks in the ghetto, an Art Deco playground, a re-creation of the New York Public Library and remnants of an amusement park not unlike Coney Island.
While this critically might not have been Lumet's most beloved work, it is one that I highly enjoyed. The singing and dancing are what sold it for me. The signature song, "Ease on the Down the Road" is incredibly catchy. The choreography by the Louis Johnson Dance Theatre is spectacular, particularly at the end during the "A Brand New Day" number. The sound in total wasn't all your typical, Motown music. There was rock and Dixieland jazz as well as traditional showtune pop. My favorite would have to be the song that introduces Jackson's Scarecrow, "You Can't Win." It's a reminder of how amazing the late King of Pop truly was. The showstopper was Horne belting out "Believe in Yourself."
DEATHTRAP (1982) was first introduced to me by a professor in college who wanted us to take note of the fact that it co-starred Christopher Reeves, doing a role that certainly shocked the Hell out of his Superman fans. Written by Jay Presson Allen, it's based on Ira Levin's play of the same name. It stars Michael Caine and Dyan Cannon as Sidney and Myra, a married couple who plot the murder of Clifford, a young, up-and-coming playwright, played by Reeves.
Sidney leaves the Music Box theater on opening night of his play, "Murder Most Fair" only to discover the audience as well as the critics hate it. He retreats to his home in East Hamptons, a refurbished windmill, with his easily startled wife, Myra. Myra tries to console him, but Sidney becomes even more upset when an unknown playwright named Clifford Anderson sends him a play that he'd like help producing that turns out to be a very good if not a better play. Sidney becomes so jealous after being thoroughly desperate and decides to kill Clifford and plagiarize his play.
What shocked the Hell out of Reeves' Superman fans is that you learn that Reeves' character of Clifford is in fact gay. Adding a wrinkle to the scheme of things is Helga, a next door neighbor in the Hamptons who is an immigrant that claims to be psychic. She predicts that it's not Clifford who is going to die, but in fact Sidney.
Lumet cleverly crafts what follows, which is a series of ruses and reversals, as well as paranoid and sociopathic collaborations. Lumet directs a tense and thrilling meta-textual tale that becomes a play-within-a-play as Sidney realizes that in order to steal a play, he has to first invent one and as we're shown the rules for inventing a play, we're surprised as they're acted out, according to the formula but not formulaically.
The best scene is what I call the handcuff scene. Sidney tricks Clifford into handcuffing himself in a chair. What starts out as a setup for something Harry Houdini would do quickly turns into something that Vincent Price would do. It's a scary scene that will literally have you on the edge of your seat.
THE VERDICT (1982) was the last film to earn Lumet an Oscar nomination for directing. It was based on a novel by Barry Reed, a former lawyer, but it was written by David Mamet, a noted playwright who takes liberties and makes it his own. Again, Lumet always seems to have a Broadway or stage connection in his works. Yet, produced by Richard Zanuck and starring Paul Newman, this film feels very cinematic.
However, Lumet's approach isn't the same as in previous efforts. With Brando and Hepburn, Lumet highlighted their performances with special camera moves or lighting tricks. Lumet doesn't do that with Newman. With Newman, Lumet is more subtle, more pulled back. The first shot in fact is Newman in silhouette playing pinball. Lumet avoids close-ups. One crucial scene in that it shows the desperation of Newman's character is played entirely as a wide shot in low angle. On the DVD's commentary, Lumet talks about using a style of lighting similar to Caravaggio, which purposefully had no balance, so Lumet was not opposed to casting shadows on Newman. Yes, he does a similar thing with Brando, but the intention here is to take some of the shine off Newman as a movie star and portray him as a real guy, a normal guy. On the DVD as well, Newman notes how his character here is unlike his other iconic, movie star roles.
Newman plays Frank Galvin, a middle-aged lawyer with a one-man practice who trolls for clients at funeral homes and who perhaps has a drinking problem. He's given a medical malpractice case, which pits him up against the Archdiocese of Boston, which has more lawyers with more resources and far more money. Newman says Frank is unlike his other iconic characters in that Frank is genuinely frightened. He doesn't know how things are going to go or is that particularly sure of himself.
Lumet provides an amazing space for Newman to explore this. It also makes a great companion piece to 12 Angry Men. Lumet echoes the comments of Barry Reed about the theatricality of court room trials. When it came to legal dramas, involving lawyers or especially cops, Lumet was a master. He went on after this one to direct more. They weren't as highly regarded as this one. Lumet even recognized that the market for a movie like this declined in the years following it. The same could be said for all the movies I mentioned in this article. Regardless of what anyone says though, it's a poorer market because of it.


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