Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Keeping Up With Sidney"

I take the title of this post from my friend David Baron, who worked as second assistant camera on the underrated A Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet. Dave once said to me that there ought to be a sitcom called "Keeping Up With Sidney." He was referring to Lumet's famously fast-paced way of working (which eschewed shooting unnecessary coverage). When asked about it by an interviewer, Lumet said, "It's really just a question of my own energy level, my own tempo. I can't work slowly."

Upon learning of Lumet's death today at the age of 86, I again thought of those words: "Keeping Up With Sidney." It seems that they have another meaning, in addition to the obvious one. Because Lumet was making films well into his eighties (his last feature, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, was released in 2007), film critics and scholars really did have to "keep up" with him.

While his most famous films (like Dog Day Afternoon and Network) were released in the seventies, his work only got better as the decades passed. In the eighties, he made two remarkable films -- 1983's Daniel (from E.L. Doctorow's best novel) and 1988's Running on Empty (from a brilliant screenplay by Naomi Foner) -- which the director intended to be thought of as variations on a theme. In his fantastic book, Making Movies, Lumet summed up the theme of each picture in the same way: "Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents? The children, who never choose those passions and commitments." Lumet could express the meanings of his films better than most critics.

Meanwhile, in the 2000s, Lumet directed a pair of terrific features -- Find Me Guilty and the aforementioned Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- but he also went back to television (where his career began), as the executive producer of the fine A&E series 100 Centre Street

One of the directors on 100 Centre Street was Jerry London, a veteran of many memorable TV movies and mini-series, including Shogun. I had a chance to ask London about Lumet when I interviewed him for CinemaEditor magazine in 2008. Here is the relevant section of our conversation:

Peter Tonguette: ...several years ago you did a very interesting series, 100 Centre Street, which was produced by Sidney Lumet.

Jerry London: I heard that Sidney was doing a series. He wrote one of the best books on directing that's ever been written. It lays it out perfectly. I directed a couple of movies of the week for Howard Braunstein, who was the producer of the show. I called him and said, "I hear you're doing a show with Lumet. I'd really like to work on it."

Howard recommended me to Lumet and he called me. He said, "Jerry, you've got too many credits, you're overqualified." I said, "I really want to work with you." He said, "All right, send me some of your best stuff." So I sent him one of the thriller movies of the week I did and a couple of episodes. He called me and said, "I'm going to send you some scripts to read." He sent me the scripts and he wrote most of them -- he's a great writer.

I called him up a few days later and said, "I read the scripts. They're wonderful." He said, "Well, I looked at your stuff. I still think you're overqualified, but if you want to do the show, you got to come to New York on your own nickel and we'll talk." I flew to New York and I met him in his little office. We talked for a couple hours all about the philosophy of directing.

He said, "All right, I'm going to do the first one, you'll do the second ones, I'll do the third one, you'll do the fourth one..." All of a sudden I was alternating with Sidney Lumet!

London's awe was not misplaced, as even the most cursory glance at Lumet's filmography reveals. From 12 Angry Men to The Pawnbroker, from The Group to Serpico, Lumet truly was one of America's best directors.