Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Way back in 2004 I fronted up to a screening in one of those high quality but low comfort repertory cinemas in Paris where the then editor of Cahiers du Cinema, Emmanuel Burdeau, introduced a revival of Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. Made in 1959, based on a play by Tennessee Williams and starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, it was a film that had taken on interest in the forty plus years since its release and subsequent plunge into near-oblivion. If its authorship was placed anywhere it would have been with Williams and no doubt the studio which made it was hoping for a repeat of the success of the earlier Brando/Williams movie A Streetcar Named Desire. Lumet, explained Burdeau, was not a director in whom Cahiers nor most other of the ‘serious’ critics had any interest back in the late fifties and early sixties. His first films were literary and/or theatrical in their origin and Lumet himself appeared to be just another of those technicians who had graduated from live New York television, a place where earnestness, importance and left-liberal sensibilities were predominant. At least that’s the picture we got, not having any opportunity to see any of the so-called legendary live presentations by the likes of directors as dissimilar as Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer and Lumet. Andrew Sarris lumped him into the ‘Strained Seriousness’ level in his seminal tome and it took a while for there to be any disagreement about that. Notwithstanding this somewhat neutral to negative view he was regarded as a good director of actors and over the course of a long career, from start to finish, I think he was one of those directors who when Sidney came calling, actors would say what time do you want me there rather than how much are you offering. After dealing with Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, Lumet had the misfortune to make the earnest Fail Safe (1963) at the same time as Kubrick made Dr Strangelove. But his career was into full stride and during the decade of the 60s he seemed to be a reliable director with a broad range of subjects, most of them with a violent edge. Notable successes were The Pawnbroker (1965), The Hill, a heavyweight expose of military prisons during WW2 starring Sean Connery as a prisoner and a sadistic Harry Andrews, an adaptation of the Mary McCarthy’s literary sensation The Group and the second Le Carre adaptation and the first on-screen George Smiley (James Mason), The Deadly Affair. It was hard to escape the idea that he was a director for hire with a good sense of quality material, a metteur-en-scene of some skill but not an authorial figure. What began to emerge in the 70s was Lumet’s ability to tell robust and exotic stories of life in the various strata of New York society. He never relocated to Los Angeles, preferring to live his life in Manhattan and his familiarity with the quirks of that city started to feed into a line of his work that marked out his territory. Starting with the crime story The Anderson Tapes (1971) again starring Connery as an ex-con who embarks on an elaborate robbery without understanding that the art of surveillance has dramatically increased and improved since he went up the river, Lumet managed to make a small group of his forty four films about police and criminal life on the streets of New York. That group will forever be the work that underscores his reputation. Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Family Business (1989), Q & A (1990), Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) and, in one of those astonishing bits of bravura with which just occasionally old directors finish off their careers, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). There are more than a couple of masterpieces in that group and Lumet seemed to be able to bring to this his specialty subject an eye for the various milieu of New York that opened up the city to scrutiny from a perspective that suggested a unique fondness and amiable love for the place and all its foibles. What diminished Lumet’s standing over the course of his long career was his preparedness to take on other things no doubt on a whatever comes along basis that the director for hire must take to keep the wolf from the door. What else can explain his willingness to get involved in such mediocre projects as The Wiz, Guilty as Sin, The Appointment, Murder on the Orient Express, A Stranger Among Us (an amazing misfire given its New York setting, but what can one expect of a movie with Melanie Griffith cast as a hard-boiled cop!) and several others. There were of course a couple of big time triumphs as well, most notably the Oscar-winning Network, a film which still strikes a chord, notwithstanding its rabble-rousing sensibility which one might have thought otherwise anathema to Lumet’s liberal outlook. The other triumph is his less well-known contribution as writer and producer to the TV series 100 Centre Street (2001 & 2002) in which Alan Arkin stars as an agonising liberal judge trying to deal humanely with the flotsam that comes before him each day. This is brilliant television, as good in its day and its way as The Wire would also be later in the decade. Here, in his quintessential New York setting, Lumet and his collaborators were able to put on the screen a parade of the quotidian reality of his beloved city and he did it without fanfare in a quiet and clearly generous way. Sidney Lumet died in his Manhattan home on Saturday 9 April aged 86.