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Director Sidney Lumet is Dead

Cornerstone of American cinema won’t have to take it anymore

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(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

If you don’t, as I don’t, pay much attention to movie credits, the Saturday death of Sidney Lumet comes in two stages: You’re sad, then shocked. Sad, because you have fond memories of one of his movies, maybe 12 Angry Men, or Network—and then shocked, because you read the list of all the other incredible movies (Serpico, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Murder on the Orient Express) you loved, and forgot were his. The movies themselves, however, are haunting and unforgettable.

Lumet, born in 1924, got his start at age 4 when he first acted on stage with his father at the Yiddish Art Theater. Both his parent’s were Yiddish actors, but his family life was tough—his father was abusive and rarely worked.

“The Yiddish theater was well past its great days.” Lumet explained, “He was a very talented actor, but he had an accent — a heavy accent, Polish — so he never could work on Broadway. And eating was a problem for a long time, until I began working steadily on Broadway.”

After leaving the Yiddish stage, he made it on Broadway. His second role on Broadway was The Eternal Road, a musical Jewish history by Kurt Weill and directed by Max Reinhardt. He described it, in a must watch New York Times video, as “really very important to me creatively. It taught me the joy of work.”

His work’s deep humanism, and his talent for coaxing great performances from actors, gave him enormous flexibility of subject-matter. His films could take place entirely in a cramped jury room, or deal with world wide nuclear war. His Pawnbroker was one of the earliest American films to deal with the Holocaust. He also had some flops—The Wiz being the most infamous,—and was repeatedly nominated for, and then denied Oscars, until he received one for lifetime achievement in 2005.

In a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone, Lumet looked back at his 1973 masterpiece Serpico and said “[Al Pacino's] Frank Serpico is a New York cop protesting cop corruption. Protesting is what mattered to him. That got to me. I was brought up Orthodox. The Jewish ethic is stern, moralistic. I thought like that very early.”

“Time to teach” in The Pawnbroker (1964)

Sidney Lumet, Director of ‘Serpico,’ Dies at 86 [NYT]
The Last Word: Sidney Lumet [NYT]
The King of New York: Rolling Stone’s 2008 Feature on Sidney Lumet [Rolling Stone]
Legendary Director Sidney Lumet Dies at 86 [The Wrap]

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I saw him speak in 1982. He said that about one of every three of his films was a labor of love, and that the rest were done for money so that the studios would greenlight his personal projects. He classified Murder on the Orient Express among the latter, calling it ‘fluff’.

Also was father to the beautiful writer and actress, Jenny Lumet, granddaughter of Lena Horne and screenwriter of Rachel Getting Married.

Correction, saw him speak in 1986.

Dan Klein says:

fw you’re such a softy

Jello, really. But for the sake of being a little more acerbic, my one issue with a lot of Lumet films is that they can be a little schematic. There’s no ambiguity over where Lumet’s sympathies; he tends to celebrate the powerless standing up to the powerful.

Network isn’t cut and dried, but that’s Paddy Chayefsky.

Gibson Block says:

I still enjoy 12 Angry Men.

When I saw Murder on The Orient Express, ages ago, I thought it was worse than fluff. It was awful fluff.

Serpico was watchable but I didn’t think it was great. I haven’t seen it for years so maybe I’d change my mind if I saw it again. Likewise with Network.

Dog Day Afternoon was pretty interesting.

I’ve never seen The Pawnbroker though I know how famous it was.

Dog Day Afternoon is amazing! So are Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict. Even in his less impressive movies, he was great with actors. (That’s why I have a soft spot for Murder on the Orient Express — the actors seem to be having a great time; they have exactly the right attitude for the material.)

Also, bigtime Jewy connection: His parents were Yiddish theater vets, and according to Yiddishist/klezmer singer Elizabeth Schwartz, Lumet’s own stage debut was as a small child in “Der Payets” at the Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue. He sang the Yiddish classic Papirosn (“cigarettes”). When he was 11, he appeared in a short film with the same title.


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Director Sidney Lumet is Dead

Cornerstone of American cinema won’t have to take it anymore

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