Dec 3, 2015

Sidney Lumet

This month we bring you a director I consider to be one of the greatest of all time, one often overlooked. From ’12 angry Men’ to ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘Network’ to ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ – a director who controlled the medium with a beautiful human touch, who made you care for people, from all walks of life, and delivered masterpiece after masterpiece. Guiding you through the unique style of the brilliant Sidney Lumet, I hand you over to Nathan T. Dean…


{In Praise of Sidney Lumet}
by Nathan T. Dean


“Nice bunch of guys.” / “Ah, they’re about the same as everyone else.”
– ’12 Angry Men’ Directed by Sidney Lumet, Written by Reginald Rose


There is a profound feeling, I believe, that all people on this planet will, at some time, possess. The internet spawned the term “Sonder” – the sensation when one realises that the people around you are living lives of their own, suffering their own pains, enjoying their own pleasures, existing not just as things in your peripheral vision, but being fully-fledged entire people in their own right – with memories, loves, thoughts, and dreams unique to them. Sonder is the moment you realise every human is a person. And the films of Sidney Lumet tap into that sensation intensely.
Sidney Lumet is the perfect starting point for a budding director to learn the art. Lumet utilises mise-en-scène, composition and framing in such a beautifully humble way, bringing out every element you need to understand in the most efficient, yet stunning of ways. The shots of ’12 Angry Men’ – a film about a jury debating the death sentence of a teenage boy – tighten and tighten, quicken and quicken, with each tense moment, then release and pull back, with every timed breath with the audience. The script of ’12 Angry Men’ alone is a piece of efficient genius: one event, in one room, with twelve characters. Unnamed, yet perfectly balanced to represent not just the jury, but the different kinds of men in society in general. Add in Lumet’s delicate humanist touch, and you are given a masterpiece.



That feeling of sonder resonates, builds, and infects you throughout the film. It achieves this in the most effective way, by depicting the events as hyper-realistically as possible. The dialogue is natural. The shots never give way to artistry – to pretentious hype – when just showing the story will do. Lumet just lets you watch these men battle with each other and themselves; he just allows you to perceive humanities charming natures and brutal honesties. But, and this is crucial, to nail home what it means to be human, Lumet performs a magical rite with his film prowess. All of a sudden, amongst the simple act of watching men discuss the boys demise – through just watching chatter, and undoing ties in the heat, and fiddling with fans – he’ll give, what I call, a theatrical punch in the gut. You grow accustomed to the style. You grow used to the conversation, the realist nature of the film, and then, out of left-field, he’ll sucker punch you with something truly theatrical.
‘Network’, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, delivers so many of these ebbs and flows, between the real and the hammering home of the real. Lumet recognises that, although to deliver the enlightening sensation of sonder one must employ naturalism, that this would grow stale without a shift in gear. ‘Network’ shows this perfectly. “I just ran out of bullshit, you see”, Howard Beale announces to the world through his news television show. ‘Network’ depicts a man falling out of grace with society, and societies expected conventions of behaviour, to become a mad prophet abused by the very society he wishes to out on his TV broadcast. The second he “runs out of bullshit”, the naturalism shifts a gear. Lumet shows us the world as it truly is by filming it with theatre. He hammers it home. He punches you in the gut. Lumet is “mad as hell”, and all the bumbling conversation in jury rooms, all the petty chats in office blocks, become sonder as we see the world in new lights.



In both ’12 Angry Men’ and ‘Network’, Lumet and the writers show humanity, and its scope, but put it up against a lens of something unexpected. Henry Fonda’s part in ’12 Angry Men’, and Peter Finch in ‘Network’ are the rocking of the boat of the expected. Just watch as Lumet delivers the same in how he films his pieces, rocking from the expected naturalism to something altogether magical. We see a Father trying to raise his son properly. We see the indoctrinated racism through the communist agendas of ‘Network’. We see the underprivileged, the assaulted and the lost. And we can only see this because of the delivery. In any other work, such characters would fade into the background, or become caricatures of themselves. But Lumet’s black comedy, efficient delivery and hyperawareness of the human instead gives us a glorious view of what it means to be human, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Remember that feeling – sonder –  when watching Lumet, and if you decide to pick up a camera, and show that lovers tear, or crime of passion, remember the humanity of your execution.