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12 April 2011updated 14 Sep 2021 3:50pm

Gilbey on Film: Sidney Lumet

The American New Wave and rubber-ducky explanations.

By Ryan Gilbey

Sidney Lumet died on April 9, aged 86. Having already established a career in television, theatre and cinema, he stood apart from the American New Wave iconoclasts like Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola, even as he directed films that would help characterise that movement — his two collaborations with Al Pacino, Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), in particular.

Among the qualities that differentiated him were the patience and watchfulness that could make possible films as concentrated, and as meticulous in their analysis of suffering, as The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Hill (1965). A Bout de soufflé was the film to be mimicking around this time, but there was nothing Godardian about these pictures; Lumet was Old Hollywood, and if the popular line is that he fell into step with the young blades, it seems more plausible that his concerns and preoccupations happened to coincide for a few years with the counter-culture. There was always the feeling that he was going his own way. Occasionally he would catch a mood; more often not. So what?

He experimented and got it wrong sometimes — in his excellent, honest book Making Movies he identified and lamented the contradictory impulses at play in his 1974 film of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, how self-defeating it was to put so much labour into trying to make a film feel light and fun.

His early pictures, which also included 12 Angry Men (1957) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) must have looked unfashionable, even stilted, by the time Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde were running rings around Hollywood in the late 1960s. In the introduction to his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind asserts that Lumet was a “journeyman” director who was a beneficiary of the American New Wave — it “brought out the best” in him. Well, a director can also be an opportunist; there’s no shame in that. And doubtless the lenient climate in Hollywood in the early 1970s made possible those films with Pacino.

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But a journeyman? Unfair, I think. Lumet trod a lot of water. But he walked on it too. The films I go back to are The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Offence (1971), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City (1980), Running On Empty (1987) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). (I also have a soft spot for his larky 1986 thriller The Morning After, in which Jane Fonda plays an L.A. soak who wakes up next to a corpse, and there are some exceptional passages in the 1982, David Mamet-scripted The Verdict.) Wouldn’t you forgive an Equus (1977), a Deathtrap (1982), or even The Wiz (1978), if it meant you got a Dog Day Afternoon?

There’s nothing controversial about naming that film as your favourite of Lumet’s work. Admittedly, some will prefer Network (1976), but that seems to me overrun by the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s hectoring moral pronouncements, and pleased with itself in a way which is untypical of Lumet. In Dog Day Afternoon, the power feels unforced, and any commentary entirely implicit. The shifts from farce to thriller, from love story to tragedy, are so deft that even after many viewings, you still can’t see the joins. The picture also shows Lumet’s characteristic alertness to space, and how it affects the audience (see also 12 Angry Men, The Offence and the otherwise lacklustre Deathtrap). The carnivalesque street scenes are beautifully played off against the claustrophobia of the bank and the barbershop. Most of all, the picture has a very seductive spontaneity and naturalness entirely at odds with the tension of its scenario. The absence of any score at all (most conspicuously in the shocking final scenes) is only one of the ways in which Lumet refrains from manipulating our reactions.

In Making Movies, he wrote very eloquently of his preference for allowing his characters to live in the moment, without presenting a loaded case for the defence on their behalf:

“In the early days of television, when the “kitchen sink” school of realism held sway, we always reached a point where we “explained” the character. Around two-thirds of the way through, someone articulated the psychological truth that made the character the person he was. [Paddy] Chayefsky and I used to call this the “rubber-ducky” school of drama: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.” That was the fashion then, and with many producers and studios it still is. I always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behaviour as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations. If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character has been written.”