Despite making 44 movies—and not just any movies, but a handful of indisputable masterpieces like 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Network, and Dog Day Afternoon—Sidney Lumet never won a Best Director Oscar before his death in 2011. For a lot of movie lovers, that’s hard to swallow. And it’s an oversight that Nancy Buirski’s new documentary about the quintessential New York filmmaker tries to rectify. Constructed around a marvelously in-depth and introspective interview with Lumet three years before he passed away, this documentary makes the case for Lumet not only as one of the Hollywood greats, but also one of its rare filmmakers of conscience—a passionate storyteller whose films wrestle with dilemmas of decency, justice, and fairness.
That questing sense of right and wrong was there from his big-screen debut in 1955’s jury-room morality play, 12 Angry Men (a clip from that film opens the documentary). But it turns out that it was there even earlier, as Lumet paints a Dickensian picture of his poor “city rat” childhood, growing up as the bread-winning child-actor son of a pair of Yiddish Theater performers. Buirski admirably avoids the trap of tracing Lumet’s career chronologically—a cradle-to-grave crutch that too many biographers lean on. Instead, she jumps around, following the conversation and illuminating it with well-curated clips from Lumet’s films.
Lumet was a director who loved actors (after all, he was one). And you can hear that admiration and respect in his voice when he talks about Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, and Al Pacino, whose performance in Dog Day Afternoon (for my money, Lumet’s best film) he rightly describes as an “open wound”. He talks about his body of work without lavishing too much praise on the great ones or too much regret on the misfires (although he does admit that Network is “a hell of a good picture”). The only problem with the film—and it’s a minor one—is that with so many films to cover, some get shortchanged and others get omitted entirely. Even with the ones that are covered, the conversation doesn’t go as deep as some Lumet fans will no doubt want. Still, as an introduction to a first-class director who shouldn’t require any introduction at all, By Sidney Lumet is a thoughtful and thought-provoking treat. A-