He was one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.
In a 50-year career, from 1957 to 2007, he made 44 films, earning four Oscar nominations and winning an honorary Academy Award in 2005.
“All I was ever interested in was the next job,” he says in Nancy Buirski’s documentary, American Masters: By Sidney Lumet, which will be broadcast on the PBS network on Tuesday, January 3 at 8 p.m. (check local listings).
Having grown up in a struggling immigrant Jewish family, Lumet (1924-2011) always knew he could not take financial stability for granted. It had to be earned, assignment by assignment.
Lumet’s climb to Hollywood was circuitous.
He was a child actor in New York City’s Yiddish theater before appearing in a few forgettable B-movies in the 1930s. Doffing his U.S. army uniform after returning home from World War II, he segued into television production, directing 60 to 70 shows a year in one frenetic cycle.
Once he drifted into film, he never looked back, continuing his scorching pace until almost the end of his life.
Buirski’s documentary is heavily reliant on a 2008 interview in which Lumet reflects on his life. Clips from his most notable films, including The Pawnbroker, Network and Dog Day Afternoon, round it out.
Lumet’s youth figures prominently in his ruminations. His father, Baruch, a Polish Jew, was an actor on the Yiddish stage and the host of a Yiddish radio show. During this period, Lumet landed minor roles in slapdash Hollywood films. “It was all about feeding the family,” he recalls.
At one seemingly auspicious juncture, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer personally offered Lumet a lucrative contract, only to renege on it at the last moment.
Lumet appeared in 14 Broadway plays, mostly flops, but liked these gigs immensely. “It kept me off the streets,” he says.
Lumet got off to a fine start as a film director. His first picture, 12 Angry Men, heralded the arrival of a promising talent whose movies would be imbued with a sense of realism and morality.
These characteristics are markedly present in Serpico, starring Al Pacino as a honest cop battling corruption and questioning authority, and The Verdict, featuring Paul Newman as a small-time lawyer fighting injustice.
One of his most powerful movies, The Pawnbroker, starred Rod Steiger as a German Holocaust survivor.
Interestingly enough, Lumet considers Daniel, a commercial and critical failure which dealt with the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg affair, one of his best films.
During the course of this revealing documentary, Lumet discusses his political beliefs (he was a left-winger), his modus operandi as a filmmaker (he’s most interested in the emotional aspects of a screenplay rather than its plot), and his opinion of actors (he respected Pacino, among others).
Lumet was a major figure in Hollywood, and this documentary pays him the recognition he deserves.