The invisible auteur

I first began to appreciate the craftsmanship of Sidney Lumet when I read his wonderful book Making Movies, which is loaded with anecdotes about the backgrounds of some of his most celebrated pictures. As he prepped for Dog Day Afternoon, his 1975 film about a Brooklyn bank robbery that turned into a prolonged hostage situation, Lumet approached the extras and civilians who would be milling behind the police barricades during the exterior scenes and gave them stories of their own to enact. For example, he asked a group of women to imagine they were members of the same bridge club, and two of the women suspected the other of being a cheat. The women wouldn’t be noticeable or even visible during much of the shoot, but Lumet wanted to make sure they wouldn’t just stand around like extras — their backstories, he reasoned, would subtly enhance the overall realism of the scene. He was coaching them in how to be invisible, in order to enhance the final product.

Becoming invisible — subordinating oneself to the service of the film — was the closest Lumet came to having an overall style. There is no such thing as a signature camera move or trademarked shot in Lumet’s bulky canon. Like Carol Reed and George Roy Hill, he was more interested in proving himself a storyteller than setting himself up as a genius. Lumet credited this to his background in theater, where the script is the key to everything: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

The proof is in the storytelling. Two of Lumet’s most celebrated films, Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982), are suffused with the flavor of their screenwriters: Paddy Chayefsky for the former, David Mamet for the latter. In fact, The Verdict gave moviegoers their first real taste of Mamet’s darkly funny mode. My favorite moment comes when Paul Newman’s burned-out ambulance chaser, representing a woman left comatose by hospital bungling, talking to his mentor, tries to dismiss the opposition’s attorney as just another lawyer. The mentor, played masterfully by Jack Warden, fixes him with a who-are-you-kidding stare and says “He’s the prince of fucking darkness. He’ll have people testifying they saw her water-skiing off Marblehead.”

I’ve always thought that Network might have benefited from some directorial interference: the film’s Achilles heel is Chayefsky’s reluctance to give William Holden’s Max Schumacher , the male menopausal voice of conscience, the same harsh satirical treatment meted to the other characters. But there are subtle jabs at the way Schumacher keeps retailing the same war story over and over, which suggests his career may not have been quite as colorful as he wanted people to think, and there’s no denying the scene between Max and his wife, who takes a flame-thrower to his bullshit with a speech that Beatrice Straight savored to the last napalm-flavored drop. But Lumet was smart enough to see there was more than enough gold in Chayefsky’s scenario to overpower the tin-pot crankery of some of the dialogue. Some critics (notably the sainted Pauline Kael) dismissed the film’s satire as too over the top, but as we have learned, Chayefsky was, if anything, too gentle. The contemptible ease with which the existing political-industrial media complex diverts populist anger into ridiculous sideshows is all there in Network, which gave us the bad news a generation ahead of time. The “I’m mad as hell” scene has become a pop-culture icon, still referenced by pundits of all stripes, but look closely at what’s going on there — the way the frothing anger almost instantly degenerates into a bedlam of shouting and unfocused rage, with corporate schemers looking on and salivating at the thought of reaping this whirlwind.

Another carryover from Lumet’s theater days was his obvious love for actors and the things they could do with the right material. Though Network didn’t get the Oscar for best picture (it was beaten out by Rocky, of all things), it swept three of the four acting categories. The silent scream at the climax of The Pawnbroker (1964) remains the defining moment of Rod Steiger’s career. In The Hill (1965), Lumet gave Sean Connery one of his earliest chances to prove there was more to him than James Bond, and underlined the point with The Anderson Tapes (1971) and the unjustly overlooked The Offence (1972).  As late as 2006, Lumet rescued Vin Diesel from years of bad choices by casting him in the underrated Mafia comedy Find Me Guilty. The Godfather (1972) gave Al Pacino his breakthrough, but it was his two collaborations with Lumet, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, that gave him a career, and when Lumet received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2005, Pacino repaid the debt in full with a speech of almost Wagnerian splendor.

Along with a respect for scripts and a love for watching actors cut loose with their material, Lumet’s career was distinguished by an appetite for stories exploring morally ambiguous terrain, particularly in matters of law and justice. Unless you’re a Viewer of a Certain Age, who remembers the way the sanitized television police dramas of the early Seventies shaped the public’s view of cop shops, its hard to imagine the sheer startling impact of Serpico (1973), which erased the well-scrubbed moral certainties of Dragnet and Adam-12. Considering that this was the same period in which Joseph Wambaugh was writing from the inside about the realities of urban police work, I’m surprised Lumet and Wambaugh never collaborated. What wouldn’t I give to see The Onion Field directed by Lumet?

But if I had to pick one Lumet film for desert-island status, it would be Prince of the City (1981). Serpico was one of the first films to expose the way the siege mentality of stressful police work could lead cops into a moral swamp, but Prince of the City broke new ground in its depiction of the way the futile grind of the drug war forces narcos to become almost as bad as the dealers they stalked. Few moments in film are as horrifying, or as gripping, as the sequence in which Treat Williams’ narco must abet the robbery of one of his snitches, then stand by as the snitch beats his girlfriend for using up the drugs he’d been counting on to cushion the pain of his loss. Lumet, as resolute as ever in making a film for grownups, doesn’t provide any easy catharsis or grandstanding moments. The low-key ending, in which the disgraced hero has been relegated to teaching classes at the police academy, tells us all we need to know about the rest of his police career. I agree with Digby that Prince of the City points directly to The Wire and its skeptical, hyperrealistic view of police work. That’s some damned good company.

Lumet’s resume has its share of clinkers: Power stumbled around its subject, throwing punches and missing like a barroom chump. Family Business, Running on Empty, Garbo Talks —  the less said the better. When he strayed from his favorite mode of gritty realism, the results were often disastrous: The Wiz, anyone? But when I look at Sidney Lumet’s filmography, the first word that comes to mind is “grownup.” He made grownup movies for grownup viewers, and its hard to think of anyone who could follow in his footsteps, much less fill his shoes.

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