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Prince of the gritty

At 80, prolific Sidney Lumet still drawn to conflicted everymen

No one who loves movies can quarrel with the depth and breadth of Sidney Lumet’s career. Long before Martin Scorsese became synonymous with Gotham’s mean streets, Lumet was the quintessential New York filmmaker, grappling with issues of corruption and redemption among conflicted, working-class heroes. In his best work, the schism between personal morality and accepted codes of honor often placed his protagonists at odds with the system, and these loners have become indelibly etched in the collective conscience.

Since 1957, when he came out of live television to direct Henry Fonda in the film “12 Angry Men,” Lumet has made, on average, nearly one film a year. Some years he made more: Six of his films were released between 1973-76, including “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network” — a brilliant streak by any standard.

Now that the Academy has at last conferred its career achievement award on Lumet, those of us who have long loved his astonishingly versatile work might well grumble, “What took so long?”

Yet the honor finds him working harder than ever at 80. Lumet is editing his 44th feature, “Bad Guys,” starring Vin Diesel. His manner is so shot through with energy and curiosity it’s easy to imagine, in coming decades, that we might look back and realize Oscar only caught up with him at midlife, in midcareer.

“What could be nicer,” Lumet laughs, “than saying ‘It’s a wrap’ and then collapsing?”

He keeps fit by tackling the fast-changing nature of his craft with a ready appetite. “Bad Guys” (formerly titled “Find Me Guilty”) was filmed on high-definition video, a challenge for which Lumet trained while directing episodes of his recent TV series “100 Centre Street.”

In so doing, he felt a deja vu that hearkened to his 1950s apprenticeship with “Playhouse 90” and “The Alcoa Hour.” “I was able to revert to live-television techniques,” he says, “using three, sometimes four cameras — and this not only gave the show a visual quality I liked enormously, but is economical. Where most hourlong shows cost $2 million, we were bringing ours in for ($1.3 million).”

For “Bad Guys,” he used two cameras “because of the nature of the set. We’re talking 65, 66 pages in a courtroom. By getting both sides — of the questioner and the witness — in the same take, I was able to get an intensity in the performances that made me extremely happy. The actors didn’t have to keep refueling. They didn’t have to hold back. We certainly could’ve gotten that intensity using single-camera technique. I’ve done it many times in the past — but, the economy of it! A four-page witness scene could be done in two hours.”

Showbiz roots

Lumet’s life describes a learning curve. His father was Baruch Lumet, an actor in Yiddish theater, his mother the dancer Eugenia Wermus. They brought Sidney (born in 1924) into the family trade, originally as an actor. (One can glimpse him in the 1939 film “One Third of a Nation.”)

After four years in India and Burma during World War II, Lumet founded the Off Broadway theater group that brought him to the attention of both CBS and Henry Fonda, who threw his weight behind the helmer to secure the young man’s filmmaking debut. Ever since, Lumet has held to the underlying principles of theater — the foremost being that one best nourishes one’s story, one’s actors and one’s self as director through intensive preparation and (above all) rehearsal. Lumet details these working methods in his 1994 book, “Making Movies,” a superb primer that is essential reading for any would-be director.

Therein, he movingly describes Marlon Brando wrestling with a scene in “The Fugitive Kind” (1960), one in which the great actor kept stumbling painfully over a particular line in the Tennessee Williams text. The reasons for this were known only to Brando; Lumet easily grasped that there was some heartfelt, private trap under the words. His instinctive response was to refuse to intrude, either on Brando’s privacy or on his metaphorical workspace, by showily “giving direction.” Instead, Lumet kept his nerve and let the scene go to 37 takes (a normal number being two or three), and let the man unlock it for himself — a nurturing discretion that thereafter won Brando’s abiding trust.

Lumet then faced the opposite problem in Katharine Hepburn: a tigress he knew he would have to intrude upon to direct her landmark performance in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962). Here, rehearsals gave him ample (and more economical) time to play a different waiting game — to let Hepburn dominate him, and her part, until she wore herself out, and called to him in a soft voice from the far end of the rehearsal table: “Heeelp.”

Unlocking the Bond shackles

Sean Connery, who made five films with Lumet, is a hardcore partisan of such methods. “Everything Sidney established with me,” says the actor, “has influenced the work I’ve done elsewhere, on countless films.” Lumet and Connery first teamed on “The Hill” (1965), a heartbreaking study of men at war with themselves in a Sahara military prison.

Connery’s breakout performance under Lumet’s guidance gave him his first critical smash away from James Bond. Small surprise that they joined forces again and again, including “The Anderson Tapes” (1971); “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974); “Family Business” (1990); and “The Offense” (1973), a submerged masterwork in the careers of both men.

In “The Offense,” Connery plays a homicide detective who comes unglued in the course of a long interrogation of a suspected child killer played by Ian Bannen. The actor particularly treasures a compliment from John Huston, who pronounced its last 12 minutes to be some of the best filmmaking he’d ever seen.

“When I produced ‘Entrapment’ and ‘Finding Forrester,’ ” recalls Connery, “I worked very deliberately as Sidney does, keeping the writers onboard, providing for rehearsal. One reason Catherine Zeta-Jones is so marvelous in ‘Entrapment’ is that she was never out of the loop in terms of decisions made about her character.”

Academy president Frank Pierson — who wrote “The Anderson Tapes” and “Dog Day Afternoon” — happily remembers being “kept onboard” both times: “Sidney has a deep respect for both the text, and the actors who have to express that text. In bringing the two together, he makes it seem effortless, magical, as if you’re all being chauffeured in the loveliest Rolls-Royce. Most other directors are like great Italian race drivers: They go like hell, but run you off the road.”

Pierson is pleased to add, “We’ve got Clint in his 70s with ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ Alvin Sargent in his 70s writing ‘Spider-Man 2,’ Bob Altman directing an opera at 79 — and here’s Sidney at 80, still going strong, God bless him. Here in this Year of the Geezers, Sidney has outgeezered all of us.”

Does he watch his own films, now? “I don’t,” Lumet laughs, explaining: “First of all, you can’t do anything about them. It’s an exercise in frustration.” Another reason is that he persists in looking ahead.

Is there a professional secret to such long-standing vitality? “Wear white socks,” he jokes — a sartorial touch he picked up from years of closely observing cops at work. Seriously, “If there is a secret, all I can do is live it.”

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