Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Sidney Lumet was one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors. He was not only a great artist but a much-loved man. When the news of his death at 86 arrived on Saturday, it came as a shock, because he had continued so long to be so productive.
Of his final film, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007), I wrote: "This is a movie, I promise you, that grabs you and won't let you think of anything else. It's wonderful when a director like Lumet wins a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at 80, and three years later makes one of his greatest achievements." Like many of his films, it went on my list of the year's ten best.
Although he was not as widely known to the general public as directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Eastwood and Spike Lee, his films were at the center of our collective memories. To name only a few of their titles is to suggest the measure of his gift:
Most of his fims were set in his native New York City. Although he was nominated four times as best director, he never won an Academy award until his honorary Oscar; that may have been partly because he was not part of the Hollywood community but preferred a milieu he understood inside-out.
He was a thoughtful director, who gathered the best collaborators he could find and channeled their resources into a focused vision. He shared his thoughts about that in his 1996 book "Making Movies." If you care to read only one book about the steps in the making of a film, make it that one. There is not a boast in it, not a word of idle puffery. It is all about the work.
To say he lacked a noticeable visual style is a compliment. He reduced every scene to its necessary elements, and filmed them, he liked to say, "invisibly." You should not be thinking about the camera. He wanted you to think about the characters and the story.
Sidney Lumet was born June 24, 1924, in Philadelphia, the son of Polish immigrants who were actors in the Yiddish theater. The boy was onstage from his earliest years. After service in World War Two, he began to direct in small New York companies and then moved in on the ground floor in the new medium of television.
Lumet, like such contemporaries as Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer, was a key director in the golden age of live TV drama. He was an early director for Walter Cronkite's "You Are There." His first feature was "12 Angry Men," considered the best of all filmed dramas about a criminal trial. It had a visual style (he slowly lowered the POV of view as tension increased), but, typically, audiences were not aware of it.
In 1962 he filmed a historic adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," and in 1964 launched Rod Steiger's movie career with "The Pawnbroker." Film followed film, many of them based on ethical issues, although he preferred to deeply embody his messages instead of stating them obviously.
Other strong films followed. In addition to his most famous titles, these had my special admiration: "Daniel," "Power," "Q and A," "Critical Care" and "Gloria." He remained remarkably youthful, and in 2006 was able to see the serious dramatic potential of Vin Diesel, dismissed as an action star, and use it for a remarkable performance in "Find Me Guilty," the story of a Mafioso trial.
Lumet was married four times, to the actress Rita Game; the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; Gail Jones, daughter of Lena Horne; and, in 1980, to Mary Gimbel, who survives him. He is also survived by Amy and Jenny Lumet, his daughters by Miss Jones; a stepson, Bailey Gimbel; nine grandchildren and a great grandson. Jenny Lumet went into the family business, as an actress and the author of the award-winning screenplay for Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" (2008).
The cause of death, his wife said, was lymphoma. The tears shed at his memorial services will be genuine.
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