On the Socially Conscious Filmmaker, Sidney Lumet

Maura Spiegel's biography provides a thorough and compelling look at the life and films of the progressive New York icon filmmaker, Sidney Lumet.

Sidney Lumet: A Life
Maura Spiegel
St. Martin's Press
December 2019

In Maura Spiegel‘s biography, Sidney Lumet: A Life, a comprehensive look at the life and times of the legendary filmmaker, the reader quickly comes to understand the nature of her subject. Lumet was an entertainment industry worker throughout his life. He began as a child actor, grew up in the theater, went on to direct television, and eventually started a career as a film director that would span 50 years. From his 1957 feature debut 12 Angry Men, to his final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007, released four years before his 2011, his love for New York City’s kinetic atmosphere and diverse characters is clear.

But Lumet was also concerned with justice and progressive politics, as evident in his courtroom dramas and police procedurals. From the iconic use of the confined jury deliberation room in 12 Angry Men, through the sweltering summer sidewalks of New York onlookers in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon cheering Sonny (Al Pacino) as he turns his bank robbery job into a media spectacle, his films are charged with tense energy and legendary moments.

While he was best known as a filmmaker, Spiegel’s subtitle makes it clear that this biography is about more than just Lumet’s movies. This is about a man whose first language was Yiddish, whose family had roots in Polish shtetls. From a young age, Lumet identified with the oppressed. He spent much of his childhood working in New York’s Yiddish theater, known for performing Yiddish versions of English-language plays. Lumet’s father, Baruch Lumet, was a star in Yiddish versions of (among many other plays) Hamlet. Early on, Spiegel makes it clear that Lumet’s ideologies were formed by his Orthodox upbringing:

[He thought] in terms of…moral riddles: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But being for myself, what am I?’ Sidney cut his milk teeth on the contradictions and questions in Jewish thought.

Spiegel notes that while Lumet was reticent to tell his story, to reveal sometimes painful details of a strained relationship with his father Baruch, his father was more willing to talk about life. He left lengthy accounts of his time in Yiddish theater, including his memoir. Sidney’s only book, on the other hand, was his 1995 memoir Making Movies. Those looking for an extensive examination of the motivations behind the development of Lumet’s films should understand that Spiegel doesn’t get into an examination of the movies until nearly halfway through this book. There are 30 years to cover before the movies come into play, and Spiegel draws from some dramatic lines to paint a picture of a rift between son and father that seemed to fuel Lumet’s drive. Consider this recollection of Sidney about his father:

‘He was no father figure,’ he says. ‘He was only a father up on the stage. It’s the only time I liked him. He was a terrible man.’

The reader prone to armchair psychological diagnoses might think Lumet had obsessive compulsion disorders as Spiegel notes his inclination to count things like toothbrush strokes and stairway steps. She concludes that the counting — which made its way to his filmmaking — “…was a kind of mental discipline-a way of coping.”

Lumet grew up in New York’s Lower East Side. His generation includes such luminaries as Zero Mostel, Walter Matthau, and Tony Curtis, all of whom would come into his creative orbit. He was a feature juvenile player in a 1935 play called Dead End, all about tenement living and hooligans. He starred in a Biblical pageant called The Eternal Road, a spectacle that allowed him to “…know exactly how things worked, all the parts and pieces.” He was a featured actor in William Saroyan’s 1939 play, My Heart’s in the Highlands, where one of the performers (Phillip Loeb) would become blacklisted and eventually overdose in a New York hotel. The scene was memorialized in Martin Ritt‘s 1976 film The Front. Spiegel notes that the experimental activist Group Theater of 1930s New York would expose Lumet to “…the deep resources of technique, method, and introspection.”

In addition to Lumet’s work in the theater in the 1930s, the biography covers his radio career in the 1940s. Throughout his career, the political climate is a constant presence. Indeed, Spiegel describes Sidney’s sister Faye as “…to the left of liberal…” She took him to May Day marches and meetings of the Young Communist League. His first girlfriend is Ellen Adler, daughter of the soon-to-be-legendary acting teacher Stella Adler. There are long passages about his marriage to society maven Gloria Vanderbilt.

Spiegel’s covers the influence of The Group Theater, the political passions of playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets, the impact directors Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg had on Lumet’s work, and how the acting theories of Konstantin Stanislavski affected Lumet. The Group Theater’s focus on “embodied experience” and the “believable truth” drew on an approach that did not imitate characters so much as compel the performer to find their own connection to them, to emotionally experience the plays’ situations. Actress Maria Ouspenskaya (more popularly known as the gypsy in the old Wolfman films) promoted a “memory of feeling” approach that drew the performer inward.

Actress Stella Adler clashed with Strasberg’s demand that actors “…privately relive a memory of a time they received bad news.” She called it “…sick and schizophrenic…” The Group Theater gives way in 1947 to The Actors Studio, with many of the same players but also (most significantly) Marlon Brando. Lumet would stay with this crowd but acting would take a backseat to directing. He hated acting before a camera:

“His dislike of the camera convinced him that he could ‘never be a really good screen actor.’ Yet his negative feelings about the camera also…[taught him]…one of his greatest assets as a director: ‘I’ve understood all about actors ever since…That’s them up there…[and]…the process of self-revelation is extremely painful.'”

Spiegel notes that Lumet’s wartime experience “…found their oblique expression in his highly regarded and little-known 1965 film, The Hill.” “One feature of Army life that [he] did publicly remark on…was his experience of ‘a lot of anti-Semitism.'” The Hill is about racist prison officers in England during WWII and their “cruel exercise of power”. That same year, Lumet’s The Pawnbroker would prove to be “…the first American film to take on the psychic effects of what was yet to be known as The Holocaust.” It’s a grueling film, almost unbearable to watch even a half-century later. Rod Steiger’s role as the title character is embodied in his inability to express himself about the horrors he experienced in the Nazi Concentration camps.

One of the most interesting aspects address about Lumet’s films is that they featured “…men being bullied and humiliated by other men.” The worst aspects of that behavior could be found (for Lumet) in the Army, and those experiences were expressed through most of his film’s stories. From Henry Fonda as courageous juror number 8, courageously standing up to bully Lee J. Cobb (juror number 3) in 1957’s 12 Angry Men, through to the doomed brothers Andy and Hank (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) desperately trying to work with each other to rob their father’s jewelry store in 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead . Lumet’s films are at their strongest when they feature men standing against brutal authoritarianism. These characters don’t always win these battles, but they never fail to put up a courageous defense.

His chances as a stage performer in The Actor’s Studio (a group he helped found) diminish with the rise of more photogenic actors like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, so Lumet gravitates to behind the scenes. One of his friends in the Studio, actor Yul Brynner, (before his career-defining lead performance in The King And I) helps Lumet in the early days of live TV get directing jobs on such now-forgotten yet historically important anthology programs like The Alcoa Hour and Goodyear Playhouse, both broadcast a year before his 1957 big-screen directorial debut. Among the stars featured in his efforts were Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Grace Kelly, and James Dean. Spiegel’s account of another Lumet directorial effort, on an episode of the historical re-creation anthology You Are There featuring Louis Armstrong playing 1917 jazz pioneer, King Oliver, is especially interesting. The workload was enormous, but it “…gave him the skills that earned him the reputation of a movie director who got things done on time and within budget.” Spiegel notes that early TV (1949-1958) offered Lumet the chance to direct hundreds of live and filmed shows.

The pace picks up as Lumet’s directing starts with the brilliant 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, an adaptation of the TV drama produced by its star Henry Fonda. Spiegel credits cinematographer Boris Kaufmann for his ability with “…expressive light and shadow…” in the jury deliberation room (the primary set.) His approach established the film’s three moods: “…bright and hot…defined, intimate…” depending on which juror was deliberating. Again, Lumet’s reflections are the best testimony to the film’s motivations:

There’s going to be no artificiality in this. You are going to be the whole picture. This is not a tract… It’s just a thing about human behavior. No glass tabletops. No basement room. Just you and the fullness of your behavior. It’s right in your laps.

12 Angry Men has become a standard text in high school drama curriculums. It was (and may still be) used as a tool in Business Management courses, Harvard Law School negotiation courses, and as a preparation for Japan when, in 2006, the country prepared to adopt a jury system. Spiegel covers the leaner years after Lumet’s explosive and critically lauded debut when he adapted Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night for the screen. The latter would be closest to his heart:

Sidney was keenly attentive to what he referred to as the play’s ‘moments of self-hatred’… ‘The belief in art is what’s so moving to me, the redemptive quality of art. The life of misery…

Fail-Safe is followed by The Pawnbroker, and Lumet cements a reputation as a socially conscious, progressive filmmaker. By the start of the 1970s, Spiegel notes that “It was in Serpico, his first cop film, that he found the rich vein he would keep mining thereafter. It’s noted that star Al Pacino quickly went to shoot The Godfather: Part II after finishing Serpico, but it was the latter film that made him a star. Unfortunately, Spiegel wasn’t able to have access to Pacino for this book because the connection between star and director doesn’t seem to have been fully explored. Their follow-up film, 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, would prove difficult for the star, who was reluctant to portray this real-life character:

Pacino was panicked because his career had just taken off, and he feared this role would end it; up to that point no major Hollywood star had played a gay man.

Spiegel notes that the iconic “Attica, Attica” improvisation from Pacino was whispered to Pacino by the film’s assistant director. It’s unfortunate we only get a few pages about Lumet’s work on
Dog Day Afternoon and Network. Of the latter, it would have been fascinating to get deeper into Lumet’s approach and method as he was in front of the camera for another iconic cinema moment from the 1970s, the below scene from Network. These moments are ingrained in the minds of so many and have been dissected in texts devoted solely to Lumet’s films, but a deeper examination here would have enhanced this biography.

Sidney Lumet’s films are diverse and challenging. His police corruption stories, including Serpico, Prince of the City, and Q&A, work deeply to express what is implied by dirty cops, characters not known for their verbosity. Courtroom dramas like 12 Angry Men and The Verdict look at the failure of fully understanding what’s expressed. Lumet worked diligently to create an artistic family with each of his films and TV projects, and Spiegel’s account of his reaction on set to 9/11 seems to speak volumes about his work ethic:

No one recalled Sidney’s exact words, but one crew member said it was like listening to Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra movie. Sidney announced that the bridges were closed and the subway was shut down, but that anyone who needed to get to their family, and had a way to do so, should go… He said he was going to keep working –that if he went home, he would only sit and watch the television and fret.

Spiegel has done her research here and built a powerful text-based on extensive interviews. Cinema-specific texts will go deeper into the production and legacy of his classic films from the 1970s. Read Spiegel’s book for a sensitive portrayal of a man whose vision for a film community came to realization. Lumet’s legacy of socially relevant, actor-based and narrative-run movies will resonate.

RATING 9 / 10