‘By Sidney Lumet’: A conscientious filmmaking mensch, in his own words and images

November 2, 2016

“I love rebels,” filmmaker Sidney Lumet declares in Nancy Buirski’s new documentary, “By Sidney Lumet.”

Indeed, the documentary derived from a series of interviews with the Oscar-nominated director before his death reveals how his impoverished 1930s childhood in the Yiddishist-socialist milieu of New York’s Lower East Side informed his progressive outlook. Lumet (1924-2011) recalls how radical union activists battled against repressive employers in the neighborhood; how everyone in his small apartment bathed in a basin in the kitchen; and how his father, Baruch Lumet — a Yiddish theater star who performed a weekly Jewish soap opera on the socialist radio station WEVD — earned $35 a week to support their family through the Depression.

Baruch Lumet read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to his son in Yiddish before Sidney heard it in English. The younger Lumet joined his father on the Yiddish stage from the age of 5 and eventually became a child star on Broadway. He went on to serve as a radar technician in India and Burma during World War II before breaking into television and then feature films in the 1950s.

Lumet has been hailed as one of cinema’s most ethically obsessed directors, having created film after film probing the consequences of injustice and lone heroes who stand up against corruption. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called him “one of the last great movie moralists.”

Lumet’s first movie, “12 Angry Men” (1952), stars Henry Fonda as a determined juror who manages to convince his fellow jurors that a murder defendant is innocent. “Serpico” (1973) revolves around a police officer (Al Pacino) who refuses to take bribes and reveals widespread corruption in the New York Police Department. And “Network” (1976) spotlights a television anchor who rails against societal ills and famously proclaims, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), inspired by a true story, Lumet shifted his focus to follow an antihero, played by Pacino, who robs a bank in order to fund his lover’s sex change operation.

“By Sidney Lumet” started in 2008 when a producer of the PBS series “American Masters” asked producer-director Daniel Anker to conduct a lengthy interview with Lumet. After Anker died of complications of lymphoma in 2014, Buirski — who had previously created her documentary “Afternoon of a Faun” for “American Masters” — was brought in to edit Lumet’s 14-hour interview into a movie. Like Lumet, Buirski had a resume of socially conscious films, including her Emmy Award-winning 2011 documentary “The Loving Story” — about a besieged interracial relationship — which inspired Jeff Nichols’ new dramatic film, “Loving.”

Buirski decided to allow Lumet to tell his story in his own words — without any narration — interspersed with clips from his films and period photographs. The lengthy interview “was a great opportunity to let an artist talk about what matters to him, rather than a [documentary] filmmaker imposing what matters to that filmmaker,” Buirski said in a telephone interview from her home in New York.

On camera, Lumet comes off as a mensch who declines to manipulate his actors or play upon their neuroses to elicit a performance. He doesn’t view himself as an auteur but as a working director — inspired by the work ethic of his immigrant father.

Some movie reviewers have remarked that Buirski’s approach does not allow for a more critical take on some of Lumet’s less-than-stellar work. “But this movie wasn’t meant to be a description of … the success or lack of success of some of his films,” Buirski said. “It’s really more of a psychological study [of] how someone’s culture and psyche informed his work.”

Buirski chose to begin the film with a telling anecdote: During World War II, Lumet says he witnessed a shocking event while sitting on a train at a station in Calcutta. A soldier in the next car grabbed a 12-year-old girl who was standing on the platform and pulled her into his compartment. When Lumet went to check on what had happened, he discovered the soldier and his friends gang-raping the child. “I was so shocked, I couldn’t believe it,” Lumet says in the film. “They were … passing her from one to the other…. And then [I was] wrestling with, ‘Do I do anything about it?’ ” Eventually viewers learn that Lumet, fearing for his life, did nothing — which reveals something about his predilection for lone characters battling a mob mentality.

His 1981 film, “Prince of the City,” focuses on a detective (Treat Williams) who goes undercover to gather evidence for an investigative commission. “The Verdict” (1982) tells of an attorney who redeems himself when he represents a malpractice victim against a hospital.

“By Sidney Lumet” also chronicles the films that most directly hail from the filmmaker’s Jewish roots. “Daniel” (1983), inspired by the story of executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, delves into how parents’ political passions can scar their children.

And Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” (1964) was perhaps one of the first movies to tackle the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor. In the film, the character of Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) has cynically withdrawn from life even as he runs a pawnshop in East Harlem. He battles a racketeer involved in prostitution and rejects the friendship of a Puerto Rican boy who works for him, with tragic results. Sol’s attempts to repress his memories of a concentration camp fail as images of the Holocaust burst into his consciousness.

“ ‘The Pawnbroker’ asks the question, ‘Can you … survive total destruction when you are already dead [inside]?’ ” Lumet says in the documentary. “This is the story of a man coming back to life.”

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