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Lumet was well equipped to fill all the roles of a movie director: field-marshal, picture-painter, script surgeon and psychiatrist. Two years after 12 Angry Men, he got a handful in Brando (whom, a decade before, he had replaced in Ben Hecht's Israel agit-prop play A Flag Is Born). For Osborne, Lumet recalled how Brando would "test the director. He'd give you two takes. In one of them he'd be working really fully by that I mean on an internal level. And in the other one, the outside form would be identical but he'd be doing nothing inside. And he'd watch and see which one you'd print. And if you printed the wrong one you'd had it."
He knew how to get more out of Brando and less from Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. "Rod came to you pouring 10 quarts into a five-quart can," Lumet told Osborne. "It was always too much... And that, by the way, is a much better problem for a director than an actor who doesn't bring you enough." Under Lumet's strict guidance, Steiger was able to give his portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in Harlem a kind of heroic simmering, lending surprise and impact to the pawnbroker's final explosion when, in fury and remorse, he impales his hand on a spindle one of the most plausibly shocking moments in '60s films.
Lumet's work is full of these privileged moments: like the great scene in Long Day's Journey just a few seconds, really when Hepburn, as a drug-addled mother, hears her son (Dean Stockwell) say he needs to leave home for medical treatment of his consumption. At this dreadful news she slaps the boy and, instantly horrified by her action, shouts, "No!" and hugs him for forgiveness. It's the instant switch in emotional vectors that gives the exchange its poignancy. Similarly, in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino's bank robber, who for most of the movie has been a study in bantam bombast, turns soft and pensive while dictating a letter to the boyfriend he wanted to get a sex-change operation. "To my darling wife Leon...", the letter begins; Pacino's tenderness trumps the incongruous humor and makes the moment an epiphany of mad, doomed love.
Like any director who believes in some form of the Method, Lumet could overvalue declamatory acting. He'd let Pacino spume, or Magnani rave (in The Fugitive Kind), because anything shouted was thought to be truer, and acuity took a back seat to intensity. In part this was emblematic of the New York style, where anyone from a corrupt cop to a guy on jury duty is supposed to express himself at 10-plus volume. But when character and style were in synch, this high-volume, highwire acting say, Pacino's funny, scary "Attica! Attica!" anthem in Dog Day is right on the mark. In Network, Finch, as a TV news anchorman whose ratings skyrocket when he goes raving mad on the air, was a lunatic parody that turned into prophesy, prefiguring Glenn Beck by about 35 years. "It's not satire," Lumet and Chayefsky would say of their film. "It's sheer reportage."
Somehow, Lumet found time to marry actress Rita Gam, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and Horne's daughter Gail. (Mary Gimbel, his fourth wife of 31 years, survives him.) By his own account, though, the workaholic was no doting dad. As he told Osborne, "I'm very aware of ... what my obsessions have cost my children." But his two daughters appreciated their father's business enough to go into it: Amy Lumet worked as a sound editor, and Jenny Lumet wrote the screenplay for the 2008 dramedy Rachel Getting Married. That film came out a year after Lumet's swan song, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead which, in its comically misanthropic portrayal of lust, greed and family betrayal, marks the director's vigorous farewell to the city he loved to cauterize.
Making good films or not-so, hits or flops, Lumet defined his work less by elegant camerabatics than by a corrosive intelligence, an attention to behavioral detail and an indefatigable verve. While some directors took years to hatch a film, he in his long prime did one or two projects a year. "All I want to do is get better," he said, "and quantity can help me to solve my problems. ... If I don't have a script I adore, I do one I like. If I don't have one I like, I do one that has an actor I like or that presents some technical challenge." He left masterpiece-making to others; Lumet was just a moviemaker, one who turned most all his films into scintillating dispatches from the urban warfront.
But one thing Sidney Lumet could never do was to make a movie of the life of Sidney Lumet. He enjoyed his work too much plenty of chutzpah, not enough agita.