New Yorkers finally had a chance to screen the documentary, By Sidney Lumet, during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in April. Many of Lumet’s collaborators joined the conversation that followed, including Treat Williams, Jenny Lumet, Amy Ryan, and Jonathan Demme. For younger generations, not familiar with the film classics Lumet directed, the documentary is a chance to discover not only those landmark films, but also this great director’s early years as an actor, a stage director and a TV director. What is special about the documentary is the central reliance on a 2008 interview with Sydney Lumet, who left us in 2011. Though his films were nominated five times for an Academy Award (12 Angry Men -1957; Dog Day Afternoon -1975; Network -1976; Prince of the City -1981; and The Verdict -1982), he never received an Oscar. Lumet was finally recognized for his work by the Academy with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 for a career that included 44 films over 50 years.
I was privileged to his see his last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), during its European premiere at the 2007 Festival in Rome. This film is notable for several reasons: it featured Philip Seymour Hoffman, the great actor who left us, unexpectedly, in 2014 and it was the first and last film made by Lumet shot in digital format. It was also a reunion between Lumet and Albert Finney, 33 years after their classic ensemble piece, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), in which Finney played detective Hercule Poirot.
Created by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski, By Sidney Lumet by also helps us discover, in Lumet’s own words, the director’s early life. He was born in Philadelphia to Baruch and Eugenia Lumet, both veterans of the Yiddish theatre. His father, an actor, director, producer and writer, was a Jewish emigrant to the United States from Warsaw, Poland. A young Sydney Lumet made his professional debut on radio at age four and was five when he made his stage debut at the Yiddish Art Theatre. Many Broadway plays followed until he made his only feature-length film appearance, at age 15, in One Third of a Nation, in 1939. The film features rare videos and photography showing Lumet as a child, an actor and later directing his father.
World War II interrupted Lumet’s early acting career, in 1939, and Lumet spent the next three years with the U.S. Army. Upon his return, he became involved with the Actors Studio, later forming his own theater workshop. After working off-Broadway, Lumet began directing television in 1950, working as an assistant to friend and then-director Yul Brynner. He directed numerous episodes of TV shows starring many aspiring TV and film stars, including Lloyd Bridges. It is likely that some of the great performances that Lumet managed to pull from the actors he worked with is related to his upbringing as a child-actor himself, by two parents who were professional artists.
In watching By Sidney Lumet, we learn how many of his life experiences inspired him to direct such realistic and touching dramas. In The Hill (1965), he directed Sean Connery who played a British officer convicted of insubordination. The film reflected many of Lumet’s own experiences during his army service. Lumet also directed Connery in The Offence (1972) which many consider, including Connery himself, his best non-James Bond performance ever.
Law vs Corruption was a frequent theme in his most talked about films: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City, where Lumet’s TV background helped to bring documentary-like realism to many of the scenes filmed across New York’s streets and alleys.
By Sydney Lumet succeeded in shedding light on the director’s best work, while ignoring his not so critically acclaimed films like The Wiz (A remake of The Wizard of Oz with Michael Jackson) and Guilty as Sin. The documentary lacked interviews with the hundreds of actors and film crews who worked with Lumet and are still alive, a deficiency that will hopefully be corrected in future documentaries.