In “By Sidney Lumet,” a documentary portrait of the late director who was one of the defining filmmakers of the ’70s — but whose ability to charge a scene with dark moral turbulence and excitement was right there, from his first feature, “12 Angry Men,” in 1957 — Lumet tells an extraordinarily candid story about an event that shaped and changed his entire worldview. He was a young man in the military, in Calcutta, when he saw that a group of his fellow soldiers were inside a train compartment sexually abusing a young girl. “Do I do anything about this?” he thought. He knew the answer was yes, that he should try to stop this hideous crime, but he lacked the courage to do so. Instead of acting, he simply let it happen.
To any Lumet watcher, it’s obvious that the story fuses with themes that run through his work: the preoccupation with corruption, the moral necessity of action, the gnawing worm of guilt. (The rebel hero who is often at the center of his films may, in hindsight, be the person he wished he was.) Yet Lumet keeps circling back to the incident, and by the end he has revealed its deeper meaning. He says that if he had acted, he thinks those men might have tossed him off the train — that he would have been risking his life. When he confesses that, it fills in something essential about the power of Lumet’s artistry. In film after film, he took human encounters (all kinds) and suffused them with a do-or-die intensity that seared the air. He made scene after scene a matter of life and death.
“By Sidney Lumet” is one of the rare documentaries produced for the “American Masters” series on PBS that is also receiving a theatrical release, and that may be because it’s different in kind. It’s no insult to the “American Masters” films, many of which are superb documents, to say that most of them have a formatted quality; they are state-of-the-art versions of by-the-book biographical portraiture. “By Sidney Lumet” creates a much more intimate focus. It’s built around an extensive interview with Lumet that was recorded in 2008, three years before his death, and the filmmaker’s narration of his life and art is literally the only commentary in the movie. There are no other talking heads, no “Here’s what it was like to work with Sidney” anecdotes from Al Pacino or Faye Dunaway or Sean Connery or Ethan Hawke, no tales from movie executives (or harried cinematographers) about his legendary speedy work habits. The movie is simply Lumet and his films, which turns out to be an astonishingly satisfying experience, because he’s an incredible talker, with the same earthy electric push that powers his work.
If you’re a Lumet fan, it’s tempting to track how his early black-and-white films from the ’50s and ’60s, when he emerged out of the first renaissance era of television, sync up thematically with his later work. The Henry Fonda character in “12 Angry Men,” say — the only holdout, in a jury room, for a verdict of innocent, who must convince his fellow jurors that there’s reasonable doubt — is an obvious precursor to a character like Frank Serpico: the lone-wolf cop as whistleblower. But as I watched the scenes from Lumet’s films that Nancy Buirski, the director of “By Sidney Lumet,” has so artfully woven together, something I didn’t expect hit me with the force of revelation. To me, early Lumet and ’70s Lumet have always seemed as different as early and late Beatles. But the way the clips line up here, we see the psychodramatic depth charge that unites them.
From first film to last, there’s a startling continuity of mood, rhythm, and no-frills visual intimacy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re watching Ralph Richardson speak Eugene O’Neill’s gin-and-sadness-soaked dialogue from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962), or Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani give in to the desperation of tawdry erotic hunger in “The Fugitive Kind” (1960), or Fonda’s U.S. president call on every fiber of his humanity to avert a nuclear war in “Fail Safe” (1964), or a bedraggled Pacino hoarsely declare his forbidden love in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), or Paul Newman give a jury summation that is really his own bid to crawl out of the muck in “The Verdict” (1982), or Philip Seymour Hoffman break down over his father in a tearful rage in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007): In each scene, we’re brought into a mesmerizing communion with the characters before us. Even Lumet’s ’50s TV work had this quality; in a way, his entire aesthetic can be linked back to the existential sensation of live television. Lumet wasn’t a Catholic (he grew up in the immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York during the Depression), but over and over he stages scenes that carry the catharsis of confession. In “Network,” which “By Sidney Lumet” rightly salutes as one of his crowning achievements, the vision was Paddy Chayefsky’s, but you feel that Lumetian intensity in his staging of Ned Beatty’s the-world-is-a-big-corporation speech, which is lit, shot, and paced so that it has the kick of a mule.
Part of the pleasure of “By Sidney Lumet” is that Lumet, who was a very spry 83 when this interview was conducted, is such a joyful and articulate analyst of his own work. He explains a lot when he says: “I’m not directing the moral message. I’m directing that piece and those people. And if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” He grew up as a child actor in the Yiddish theater (of which his father, also an actor, was a major star), and he became an original member of the Actors’ Studio. But he was thrown out of Lee Strasberg’s elite Method club for suggesting other approaches to acting — the first sign, perhaps, that he was meant to be a director. He avoided the blacklist mostly by not doing anything too political. It was working in television that made Lumet happy; working, period, made him happy, which may be why he chimed with the business side of Hollywood as well as any director from the old studio system. In a funny way, that’s just what he was: an artist who viewed himself as a hired hand, and who infused the Lumet vision into things almost between the lines.
Yet Lumet believed in most of the films he signed on for. He directed 44 features in 50 years, never once winning the Academy Award for best director (a scandalous distinction he shares with Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick), and he tended to regard even his duds as children, worthy of love. That’s one downside to Buirski’s approach: “By Sidney Lumet” gives you no sense that “The Wiz” really was a top-heavy clunker, or that “Daniel,” though it probably overlapped with Lumet’s autobiography more than any other movie he made, was squishy and overblown because Lumet, dramatizing E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalized version of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, did succumb to directing the moral message. Overall, though, treating Lumet’s films as “equals” feels true to the way he made them. For Lumet, each labor of directing was an act of life, and that’s why what he did — though less visible than other artists’ signatures — was really the quintessence of filmmaking. He took the audience out of themselves, and let them revel in the white heat of the moment.