Early in 1958, Sidney Lumet directed me in a live TV production of Hemingway’s short story, Fifty Grand, starring Ralph Meeker; I was still 18, and it was a bit part: in the boxing sequences, I was the kid who walked around the edge of the ring, holding up a sign of which round it was. As a director, I noticed, Sidney moved fast, in complete control of the set. Everybody—cast or crew alike—were all “darling,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “baby” to Sidney. He was very New York theatrical—having made his stage debut at age four—acting on Broadway and at the Yiddish Theatre, he learned on his feet what actors go through, what they need and what they don’t need. Sidney was also very precise; he knew exactly how the scene would cut together, and therefore shot only what he needed, without covering himself with alternate cutting possibilities. (All those hundreds of hours of live television he directed didn’t hurt for experience in quick decision-making and urgency.) In the business, it’s called “cutting in the camera”, and it’s practically unheard of today. Sidney was perhaps the last survivor of the classic techniques that were common to most directors in the studio system: John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock —antipodes as artists—both cut in the camera. So did Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.
Sidney also, like Ford, made it clear to actors that he expected to get the shot within two or three takes, preferably on the first. Lumet knew that actors are at their freshest early on; he used to say that filmmakers who needed 30 or 40 takes simply didn’t know what they wanted. As in the theatre (Lumet directed on Broadway), Sidney liked to rehearse for a week or two, which, he said, enabled him to move quickly during shooting. It was common for Lumet to come in under schedule and under budget. This ability made him a desirable directorial presence into his 83rd year, and he died a few days ago at 86, so he was able to keep going non-stop making features ever since his formidable big screen debut, 12 Angry Men, in 1957. Along the way, he directed a considerable number of now iconic pictures, such as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network. But there were numerous films of his that didn’t achieve as much notoriety which were as good if not better than the hits: Paul Newman’s best performance in The Verdict, River Phoenix’ and Martha Plimpton’s precious work in Running on Empty are just the first that spring to mind, and Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda in The Morning After. Sidney remained as vigorous and controlled on his last film, that terrific 2007 thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, as he had been exactly a half century before on his first. Over those 50 years, his pictures accumulated over 50 Academy Award Nominations, including five for Sidney as best director. The Directors Guild nominated him seven times and gave him their highest lifetime award, the D.W. Griffith Memorial (now renamed; more on that anon). The French government designated him a Commander of Arts and Letters. In 2005, he was given a Special Oscar for his life’s achievement.
Sidney was the first director I ever interviewed—in June, l960—for Film Quarterly magazine; he had only done four films, including the explosive Marlon Brando-Anna Magnani-Tennessee Williams picture, The Fugitive Kind, but was already a serious force in movies. Thirty-five years later, to bring his interview up to date for my book, Who the Devil Made It, we talked again. And it was as though we had spoken just a few days ago—it’s a show-biz thing—leading such gypsy lives, time becomes more relative and troupers may not have seen each other in years, but they’re still in show business so nothing’s really changed. Sidney was the youngest of the 16 directors whose interviews are included in my Devil book, among them, Hitchcock, Hawks, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and naturally he was the last to pass away. With him went a master storyteller and a grand inspiration to actors. He was also a kind and caring person, and a pro who really knew how to make pictures, as further proven by his exceptional handbook, Making Movies. Sidney created a number that will last. He and his abilities will be sorely missed.