DATELINE: Basic Workhorse
His documentary is standard, if not dull, with Sidney Lumet alone talking to the camera. No other interviews interrupt his self-analysis, though it is interspersed with dozens of clips from his many notable films.
As you might have guessed by the end of the film, Lumet never won a best director Oscar—not that it’s an omission of the prodigious output of his career.
Starting out as a child actor on Broadway (an arch-rival to Frankie Thomas), he tried Hollywood as a child star, but MGM dropped him soon enough. However, Lumet loved acting and being around creative people. He loved to work, and his father Baruch Lumet was a soap opera radio actor as well. It was a short jump to stay with theater as a director as Sidney grew up.
He started at the top in movies, directing the extraordinary all-star, movie called Twelve Angry Men with Henry Fonda about a claustrophobic jury. From there he worked steadily with great stars in less than commercial properties, from Katharine Hepburn to Brando, in their least successful box-office films of the era.
Each film he made was literate, thought-provoking, and from all genres. Few recall he directed Michael Jackson in The Wiz—and Richard Burton in Equus. Fonda again in Fail-Safe. He brought out bravura performances by Rod Steiger in Pawnbroker, and Paul Newman in the Verdict. He made diverse movies like The Hill (Sean Connery) and Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney). He made Dog Day Afternoon like a newsreel with Al Pacino and made a hilarious black comedy with gay themes called Deathtrap with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. All brilliant.
As each amazing movie is catalogued, Lumet dismisses his interest in morality, his love of New York, and his nearly Calvinistic religious fervor for work above all else.
Yet, we realized half-way into the documentary that we never truly loved any of his films. They won our respect, and caught our attention always. However, there was no overpowering sense of directoral style, which may not be bad. He knew how to handle a story and its stars.
If there is an ultimate response to him, we feel regret that he did not receive enough acclaim from us.