Astoria Studios occupies a nondescript warehouse on a sleepy side street in Queens. Inside, past the security booth, lies a vast cavern, about half of which is taken up by what looks like a fortress of lumber lit from within. closer inspection reveals a movie set built to resemble the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston, where several major scenes will be filmed for
The Verdict, a Twentieth Century-Fox production starring Paul Newman and directed by Sidney Lumet. A month and a half into shooting, the film is nearly a week ahead of schedule, though you wouldn't know it at the moment. The lighting is being adjusted for a new camera setup, and filming has come to a standstill.
Lumet, not a patient man, plops down in his director's chair bristling with energy. Short, balding, and dressed in a blue work shirt, blue
jeans, and blue sneakers, he pushes his aviator glasses up on his nose and looks around, signaling his willingness to talk. The unit publicist seizes her chance to collect some data on the director. What are his favorite movies?
"Greed," he says slowly, "Intolerance,
Potemkin." Warming to the task, he names The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Bicycle Thief, The Seventh
Seal, film school classics all. A crowd of cast and crew members gathers, curious to hear this litany.
"Casablanca," he continues, "Stagecoach, The
Godfather, parts one and two, Amarcord."
He could go on, but someone interrupts -- no Sidney Lumet movies?
"No," he says placidly. "None are good enough." Then he looks up, his eyes widening and his mind retracing his list of favorites. "Those are some good movies!"
Is this false modesty or honest self-assessment? Or a little of both? After all, Sidney Lumet is one of the busiest directors in the movie business today. This year alone he has accepted the New York Film Critics Circle's best director award for
Prince of the City; seen the release of Deathtrap, his film adaptation of Ira Levin's long-running Broadway comedy; wrapped up
The Verdict, Fox's "big picture" for Christmas; and launched production on his next film, based on E. L. Doctorow's
The Book of Daniel starring Tim Hutton and Ed Asner.
Since 1957, when he graduated from live television to film, Lumet has directed an extraordinary number of pictures, including
Twelve Angry Men, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Fugitive Kind, Fail Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Group, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The
Wiz, and Prince of the City. He has worked with a dazzling array of movie stars: icons like Fonda, Hepburn, and Brando; international celebrities like Vanessa Redgrave, James Mason, Simone Signoret, Ingrid Bergman, and Albert Finney; fine contemporary actors like Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall. He has been nominated for an Academy Award three times, and he has a solid reputation in the business for bringing pictures in on time and under budget. He has the rare if not unprecedented distinction of becoming a successful movie director without ever having to abandoned his New York base for the hills of Hollywood.
Still, Lumet is caught in a paradox. Though he is well respected, he knows the public will not line up at the box office for movies with his name on them the way they will for those of, say, Woody Allen. Though he controls the final cut of his films and can command $1.5 million per picture, his interest in a property doesn't guarantee that a studio will finance it. As for the critics, Lumet's crazy-quilt career has earned him a dubious honor: He is one director that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris agree on -- they both dislike his films.
A veteran of twenty-five years of filmmaking, Lumet still considers himself, at fifty-eight, a student. "There are so many different reasons for doing movies," he says one day in his office behind Carnegie Hall. "Maybe the most fundamental reason is that I just believe in working. I don't believe in waiting for the masterpiece. Masterful subject matter only comes up rarely. The point is, there's something to advance your technique in every movie you do."
The Verdict is his thirtieth picture. Adapted for the screen from Barry Reed's novel by playwright David Mamet, it portrays a broken-down, alcoholic Irish-Catholic lawyer (Paul Newman) who stumbles upon one last chance to redeem himself, both professionally -- through a clear-cut but difficult-to-prove medical malpractice suit against a large Catholic hospital in Boston -- and personally -- with a mysterious beauty played by Charlotte Rampling. Its courtroom setting hearkens back to
Twelve Angry Men, Lumet's first picture, and the character played by Newman (brilliantly, it must be said), wrapped in a blanket of furious, self-ordained solitude, recalls similar
little-guy-against-the- system characters in Serpico, Dog Day
Afternoon, and Prince of the City. As usual for Lumet, the film is studded with strong performances, even in the small roles -- Lindsay Crouse and Julie Bovasso have several memorable scenes -- and suffused with social commentary, exposing the subtle ways in which an insensitive institution corrupts the individuals who do its bidding and attempts to crush those who won't.
For his part, Newman is playing down the film's implicit social commentary, partly because the role intrigues him so much. "I don't see this as a film about malpractice. It's not anti-hospital, or anti-Catholic, or anti-lawyer. It's the story of how a man redeems himself. He becomes unglued not because he's bad -- he's no worse than most people -- but because he can't help himself and he can't be helped by those who see what's happening to him. It's such a relief to play something like this instead of those strong, stalwart guys. This guy is ordinary; he's no better than he should be."
Visually, The Verdict is unlike anything Lumet's done before. "It's very highly stylized," he says, "largely as a result of two decisions. Because it's about people, especially Paul's character, who are trapped in the past, there's nothing new in it. There isn't a modern building or a modern piece of furniture in it. Everything is old, from another time, as if time stopped for them a long while ago. And from a lighting point of view, we worked on the basis of great warmth, highly directional lighting.
"It sounds pretentious, but it's really very simple: We sat down with Caravaggio's painting, a $500 Rizzoli edition of prints, and I asked Andrzej Bartkowiak -- who shot
Prince of the City, too -- to break it down for me. We spent a whole day analyzing the way he was treating background, the way he was treating foreground, where light came from, the way he was treating surfaces. Then we applied that to the picture, and the result is just extraordinary. Now, I could have done
The Verdict totally realistically, naturalistically, if I wanted to. But I wanted something fresh for myself. I think that's why" -- he knocks on the underside of his desk -- "in total the work is slowly getting better, because I don't settle for one way of doing it."
Although Lumet disparages the notion of the director as auteur ("It embarrasses me, and I also think it's pretentious"), he still asserts the same creative control over his work that a Truffaut or Fassbinder would. I mention this to him, using his description of
The Verdict's visual scheme as an example of something that distinguishes an artistic director from an indifferent one. "My point is that everybody who does decent work does that automatically," counters Lumet. "So I don't know what the big
geshrei is about, the big noise. Everybody who's good has been doing that for years anyway. So all the auteur theory did was make what had been natural self-conscious."
To Lumet, the term "auteur" is only a justification of directorial self-indulgence, or worse. "It's had a bad effect critically, because it's trained critics to look for the wrong things. It's had a bad effect on the young movie people. You see, I can't even use the words 'film' or 'cinema.' They stick in my throat because it's all become so precious." Lumet rejects auteurism as artificial and self-conscious. But his stylized approach to
The Verdict is nothing if not self-conscious. Doesn't that make Sidney Lumet, however reluctantly, an auteur?
"You wanna go to work or you wanna fuck around all day?" Lumet whispers in Charlotte Rampling's ear. They kiss and laugh -- and go to work, of course. It is a chilly March morning, and
The Verdict is shooting on location at the Tweed Building, an old New York State office complex in Lower Manhattan. Its corridors will serve as those of the courthouse; most of the exteriors will later be filmed at the studio. This morning is devoted to shooting a short scene of Newman leaving the courtroom and glaring at Rampling across a grand second-floor rotunda.
Lumet is in his element. Wearing his customary blue work shirt and jeans and smoking Camels, he sparks activity in everyone on the set. One minute he is talking about lenses with the technicians ("Lemme see the 150") and the next he is kibitzing with the actors. Rampling's stand-in spends twenty minutes being lit while Rampling has a tete-a-tete with her director and her co-star. Lumet gives a little speech about anger. Newman, looking supernaturally handsome in a black suit setting off his silver hair, flips through a
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, looking for some variation of "Get off my back!" Lumet gives a lot of personal attention to these actors, listening to them, touching them. Later, he and Newman sit on a bench secluded from the main corridor; the actor has his shoes off, and they're discussing the scene at hand.
Newman: "I don't know if I like this girl. I wanna say fuck her, shit on her."
Lumet: "It's OK if you go one way and she goes another."
The actors walk through their scenes before the camera rolls. The unit manager strolls among the extras saying, "Lock it up, kids, please." Lumet usually shoots one take, two at most. "I call him Speedy Gonzales, the only man I know who'll double-park in front of a whorehouse," quips Paul Newman privately. "He's arrogant about not shooting more than he has to. he doesn't give himself any protection. I know I would." Newman has not worked with Lumet since the early fifties, when he appeared in a half-dozen shows Lumet directed for the live television series "You Are There." But when the director was offered
The Verdict by David Brown at Fox after a package developed by Robert Redford and writer-director James Bridges fell apart, one of his conditions for accepting was that Newman be cast in the leading role. Lumet suspects that a primary reason producers hire him to direct certain major movies is that stars like to work with him.
"He knows how to speak a variety of languages, whereas an insecure or tyrannical director often fails to communicate with anybody who doesn't understand him immediately," says Christopher Reeve, who played the young writer in
Deathtrap. "He knows how to talk technical language -- if you want to work that way -- he knows how to talk Method, he knows how to improvise, and he does it all equally well. Michael Caine had his part nailed from day one, so Sidney left him alone; they just cracked jokes and had a good time. Irene Worth brought a lot of ideas; Sidney's job was to refine and edit the wealth of material she brought him. My way is improvisation as a process of finding out what I don't want in order to get what I do want. Then during
shooting Sidney would often come up at the last minute and give me a new idea I'd never thought of -- not a major change, but something fresh to put on my plate. That, combined with the work we'd done in rehearsal, made for spontaneous work."
Not every actor considers Lumet's pace invigorating. One actress who has worked with Lumet complains, "You've got to be so prepared because he shoots fast. Nobody in the history of show business has ever done faster setups, which is why you don't always look real
well in Sidney's films. There's not a lot of time devoted to lighting." Some of Lumet's detractors have speculated that his films might look better if he worked at a slower pace.
Lumet doesn't defend his breakneck pace on grounds of cost- effectiveness -- that shooting forty takes of every scene and using up millions of feet of film can create production nightmares on the order of a
Heaven's Gate. "I do it because it's my own personal tempo," he says. "The only advantage to it is that the actors stay hot. The thing that exhausts them and kills them is waiting. Otherwise, there is no advantage. Because of my theater and TV background, I'm trained to make the dramatic selection in advance. So I rehearse, and then commit to one attack. It's neither good nor bad. It's just the way I work."
Most of Lumet's productions can be called interesting, even the ones that aren't very good. For example,
Bye Bye Braverman (1968) -- a crudely made, garishly photographed, limply written black comedy about Jewish intellectuals gathering to mourn a dead colleague -- is also a fascinating time-capsule travelogue of New York City. It's not a glamorous postcard like Woody Allen's
Manhattan or Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, but a record of the grubby terrain traveled by a "street Jew" (as Lumet calls himself) of a particular time. During a long scene that takes place in Sheridan Square, for instance, the alert observer can spot in the background the original storefront office of the then-fledgling
Village Voice a few doors down from the darkly tinted windows of the Stonewall Inn, where riots launched the gay liberation movement in 1969 -- two landmarks of sixties New York that no longer exist.
When Lumet began making movies in the fifties, he had to shoot on the streets, since almost no studio space existed in Manhattan. Elia Kazan was the only major director who filmed in New York at that time, and, as Lumet recalls, "we had no equipment. The crews weren't trained. The first time I brought a crane into the city, the guys didn't know what to do with the goddamned thing. They were Local 52 guys who worked on the docks when there weren't enough movies around. We had a lot of freedom, we were improvising all the time, and I guess that kind of stuff was finally very valuable. But as you make greater technical demands, you want that equipment."
Now, of course, the movie industry in New York City is flourishing enough to keep three equipment houses in business. And Lumet himself was instrumental in bringing Astoria Studios, where he spent a year and a half making
The Wiz, back into use after years of dormancy. Along with the improvements made to lure moviemakers to New York, Lumet points out the advantages he has enjoyed all along: "No studio supervision. The use of the city itself. And better actors."
Lumet began his show business career as a child actor in the Yiddish theater -- both his parents were performers -- and as an adolescent he appeared on Broadway in Sidney Kingsley's
Dead End and William Saroyan's My Heart's in the
Highlands, among other shows. Like most New York directors, he appreciates the value of theater-trained actors; his pictures are filled with them. And, in fact, a large percentage of his work consists of play adaptations, including
A View From the Bridge, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Seagull, Equus,
Despite Lumet's affection for theater, however, his films are not particularly "theatrical" in the sense of working within a consistent visual frame or utilizing ritualistic staging or acknowledging the artifice of "the play." Just about the only way Lumet's theater background is reflected in his work is in his penchant for a certain kind of broad, hammy acting traceable to the Yiddish theater.
This style can be excruciating at times; memory has transformed Just Tell Me What You Want into one long, shrieking temper tantrum. On the other hand, the hyperthyroid approach has helped salvage a number of the director's lesser movies. In
The Fugitive Kind, Anna Magnani's endless overemoting both contributes to and compensates for the accent that renders her dialogue unintelligible (there's poetry in the way her excessiveness matches the ridiculousness of the script), and Marlon Brando plays a stud so sexually hot that the townsmen have to come in with a fire hose to put him out.
Besides the intense, flamboyant performances and New York City settings, Lumet's films reveal consistent personal preoccupations that, after style, are the
sine qua non of auteurism. In 1966, he wrote, "While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. it compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience." Reminded of this statement, Lumet says, with a chuckle, "It's worded a little pretentiously, but it's well meant, and it's probably still true. Although I'm all for 'movies' as opposed to 'cinema' and 'film,' the pictures I've done that I'm proudest of have something to say about the human condition. I don't think
The Anderson Tapes, which is a first-rate caper movie, can matter as much as
Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Lumet's politics are liberal in the most general sense and derive from personal experience. Growing up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood, Lumet was exposed to the kinds of leftist ideas that thrived in the thirties; he was politically active as an adolescent in groups like the Young Communist League. By the fifties, "communism" had metamorphosed from a vision of hope for working people into the enemy of American motherhood and apple pie. Although Lumet, a director for CBS-TV during the fifties, was never called on to testify about his political background, his one informal encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee scared him.
Lumet, the father of two children from an interracial marriage (to Gail Jones, the daughter of singer Lena Horne), takes a civil libertarian's approach to politics rather than an ideological one. He is one of fifty charter members of the Performing Arts Committee for Civil Liberties, formed by Woody Allen this year to combat threats to free expression. Many of his movies that actively engage in social commentary --
The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, the documentary King -- reflect this admirable, if rather unadventurous, political stance.
There is a subset of Lumet's socially conscious films, however, that is harder edged and perhaps more personal. The plight of the informer in
Prince of the City, he admits, directly reflects his memories of the panic and moral ambivalence of the McCarthy era.
Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, and The Verdict
all concern men who summon great courage to challenge the system and in doing so make themselves social pariahs. In each case the central character is isolated in a pool of silence throughout much of the story, apparently alone in believe his cause is just. Significantly, these four films also rank among Lumet's best in every way, from the directing to the acting, editing, photography, and writing. Lumet seems to be gradually lifting the veil on his radical past. His forthcoming production of
The Book of Daniel, a fictional account of the life and death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is apparently another step in this direction.
Like the chanteuse who sings best when conveying the emotion closest to her heart, Lumet returns to this
little-guy-against-the- system theme again and again because it apparently expresses his own self-image: the New York filmmaker in an industry dominated by Hollywood, the successful director snubbed by the critics, the teller of truths no one wants to hear.
This is exactly the kind of notion Lumet is loath to discuss. He claims that he doesn't go in for self-analysis, and he denounces as "bullshit" and "gossip" what he calls "the personal movie," which he describes as opening "with a copy of Dostoevski on the coffee table so you know that Dostoevski means something to the moviemaker." But after much bluster he finally admits to an autobiographical element in his work.
"For me," he says slowly, choosing each word carefully, "that personal struggle toward self-knowledge in a world that doesn't help you to it is there all the time."
For someone so outspoken, Lumet sometimes has an odd tendency to make direct and personal statements, but then back away from them or cover them up. When it affects his work, this tendency is most unfortunate. For instance,
The Verdict seems to contemplate Big Ideas like self-redemption and faith, yet in conversation Lumet plays down the
religious implications of the term "self-redemption" and the political value the movie ascribes to "faith." The film seems to question the trustworthiness of doctors, judges, and priests, and to come down in favor of "the people." Yet not much is made of this; both in the film and in conversation, Lumet appears more eager to concentrate on the obligatory love interest, the weakest part of the story.
This is, perhaps, his hedge against pretentiousness. "I don't want to pour ten quarts of water into a two-quart pail," he likes to say. It could simply comes from the fact that Lumet is not a literary man; he's an actor by instinct rather than a scholar skilled in sophisticated discourse. Or could it be a function of his unresolved conflict -- a "personal struggle toward self-knowledge" -- about expressing bluntly radical politics?
Lumet's politics have irritated critics on the lookout for sentimental leftism, and may partially explain their animus. In a review of
Dog Day Afternoon, Andrew Sarris complained that bank robbers Al Pacino and John Cazale are sympathetically treated. "The crooks are cuddly, and the honest citizens are boobs and bores and bullies," wrote Sarris. "Lumet has crossed the line between compassion and complicity."
One critic who consistently pans Lumet's films is Pauline Kael, who painted a personally devastating portrait of Lumet in her notorious account of the making of
The Group. Among her comments: "Lumet is a man with a bad ear for dialogue and no eye...He seems to have almost no intellectual curiosity... He hears what he wants to...he doesn't respond to what doesn't immediately relate to his own interests...Lumet, after nine movies, still directs one-dimensionally."
"I antagonize them both," Lumet says of Sarris and Kael. "I think it's that I won't be put into the mold of their expectations. I have seen more good talent ruined by trying to live up to an idea of itself. That's why Pauline Kael and I are such enemies. She was wonderful to me in the beginning, but she had some idea of me I wasn't very interested in."
The real rift between Lumet and Kael came on "a very difficult evening" when the two of them got involved in one of those boring conversations about the function of a critic. "There were two other people present," Lumet recalls, "and she said to them, 'My job is to show him' -- pointing to me -- 'which direction to go in.' I looked at her and said, 'You've got to be kidding.' She said, 'No, I'm not.' I said, 'In other words, you want the creative experience without the creative risk.' And that was it. She's never written a good word about me since."
Sarris, according to Lumet, expects from him "an identifiable piece of work.
He would like to be able to sit in a room, see forty pictures of which four are mine, and without knowing who directed them be able to say, 'Those four were Lumet's pictures.' Well, you could not put together the director of
Prince of the City and Murder on the Orient
Express. You'd never say they came from the same man! The point is, I have a million reasons for doing different movies. I once did a movie because I was having trouble making the transition from black and white to color and had a chance to work with a cameraman who I knew could get me past my block. I did
Murder on the Orient Express because I love melodrama. That's all. I wanted to have fun. It turned out to be some of the hardest work I've ever done, because the piece was highly stylized, but
Network would never have been as good as it was if I hadn't done
Murder on the Orient Express."
Lumet props his feet up on his desk and lights another Camel. "I consider my career -- and this could be the most pretentious thing of all, I don't know -- an ongoing process. I don't know how good I am. I know I'm good, but I don't know how good. And I'm not going to find out unless I keep pushing against the borders. The borders are my borders. They can't be Andrew Sarris's borders, they can't be Pauline Kael's borders. They can't belong to anyone but me."
A more practical obstacle (than the critics) to getting Lumet's kinds of movies made is Hollywood's apparent reluctance right now to finance serious dramatic films. "Last year," Lumet points out,
"Prince did not make money, True Confessions did not make money,
Reds did not, Ragtime did not, Whose Life Is it Anyway? did not. There's some good work there;
True Confessions is a hell of a movie. So I think they're going to shy away from dramatic material. In many ways, there's a lot more going on in TV than in movies. I can't see any movie company having done
Roots or Holocaust. I don't know, we may have to resort to a kind of off-Broadway movie."
How would that work? "Nobody would take anything, you'd distribute it yourselves, and you wouldn't go to the majors for financing. Their distribution is lousy anyway, and their advertising is worse. The bookkeeping makes percentages almost meaningless, which means that above-the-line people want it up front, including myself. I did a picture once that cost $3.2 million and grossed $17 million; I had ten percent of the profits and my first check was for $10,000. The company was telling me, 'You're a schmuck.' They're not interested in longevity, you see. They're just interested in this year's report to the stockholders. I'm very pessimistic."
You would never guess that by looking at his immediate future. On his desk is a first draft of David Mamet's screenplay about
Malcolm X, which Lumet hopes to direct for Warner Bros. with Richard Pryor in the lead. Before that, he will do a picture called
Kingdom about television evangelism. The project at hand,
Daniel, Lumet submitted thirty-seven times to various studios before finally getting backing last spring. "It's something I've been trying to do for twelve years," he says. "It's the best screenplay I've ever had -- Doctorow did it -- and it's the best cast I've ever had." He grins. "The only one who can fuck it up now is me."
Are there any other pet projects that may come to fruition within the next ten or twelve years? "Listen," says Lumet, "if I can get these three done, I may just take my pension."
Somehow, that doesn't sound very likely. Lumet's favorite play is Chekhov's The Seagull
-- he ranks his film of it among his best -- and he says he identifies with each character. Presumably that means there's a little bit in him of Trigorin, the successful hack novelist; Constantine, the earnest, uncertainly talented young playwright who years to make Art; Arkadina, the famous actress who, oblivious to her own affectations, rails against pretentiousness; and Medvedenko, the schoolteacher who's such a mediocrity that no one takes him seriously. But Lumet's attitude toward making movies probably comes closest to the sentiment expressed by Nina, the young actress who refuses to become a symbolic victim, like the seagull is. "I understand now," she says at the end of the play, "that in our work what's important is not fame, not glory, not the things I used to dream of, but the ability to endure." One can imagine that in ten or twenty years, when all the moguls Lumet disdains have retired with their fortunes, he will still be working, still making movies that matter.
American Film, December 1982)