Sidney Lumet on film: A veteran of the craft

March 19, 1995|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to The Sun

'Making Movies,' by Sidney Lumet. 220 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $23

TTC Sidney Lumet is our urban movie director. From his first, '12 Angry Men' to 'Guilty As Sin,' Lumet's films tackle issues. Their characters are policemen, lawyers, criminals, outcasts and they often find themselves in trouble on the streets of New York. A storyteller first, Lumet has been an actor's director: 'I love long speeches,' he admits. The 'Pawnbroker,' 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'Network' are all his. If he hasn't won an Oscar, it's in part because he's made only one of his 39 movies in Hollywood, 'The Morning After.'

Now Lumet has written a charming memoir conveying the joy in his craft, the great pleasure he takes in making movies. Shooting The Seagull' at night, in the most lyrical moment in the book, he suddenly comes upon the unforgettable sight of his crew in a diamond of light 'creating, literally, a picture in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night.' His elation is infectious.

Lumet begins by taking us to a first rehearsal, on New York's lower east side where Teamsters have already begun to run up costs. He closes with the preview of one of his films in some tawdry suburb of Los Angeles. From the start we're entirely on Lumet's side as he battles the mindless materialism of studios, the egos of actors and the limits of technology, only to discover collaborators like cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Boris Kaufman, to whom he grants generous credit.

This is not a chatty, gossip-ridden celebrity bio, although there are priceless vignettes: Katharine Hepburn becomes a team player on 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'; Al Pacino sits at rushes on the side of the auditorium, alone, enveloped by an 'icy calm.' Lumet's memoir is rich in the technical side of moviemaking even as it serves as an easily accessible introduction to how movies are made by a veteran of the craft.

The highs of Lumet's long career have been many. They include the organization of the first shot of 'Murder on the Orient Express' at 4 a.m. in a Paris train station and Pacino's improvisations in 'Dog Day Afternoon,' a masterwork; the lows situate the fate of a newly-completed Lumet film in the hands of a know-nothing focus group whose comments are unprintable in a family newspaper. From such 'market research,' studios decree advertising budget and distribution possibilities.

Lumet's superb little book is marred only by periodic jibes at critics who can't possibly understand the decisions directors make. They mistake the use of a long lens for style, and can't perceive the value of editing because they don't know what remained on the cutting room floor. In particular, Lumet feels slighted by those who insist that a director's style be recognizable from film to film, or he not be worthy of his title.

Dear Sidney Lumet, there is no need for you to worry about whether Andrew Sarris, here unnamed, and his French counterparts have admitted you to their pantheon of auteurs. Your fine work speaks for itself. You have given us much movie pleasure, not least in this fascinating memoir.

Joan Mellen, a professor in Temple University's English Department, has written seven books about movies. They include 'Women and Their Sexuality In The New Film: Big Bad Wolves,' a study of masculinity in American film, and 'The Waves at Genji's Door,' a social history of Japan as seen through Japanese movies. Her dual biography, 'Hammett and Miss Hellman,' will be published next year by HarperCollins.

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