Sidney Lumet was a director of over 50 films, noted for the quick cutting and inventive set-ups he brought to his many adaptations of stage hits, while his gritty presentation of New York in several socially conscious films brought him comparisons with the masters of neo-realism.
Players produced much of their best work under his guidance – 17 received Oscar nominations for their work in his films – and he was drawn to tales of moral complexity, with characters who face difficult choices or solitary battles.
His first film, Twelve Angry Men (1957), depicted a lone juror trying to convince the other 11 they should change their verdicts; Fail Safe (1964) showed a US President confronted with nuclear war; Serpico (1973) was the true story of a cop exposing corruption among his colleagues; in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) a homosexual loser robs a bank to pay for his lover's sex-change operation; and Network (1976) examined the delusions of a television prophet who proclaims to his audience, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more."
The son of Yiddish performers, Lumet was born in Philadelphia in 1924. His father, Baruch Lumet, was an actor, writer and director who later played small roles in several of his son's films, and his mother was a dancer who died when he was a child. Lumet made his professional debut on radio aged four, and the following year acted at the Yiddish Art Theatre.
When not acting, he studied at the Professional Children's School of New York and Columbia University. In 1935, he played one of the youngsters in Sidney Kingsley's hit play, Dead End, which revealed the effect of the slums on New York youths, and in 1939 he had his only film role, in One Third of a Nation, as the crippled young brother of a poor girl (Sylvia Sidney) determined to escape her tenement environment – the title came from Roosevelt's statement that one third of the country's population was not adequately housed. These roles foreshadowed several films Lumet was to direct set in the grubbier areas of New York and dealing with social issues.
After serving in the Army Signal Corps in the Second World War, he resumed acting, taking over from Marlon Brando in Ben Hecht's Broadway play A Flag is Born (1946), then formed an off-Broadway theatre group. In 1949 he married the actress Rita Gam, and the following year he joined CBS as an assistant to Yul Brynner, a prolific TV director in his pre-film days.
After shooting the first episodes of a thriller anthology, Danger (1950), Brynner recommended that Lumet direct some episodes, and he displayed a flair for fast shooting and fluid camerawork, establishing himself as a pioneer of the golden age of live TV drama. He directed many episodes of the notable series You Were There, hosted by Walter Cronkite, in which major events in history were re-enacted, and became one of the most sought-after drama directors on such anthology shows as Studio One, Omnibus and Playhouse 90. He married the socialite and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt in 1956.
When Reginald Rose's teleplay 12 Angry Men was performed on television in 1954 it was directed by Franklin Schaffner, but when Henry Fonda bought the rights he chose Lumet to direct. Filmed in an actual New York jury room, with Lumet using myriad camera angles to heighten the drama, it began a long association with cameraman Boris Kaufman and it had a superb cast that Lumet rehearsed for two weeks before the 20-day shoot, resulting in fine performances and a critical hit. He was to employ the same method many times.
He worked with Fonda again on Stage Struck (1958), which starred Susan Strasberg as an aspiring actress. That Kind of Woman (1959), in which Sophia Loren had to choose between her love for a GI (Tab Hunter) or a life of luxury with a millionaire (George Sanders) was a troubled production – Lumet had disagreements with Loren's husband, Carlo Ponti, who produced the film, a box-office failure. The Fugitive Kind (1960) was based on one of Tennessee Williams's lesser plays, Orpheus Descending, in which a charismatic drifter disrupts a small town, a turgid tale despite a high-powered cast (Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward).
Lumet had more success with a live television version of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh starring Jason Robards, a screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge (1961) and a beautifully realised version of O'Neill's masterwork, Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). In 1963, Lumet married Gail Jones, the daughter of Lena Horne.
Fail Safe (1964) was another noteworthy pairing with Fonda, who played the president in a chilling account of a nuclear attack mistakenly launched against Russia. A fine film, it was overshadowed by Dr Strangelove. The Pawnbroker (1965), which starred Rod Steiger as a Jewish pawnbroker haunted by memories of concentration camps, won critical acclaim and an Oscar for Steiger, and The Hill (1965) was a grimly effective tale of life in a military prison, but Lumet had difficulty juggling storylines in an over-heated adaptation of Mary McCarthy's best-seller about the lives of a generation of Vassar graduates, The Group (1966). The Deadly Affair (1967), based on a John Le Carré spy thriller, was too late in the cycle of such dour thrillers to have the success it deserved, and the same leading players – James Mason and Simone Signoret – starred in an over-reverential version of The Sea Gull (1968).
His firing from Funny Girl (1968), after disagreements with producer Ray Stark and Barbra Streisand, began an arid period that ended with the popular heist thriller, The Anderson Tapes (1972) and Serpico, with Al Pacino as the cop who faces ostracism when he reveals corruption in the NYPD. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) followed, its sedate style in contrast to his next New York-shot film starring Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon, which brought Lumet an Oscar nomination. He said of his liking for New York: "In LA there's no streets, no sense of a neighborhood. I'm a New Yorker. I always like to be in Woody Allen's world."
He was Oscar-nominated a third time for Network, a black satire on television played to the hilt by Peter Finch (who was awarded the first posthumous Oscar), Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Lumet then had two flops, an over-studied transcription of Peter Schaffer's play, Equus (1977), and an equally misguided version of the stage musical, The Wiz (1978), based on The Wizard of Oz, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson; even Lumet could not draw the necessary sparkle from Ross as Dorothy.
He returned to political and police corruption in the bleak Prince of the City (1981) and gave Paul Newman one of his finest vehicles in The Verdict (1982), as a drunken, washed-up lawyer who finds the means to regain his self-esteem when offered a case of medical negligence. Newman expressed his admiration for Lumet: "He likes to shoot a scene in one take, two at the most. I call him Speedy Gonzales." Lumet was Oscar-nominated a fourth time.
Daniel (1983), adapted from E L Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel, was the true story of two young people whose parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed for alleged espionage during the McCarthy era. "Despite its critical and financial failure," Lumet said, "I think it is one of the best pictures I've ever done." Garbo Talks (1984) was an underrated comedy and another valentine to New York City. One of his finest later works was Running on Empty (1988), a wistful tale of a young boy (River Phoenix) whose parents, former Sixties activists, are constantly changing addresses to keep ahead of the FBI, who want them for an attack on a napalm plant that killed a watchman.
After a mild gangster comedy, Family Business (1989) starring Sean Connery, Lumet returned to favourite themes dealing with corruption and racism in Q & A (1990) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1996). In his 1995 memoirs, Making Movies, he said of his directorial style, "Good style to me is unseen style. It is style that is felt."
Lumet was presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005. His last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), a bleak tale of two venal brothers, enjoyed considerable acclaim.
Sidney Lumet, film director: born Philadelphia 25 June 1924; married 1949 Rita Gam, (divorced 1954), 1956 Gloria Vanderbilt (divorced 1963), 1963 Gail Jones (divorced 1978; two daughters), 1980 Mary Gimbel; died Manhattan 9 April 2011.Reuse content