Sidney Lumets 50 years in film
By Kathi Berke
Sidney Lumet, the man Roger Ebert calls, one of the most consistently intelligent directors of his time, is the subject of a three-week, 23-film retrospective at the Film Forum, beginning this Friday.
The 83-year-old filmmaker was on stage at the age of 4. Son of famed Yiddish theater actor Baruch Lumet, he learned everything from the theater and has the greatest respect for actors. Before shooting every movie he rehearses with the cast for weeks so the actors know their characters inside out.
New York City is his native town, and in movies like Serpico (1973), showing February 22, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), on February 24, and The Pawnbroker (1965), on February 15, the viewers senses are filled with the precise sights, sounds and action of the city.
The retrospective opens with a new, 35mm print of the multiple-Oscar-winning Network (1976), starring Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a TV news anchorman who becomes the mad prophet of the airwaves. Writer Paddy Chayevskys scalding satire of turning the serious business of news into entertainment no longer seems so far-fetched. Lumet fills it with accurate details of the television business: the buzz of control room activity, even the final, chilling discussion among the network executives as to what to do with Howard when his ratings go south. They make the decision to assassinate him on the air as though they were discussing how to counterprogram against American Idol.
The Pawnbroker grounds its Biblical tale in the atmosphere of 1960s Harlem, complete with a score by Quincy Jones. Lumet makes innovative transitions between the haunted memories of concentration-camp survivor Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger in a legendary performance) and his present. Its a devastating portrait of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the loss of everything he loved.
Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon made Al Pacino a star of the highest magnitude. Both are movies based on true stories, and Lumet deliberately set out to offset the narrative with naturalistic detail.
His film career began with 12 Angry Men (1957), showing on February 17, a taut jury-room drama shot mostly in one room. His critically acclaimed crime thriller, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, marks his 44th film in 50 years, and Lumet already has another film in the works for 2009. As he said when asked how he felt about being given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005, Usually people get these three months before they die, so I guess Im doing okay.