A necessity for anyone interested in analyzing Lumet’s work or those just interested in watching good films.
Dog Day Afternoon. Serpico. Network. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Looking over Sidney Lumet’s 50-year career as a director of both television and movies showcases a remarkable talent whose films promoted inner morality and social awareness. After passing in 2011, Lumet’s work is open to reevaluation, leaving critics stymied to label a director who acknowledges he never developed a particular style. Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet focuses on the man and his work, giving the audience a taste of the director’s phenomenal body of work and a brief glimpse into the master’s mind at work.
Broken into specific themes as opposed to a chronological overview of the director’s life leaves insight into his personality limited. With the man controlling his own narrative, it leads to a myopic worldview, but that’s why it’s called “By” Sidney Lumet. Lumet doesn’t go deeply into his own demons, if they exist at all. He questions whether his children felt slighted because of his workaholic scheduling and if he was really “there” for them; however, he admits he never asked them, so it’s impossible to know for sure. The focus remains on the work and the directorial authority by which Lumet steers everything.
Like the director at its center, Buirski’s film is a self-portrait free of artifice and the theatrical trappings of cinema. Filmed against a black background, Lumet talks about his life and films as if the audience is sitting in a college classroom listening to him lecture. Film clips are liberally placed throughout to connect back to various themes and talking points that Lumet acknowledges subconsciously crops up in his work.
Born and raised poor in the streets of Philadelphia, it’s easy to understand Lumet’s attraction to working class men and rebels. By Sidney Lumet charts his upbringing and struggles growing up during the Depression. A contract renegotiation with actor Freddie Bartholomew gave Lumet a brief shot at MGM stardom, something his actor father Baruch boasted about with pride, envy and spite. Helping us ascertaining where Lumet’s interest in the fractured relationships between fathers and sons – seen in the likes of Running On Empty and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – comes from, Lumet admits he was at odds with his father but eager for his respect.
The road most obviously well-tread involves the Hollywood blacklist. Lumet’s directorial career began right in the thick of it, and he elaborates on how the House Un-American Activities Committee shaped his films. His work on the Alcoa Hour and especially the 1983 film Daniel comment on the lives destroyed by blacklisting and how easy it would be to return to those dark days.
Because the film is economical in its focus, it leaves the entire affair at a remove. Lumet weaves stories effortlessly, unsurprising considering he wrote the book on the subject of making movies. But because he’s the driving force with no outside talking heads, the entire documentary is too breezy. Weird musical cues also punctuate certain scenes in a work that, for 98% of its runtime, lacks a soundtrack.
By Sidney Lumet is a necessity for anyone interested in analyzing Lumet’s work or those just interested in watching good films. Lumet discusses each film and its grander context, turning the entire documentary into a series of commentaries that are incisive despite the brevity of focus. Lumet died just three years after being interviewed, and the finished product comes five years after his death, so there’s no greater time (or political context) by which to (re)discover his films than now.