Sidney Lumet – “All great work requires self-revelation”.

“For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident”.

“All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen”

Sidney Lumet (25/6/1924 – 9/4/2011) was one of the greatest directors in cinema history and also my personal favourite.

As a child he acted in the Yiddish theatre (his parents were both distinguished actors in Yiddish theatre) and on Broadway. After serving in World War II, he directed plays and taught acting. He directed more than 200 television dramas (for CBS from 1951 – 1957) before making his debut as a movie director with the acclaimed Twelve Angry Men.

A scene from “Twelve Angry Men” (1957)

Robert Berkvist of the New York Times wrote of Sidney Lumet, saying

“Social issues set his own mental juices flowing, and his best films not only probed the consequences of prejudice, corruption and betrayal, but also celebrated individual acts of courage.”

His impressive body of work includes such films as

The Fugitive Kind (1960)
A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Fail Safe (1964)
Serpico (1973)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Network (1976)
The Verdict (1982)
Night Falls on Manhattan (1997)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

The movie trailer for “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

Though he certainly made more than his share of them, not every film he made was a masterpiece. And he was completely honest about that.

“I’ve done two movies because I needed the money. I’ve done three because I love to work and couldn’t wait anymore. Because I’m a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I’ve done.”

Brian Baxter wrote in Lumet’s obituary for The Guardian newspaper

“It is arguable that, had he not been so prolific, Lumet’s critical reputation would have been greater. Certainly, for every worthwhile film there was a dud, and occasionally a disaster, to match it. But Lumet loved to direct and he was greatly esteemed by the many actors – notably Al Pacino and Sean Connery – with whom he established a lasting rapport”.

One of things I admire most about him is not just that fact that he made so many truly incredible films, but also his very approach to doing the work itself.

“I don’t know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don’t know what my life is about and don’t examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at the moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.”

“I’ve been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all my work. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reason I don’t know is that when I open to the first page of a script, I’m a willing captive. I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life … Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has to come out of my subconscious. I can’t approach it cerebrally. Obviously, this is right and correct for me. Each person must approach the problem in whatever way works best for him.”

All the quotes here from Sidney Lumet are taken from his excellent book “Making Movies” a professional memoir drawing on his 40 years of experience as a movie director.

An iconic scene from Sidney Lumet’s film “Network” (1976).


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