Film Studies: Why do actors love working with Sidney Lumet? One word: Oscar

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The Independent Culture

There will be an honorary award this Oscars night, and it may be the most arresting moment of the evening. For when the time comes to run clips from the films of Sidney Lumet, there may be modern-day nominees who flinch at the sight of such consistency and integrity. After all, that montage will probably include 12 Angry Men, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict.

There are others, too, but what you learn from that short list is that Sidney Lumet has been a New York City film-maker. Yes, The Hill takes place in a military prison camp in north Africa, The Verdict occurs in the most beautiful Boston light ever put on film, and Long Day's Journey is an evocation of the fog banks in Long Island Sound. You can find wayward ventures where Lumet went all the way to Hollywood itself - such as The Wiz, or Murder on the Orient Express, which knows exactly how far it relies on sound-stage make-believe. But Lumet is a director in love with New York. The jury room in 12 Angry Men is plainly in that city. The Pawnbroker leads his bleak life there.

Above all, in so many films - from Serpico to Night Falls on Manhattan - Lumet made it his business to follow the life, honour and corruption of policemen in that city. Long before this honorary Oscar, he might have received a shield from the NYPD.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1924, the child of actors from the Yiddish Theatre. It was natural enough then that he should be a child actor before he did war service in the Pacific. On his return, he got work in the television industry as a director in the Golden Age of live drama. He had an early interest in justice, and in 1960, he directed a notable two-part drama , The Sacco-Vanzetti Story, written by Reginald Rose, and starring Martin Balsam and Steven Hill.

Of course, by then Balsam had already delivered his beautiful performance as the jury foreman in Lumet's big screen debut, 12 Angry Men. It's easy to minimise the effect of that picture. Yes, it seems unduly tidy or contrived now - how does Henry Fonda sway 11 fellow jurors in just 95 minutes? But that overlooks the precise shooting in a cramped space, the lean budget and the brilliance of the cast. The message may seem a little pious, but what relieves it is the clear portrait of 12 very different human beings, sweating on a fearsomely hot Manhattan day.

That was the first of four nominations that Lumet would receive as best director - the others were for Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict. But you get a much better sense of Lumet's quality and of his steady urge to reject stylistic bravura for the scrutiny of actors in this statistic: in Lumet pictures there have been 19 nominations for acting. Who won? Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in Network, Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express. That leads you to such breathtaking marvels as the way Paul Newman "lost" in The Verdict (the prize went to Ben Kingsley as Gandhi). But then, just to be fair, you'd have to note that no nominations went to anyone in 12 Angry Men, to Ralph Richardson in Long Day's Journey Into Night, nor to James Mason in The Deadly Affair (adapted from John Le Carre), to Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict (an uncanny portrait of hapless treachery), to Nick Nolte in the little known Q & A (which may be the most unexpected performance in all of Lumet's work).

The decency or the deferential air in Lumet the director is reflected in his book, Making Movies, published in 1995. This was most remarkable for its lack of show-business gossip and its personal restraint. The book is full of common sense and of the faith that common sense will win out even in a venture as desperate, ego-ridden and disaster-bound as movie-making. The book is essential reading for anyone on the job, or hoping to get on it. Yet it also points the way to Lumet's limitation - the absence of some uncontrollable passion, the urge to find something beyond common sense. That is the only reason, I think, why he is not more celebrated.

Of course, he has made poor films along the way: Melanie Griffith under cover in an Hasidic community in A Stranger Among Us is not credible or or comic enough; The Morning After is a weary thriller, despite Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda; and in general I would have to say that Lumet began to plod whenever he got close to romance.

On the other hand, the sardonic black humour of Network (supplied initially by the Paddy Chayefsky script) is better than ever. In the sly way in which the film mimics TV formats and still delivers true performances, Network is one of the few films you would have to show in any season of films showing what happened to America in the last 20 years.

On the workings of a court, The Verdict (written by David Mamet) has no superior. Indeed, whenever Lumet found himself with a good script and a flawless cast he was unfailingly accurate in delivering a master work. In the end, The Verdict may be no more than an anecdote - whereas Otto Preminger's Anatony of a Murder is something greater, a critique of the law itself. But the story is pitiless, unerring and radiant.

The police pictures do go further, for Lumet manages to grasp the deeply compromised predicament of the police force: to be effective, it has to be united; to be united, it will defend its black sheep; in covering up that injustice, it begins to defy its own duty. That is the central ambiguity that haunts pictures like Serpico and Prince of the City, where finally no adequate kind of trust or fellowship can be found, and it comes to a head in Night Falls on Manhattan. But Q & A still stands out. It is another police story and this time Nick Nolte is the crooked cop. But there's more: this braggart, homophobic bully may be secretly gay himself. He is riddled with guilt and he uses the law and his own power as means of stifling his own uneasiness.

There are several other worthwhile pictures - Running on Empty, about radicals who spend a life under cover, and the film in which River Phoenix got a nomination; the emotionalism of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon; The Hill, a very nasty analysis of sadism; The Offence, a John Hopkins police story about another bully (played by Sean Connery); and not least the miracle of Long Day's Journey Into Night in which a profound piece of theatre is rendered with happy reliability. But as Lumet has always said: with a sure script and great players, it's natural to make a good picture. Would that more people shared his good nature.

David Thomson will be introducing screenings of 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'Chinatown' at Richmond Film House, London TW9 (020 8332 0030) today