5 Lessons from the Work of Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet, director of such masterpieces as 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict passed away this weekend. S.T. Vanairsdale was quick to report on the life lessons we can all learn from his work:

1. First impressions are everything
Contemporary filmmakers could learn a lot from Lumet’s openings, the most expressive of which feature long, gradual shots working from the outside in. Sometimes this is literal; take 12 Angry Men, which marvelously sets up the entire narrative in about seven shots — a courthouse exterior to a young murder defendant’s close-up — before getting to the opening credits. The effect compels viewers to digest the stakes while entering the deliberation room with the jurors. Subtle stuff, but utterly standard-defying for its time.

On other occasions the outside-in technique is more figurative. For my money, Lumet never surpassed the opening credits of The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, a washed-up, ambulance-chasing attorney gripped by a crisis of conscience. Dollying in to Newman’s profile — virtually a silhouette to start — Lumet gradually blocks out Galvin’s pinball game, beer mug and cigarette distractions, leaving only a pub-cloistered nobody against the chilly backdrop of winter. The intrigue is instant. (And who needs credits music, anyway?)

2. All you need is a table.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. From the start, Lumet went simpler: Just sit some excellent actors down at a table with a good script, and get out of the way. “But how is that directing?” one might ask. It’s all in the set-up, as evidenced by these three diverse, extraordinary scenes from Network, The Verdict, Running on Empty — to say nothing of 12 Angry Men.

3. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go for it.
Speaking of openings, Lumet shocked everyone with the introductory scene of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei’s characters in some pretty heated sexual throes. Discussing the unexpectedly graphic (for a Lumet film, anyway) sequence in 2007, the director simply explained to press at the New York Film Festival that the scene needed to look and feel real, and the only way to accomplish that was to just shoot it as such. Nothing if not practical, Lumet later elaborated to an interviewer about his purpose:

“That’s what changes his life,” referring to Hoffman’s character, a morally bankrupt money manager. “It’s not just a question of fancy fucking. It’s a question of the ability to take pleasure in something away from the reality of his life, and from now on he’s on a quest to change the reality of his life to see if he can get the things he wants. What does he want? He wants that kind of freedom sexually. He wants an apartment like his dope dealer’s. Those are his values. And a lot of destruction happens as he tries to reach them.” […]

4. Location, location, location
For better or worse, nobody deployed New York and its environs more prodigiously than Sidney Lumet. Specifically, for better, check out the variety and precision of locations selected for his epic NYPD corruption biopic Prince of the City, including rural homes, ferries, courthouses, restaurants, hotels, beaches, bathrooms, phone booths and seemingly every conference room and/or office in Lower Manhattan. To all you aspiring directors, production designers and location scouts, this is how it’s done. […]

5. Be adaptable
Like many of his contemporaries, Lumet began his career directing television in the ’50s. The experience yielded a multitude of lessons that came in handy on movie sets, from creative camera set-ups for long takes to ingrained methods for economizing time and money. “Interestingly enough, I don’t mind limitations,” he wrote in Making Movies. “Sometimes they even stimulate you to better, more imaginative work. A spirit may develop among the crew and cast that adds to the passion of the movie, and this can show up on-screen.”

See the complete article for accompanying video clips from each of the mentioned films.

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