Sidney Lumet was one of the greatest chroniclers of New York City. Films like “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” serve as gripping time capsules to the five borough’s mean old, pre-gentrified, “Ford to the City: Drop Dead” days, when crime was on the rise and the population on the decline.
But while Lumet has been praised for his depiction of urban life, he doesn’t rank among top auteurs such as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. He wasn’t splashy enough. He was too prolific. He was more work horse than show horse.
“By Sidney Lumet” may put the lie to those assessments. The gripping new documentary from Nancy Buirski (“The Loving Story”) opens in limited release this Friday and puts the focus squarely on Lumet. There are no talking heads. No testimonials from the actors he worked with, his directing cohorts, or family members. It’s just Lumet, discussing his upbringing, influences, and, most importantly, the work. Here, Buirski deftly interjects clips from Lumet’s filmography, and shows the way that both the justly praised films like “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” and “Network,” as well as more dimly remembered masterworks such as “The Hill,” show an artist grappling with issues of morality and justice.
Her accomplishment is all the more impressive because Buirski joined “By Sidney Lumet” late in the game. The interview was conducted by Danny Anker for “American Masters” some three years before Lumet died in 2011. Anker died of lymphoma in 2014, and it fell to Buirski to piece together the project. She spoke with Variety about Lumet’s legacy, his work ethic, and his mutable style.
Why did you decide to chose to focus on Lumet’s own words and thoughts instead of interviewing collaborators like Sean Connery or Al Pacino?
We had this rare opportunity. Sidney is speaking in such depth and in such breadth about his work. It was so exciting to hear his feelings and to listen to him talk about what mattered to him. As I watched the 14 hours of interviews, there was this kind of through line that came into place. There was a personal history that came through and you could see how growing up poor on the Lower East Side in a strict Jewish household, where he learned about political protests and where he developed his work ethic, you could see how that informed his work.
What would you identify as the through line or the connective tissue between, say, “Prince of the City” or “Serpico” or “The Verdict”?
There’s a morality in his greatest films that resonates deeply and that comes from those early experiences growing up. He says in the interview that I was not directing movies in order to share a moral message, and yet you feel a moral message coming through. There’s a moment in the film where he talks about being a young man and watching what is essentially a gang rape at train station in India and being powerless to stop it. If he’d stepped in, for all practical purposes, it could have meant the end of his life. So that event frames his work. It’s about how do you lead a righteous life? How do you stand up to mobs and to injustice?
Some critics derided Lumet as a workmanlike director who lacked a signature style. Was that fair?
I don’t think he would argue that he didn’t have a signature style. Every film had its own individual style. He’d figure out the essence of the story and then let the style follow from there.
Lumet made over 40 films during his career, sometimes directing two movies a year. Why was he so prolific?
That goes back to the work ethic he learned at home. From the age of five, he was working in Yiddish theater. In the film he remembers his father saying, you work, that’s what you do. I don’t think he ever felt comfortable going too long without working. As soon as he completed a film, he’d be on to his next project. Inevitably there were some flops. For every successful film there were three flops. With the ones that worked, he was happy, not because of his reputation, but because it meant that he could get more films financed and could keep working.
In the movie, Lumet talks about fearing that he wasn’t a good parent to his children. Why was that such a source of concern to him?
I’m not sure he needed to worry. If you talk to Jenny Lumet, his daughter, she says he was a wonderful father who was very present in their lives.
The issues of fathers and and sons did come up quite a bit in the interview. It’s startling how important the relationship with his father was. He doesn’t talk at all about his mother, but here he is, an 80-year-old man, and he’s still trying to suss out that relationship. He idolized his father. His father was a very fine actor and a well respected teacher, and Sidney was such a practical and intelligent man that I think he felt he might not have had this wonderful life had he not grown up under his father’s tutelage.
What surprised you the most about Lumet?
I was amazed to discover all these films that maybe did not do well, but that I think are amazing works. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a really important work. “The Seagull” is an incredible rendering of a play that can be very difficult to adapt, but he does a terrific job with it. “A View From the Bridge” is a masterpiece. There are a lot of films that have disappeared that I’m hoping will be rediscovered.