Few filmmakers have the distinguished filmography on par with Sidney Lumet. After getting his start in television, Lumet made one of the most striking directorial debut with his classic drama 12 Angry Men. It was really the ‘70s where Lumet really got going, directing such classics as Network, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, and Dog Day Afternoon. This is illustrious career is the subject of the new documentary By Sidney Lumet, director Nancy Buirski’s examination of Lumet’s life and work through interviews with the filmmaker in 2008. By Sidney Lumet is a rather rote biographical documentary, one that comes across more as a nice little profile than an insightful examination of a person whose impact on pop culture was shaped by his own experience.
Lumet wears a sweater and is surrounded by the kind of soft lighting that one would expect to find in one of Ken Burns’ historical documentaries. He starts off by explaining the moralistic aspects of his work and how they operate from his subconscious. This, however, seems to be the extent of the insight the legendary filmmaker was ready to divulge about his work. By Sidney Lumet is basically nothing more than a modest biography, the director explaining his origins in show business as a child actor working alongside his father in the Jewish theater. Throughout the film, Lumet explains his fascination with drama through the work of Shakespeare, which he was first exposed to by hearing Hamlet in Hebrew.
After his days in the theater were over, Lumet made the transition into the world of television, where he became a prolific director. According to Lumet, he was directing 60-70 shows a year. The filmmaker is quick to assert that his prominence is a matter of luck, at least that’s how he describes being suggested by Henry Fonda for the film adaptation of 12 Angry Men. Following the success of that film and his Oscar nomination, Lumet quickly became a major force in Hollywood filmmaking, which he would remain for the next 50 years.
By Sidney Lumet gets into some of the themes that run through the filmography of the director, including the dynamic between parents and their children. He discusses his affection for filming in New York City and how his urban upbringing made him unable and unwilling to ever dare direct a western. Other matters discussed are the feeling of realism in creating Dog Day Afternoon, his affinity for the real life Frank Serpico, and prescience of Paddy Chayefsky’s script for Network. It’s a series of moments and information that are slightly interesting, but are never much more than that.
Half of the film consists of interviews with filmmaker and the other half consists of lengthy clips from the director’s filmography, leading to an uneven presentation that lacks in a cohesive flow. Buirski’s film bounces back and forth in time as it explores Lumet’s filmography. What’s really disappointing is there are practically no impassioned moments of behind the scenes conflict between Lumet and the studios. Especially following a documentary like De Palma, where a filmmaker just didn’t care to dish out on every aspect and every conflict he ever encountered, By Sidney Lumet feels incredibly tame and safe, a film that serves more as an introductory lesson for freshmen film students.
By Sidney Lumet
A rather rote examination of the life and work of legendary director Sidney Lumet, By Sidney Lumet doesn’t offer many new insights into the mind of its subject but offers a simple biography of the 5-time Oscar nominated filmmaker.