Sidney Lumet’s chief preoccupation wasn’t art. It was right and wrong in the American city, nearly always in New York. Lumet died Saturday morning. He was 86, and made his first film in 1957, in his early 30s, after having spent most of the 1950s directing television — serious television. That first movie was “12 Angry Men,’’ and has there been a more sincerely volcanic movie about the law — or a family of addicts (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’), police corruption (“Serpico’’), bank robbery (“Dog Day Afternoon’’), TV (“Network’’), or a botched heist (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’’)?
Mostly, he dealt with crime and corruption (political, psychological, ethical). But those senses of order and propriety kept him away from pulp and out of the gutter. He was trying to answer questions that transcend conventional film genres. He wasn’t interested in pure evil — or pure goodness, either. Lumet brought to life all sorts of venality and desperation in the genre of “New York.’’ He was in a unique position to do so. He came to the movies when Hollywood was transitioning from the 1940s and ’50s comforts of the soundstage and of moral tidiness to a wilder, more visceral realism that was inextricable from the madness roiling the country in the 1960s and ’70s. Lumet was perfect for that change. He brought together an old-fashioned moral sensibility and on-location authenticity. He was the most reliable you-are-there American director of the ’70s.
Lumet was born in Philadelphia, to a couple of Yiddish actors, but he lived most of his life in New York. He knew and loved the city, and was drawn to its problems and the possibility of solving them, if only in fiction. Even better, he knew the people. Character, of course, is what separates a Lumet picture from many other directors’ — the way circumstances, urban and otherwise, bring out in a person something you didn’t see coming. His movies, for instance, could be buffets of cutaways to the stoic, nonplussed, or terrified faces of bit players and extras.
His best films — from 1973’s “Serpico’’ on down — are set in New York, and when the Mount Rushmore of great New York directors is made, the selection committee might have a tough time figuring out whose head goes alongside Martin Scorsese’s, Woody Allen’s, and Spike Lee’s. Cassavetes? Warhol? I’d vote for Lumet — if only for the warm, illustrative opening montage of “Dog Day Afternoon,’’ which skips around New York looking for an electric sort of trouble and finds it in a car full of bank robbers. But there is much more where that came from — both in that movie and in most of Lumet’s.
Lumet might have also become the most influential American director of the last 50 years. Consciously or not, his movies’ vitality — the exhilaration of, say, “12 Angry Men,’’ “The Pawnbroker,’’ “Serpico,’’ “Dog Day Afternoon,’’ “Network,’’ “Prince of the City,’’ “The Verdict,’’ and “Q&A’’ — is in the DNA of other movies and TV. In 2007 alone, the year of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,’’ you could sense Lumet coursing through the paranoia-driven corruption thriller “Michael Clayton’’ and haunting the brotherly divide of “We Own the Night’’ and, to some extent, “American Gangster,’’ not to mention the fraternal playground of the “Ocean’s’’ movies and the half-jolly, half-dismayed human touch Spike Lee used for 2006’s “Inside Man.’’ (When I met with Lumet a couple of years ago, he told me Lee called to warn him that some of that touch was indeed Lumet’s.)
In fact, mass-media culture has finally gone so bonkers that “Network,’’ which Lumet directed from Paddy Chayefsky’s nuclear bomb of a script, now seems beyond timeless. One of the great movie satires has become simply the way we live. Who else do we thank for Glenn Beck?
There Lumet is in “Law & Order’’ and pretty much any long-form television show — “Homicide: Life on the Streets,’’ “The Sopranos,’’ “The Wire,’’ “The Shield,’’ “Damages,’’ even “The Good Wife.’’ A great show like “The Wire’’ didn’t have the hubris Lumet did — or, rather, it had a reverse hubris. Things were a mess, and “The Wire’’ said there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Lumet knew the world he worked in was inherently corrupt, but he took advantage of the power of artistic license in order to confer upon the morass a kind of justice. Dick Wolf, David Simon, David Chase, and the other serious-minded television auteurs all appear to have attended the Sidney Lumet Academy for Mining Art from Life.
That moral tidiness, Lumet’s attempts to impose order, seemed to contradict the social and political mayhem he oversaw. What you could feel at work in the latter going of “Serpico’’ and “Power’’ and “The Verdict’’ was the taming, episodic influence of the 1950s television where he cut his teeth. If the movies often fell short of greatness, Lumet seemed fine settling for very goodness in the name of dramatizing some larger problem. More than once in his great 1996 autobiography, “Making Movies,’’ Lumet said you don’t see good style, you feel it. Which might account for why so many actors considered him an actor’s director. For starters: Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Paul Newman, River Phoenix, Armand Assante, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and all those great bit players. Lumet’s style was more godlike. He was conducting human lighting bolts.
When his movies worked (and some that didn’t now do, more so than they seemed to years ago), they achieved a deceptive, organic intimacy. That was ironic since what we were watching, particularly during his great run in the 1970s, was a kind of public street theater. The hugeness of any of his subjects seemed manageably life-size. Even his most molten actors seem caught on film by a man who happens to be Sidney Lumet. There’s something loosely documentary-like in that trait — cool, observational transparency. Lumet also believed in process and systems (his nonfiction corollary would seem to be Frederick Wiseman).
That detachment comes, in part, from shooting other people’s screenplays. It’s so true that Lumet wasn’t a visualist in the veins of Scorsese or Lee, or a populist the way Steven Spielberg is; or an astute comedian like Allen, Hal Ashby, or Paul Mazursky. In conversation, Lumet could be funny. But humor was scarce with him. A new Lumet release inspired groaning from certain critics about bad technique and crude staging. That doesn’t feel true now. The circumstantial chaos seems to produce the visual chaos. Polish upstages the grit. The camera is dynamic — wide shots; close-ups; hand-held photography; long, still takes — but it’s not a character, per se. It’s a tool. In a fully functioning Lumet picture, the acting and the writing are alchemized. You’re forced to suspend your awareness that they’re separate ingredients — you’re no longer watching an actor perform in a screenplay that a camera has filmed. You’re watching the ultimate synthesis.
This probably sounds like what any decent movie director should be able to do, but with Lumet the difference was beguiling. Realism just seems real. It’s not only a movie. It’s urban snapshots — swelling with swinging moods and colliding personalities. Those shifts and clashes were crucial with Lumet. His movies are generously full of tonal complexity.
Take “Network.’’ The movie Chayefsky wrote is a satirical melodrama. Loosely, the satire is of television entertainment and the end of civilization. The melodrama, in part, involves the network employees who program and resist programming junk. The film’s achievement is the way those two seemingly disparate genres come together off the page onto a movie screen. The movie is darkly funny about the politics of entertainment and the politics of politics. But it’s also a movie about the lust for power and the power of lust. It gives usblack radicals, Marxist talk, a kidnapping, statistics, and many, many meetings.
“Network’’ is a movie of high ideas, and another director might have let them speak for themselves while letting Chayefsky’s outrage intimidate and shame either us or the actors. Lumet, though, boldly turns up the volume on the performances. They’re as stratospheric as the ideas, and a stereophonic effect is achieved. When his movies didn’t work, all you got was mono. Either Lumet had been let down by an actor he believed in but who was obviously wrong for a part — Sharon Stone in his remake of Cassavetes’s “Gloria,’’ or Vin Diesel giving everything he had in “Find Me Guilty’’ — or, in the case of a romantic comedy such as “Just Tell Me What You Want’’ or a drama such as “Power’’ (“Network’’ for political campaigns), because he couldn’t find a way to produce stereo.
For a man whose movies were both as concrete-and-asphalt and as socially and politically active as Lumet’s were, he never dealt with race or class or the civil rights movement in the manner one might expect: head on. He shaped movie-star narration and newsreel footage into 1970’s enormous special-event documentary “King: A Filmed Record . . . From Montgomery to Memphis,’’ but the featured lightning bolts were out of his hands.
For a number of years, Lena Horne was Lumet’s mother-in-law. So it would seem he had personal anecdotal evidence of the assorted scourges of race. The most hilarious scenes in “Network’’ involved the leaders of the Black Power movement cutting deals for their primetime show. Lumet never found another script that would free him to mock the economic prerogatives of radicalism — nor, for that matter, did he find any script about race or black life as good as the ones he had that were simply about life. Anyway, “New Yorker’’ constitutes a race in itself.
However, Lumet did make “The Wiz,’’ the 1978 all-black musical version of “The Wizard of Oz’’ that would seem to have nothing to do with his larger body of work. But it’s much more a Lumet movie than “Murder on the Orient Express’’ or “Equus.’’ Its funked-out version of New York was a wonderland in which Diana Ross — with the help of Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross — tries to find her way back home to Harlem. So it’s also an allegory for what was, at the time, the public’s perception of Ross’s blackness.
“The Wiz’’ is the dreamiest, druggiest thing Lumet did. It’s also one of the most affectionate. The long shots of the production numbers were loving, as were those close, beautifully lit opening scenes set in the brownstone Dorothy shares with her parents. It’s true that Glinda the Good Witch was light-skinned and her nasty sister, Evillene (the priceless Mabel King), was dark-skinned. But Horne played Glinda, so you could also argue that, rather than reinforcing the ancient skin-color value system that brought Horne too much grief, Lumet was just an ingenious son-in-law.
That was my first Lumet movie, and the only one for which I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times I’ve seen it. I spent my childhood calling “The Wizard of Oz’’ the white “Wiz.’’ Lumet’s version wasn’t a hit. It wasn’t especially great or even very good, but it has the heart, soul, grit, and feeling that binds Lumet’s movies to each other. As a fantasy, it felt authentically fantastical. Before the movie’s best number (“A Brand New Day’’), Evillene is flushed down her throne. And you get the sense that justice, in Lumet’s world, has, once again, been served.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.