Sidney Lumet is in the air right now, there for the inhaling. Who can say how long he'll stay. But, consciously or not, his movies' vitality the electricity in, say, "12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Prince of the City," "The Verdict," and "Q&A" seem suddenly in other movies' DNA.
Look at him drifting through the paranoia-driven corruption thriller "Michael Clayton" and haunting the cops-vs.-drug-lord doings of "We Own the Night" and, to some extent, "American Gangster." Not to mention the fraternal playground of the "Ocean's" movies, where the women are the smartest things going, and the half-jolly, half-dismayed human touch Spike Lee used for last year's "Inside Man." (When I met with Lumet a couple of weeks ago, he told me Lee called to warn him that some of that touch was indeed Lumet's.)
In fact, mass-media culture has finally gone so bonkers that "Network," which Lumet directed from Paddy Chayefsky's nuclear bomb of a script, now seems beyond timeless. One of the greatest satires ever filmed has become simply the way we live. And no one's been able to duplicate the combo of acidic comedy and emotional hot-bloodedness not Lee in "Bamboozled" or Chris Weitz in "American Dreamz," but God love them for trying.
Lumet's grit is what he's remembered for now. Wait, "remembered"? That sounds like a eulogy. The man couldn't be further from death. That he's 83 seems like a joke on any idea of age. When he came to the door, he practically bounded to it. And his new movie, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," about two brothers who rob a jewelry store, is like a fist to the face but a courteous one. In the end, he doesn't clock you in both eyes because he knows you'll need one to watch the movie.
His best films 1973's "Serpico" on down are set in New York. When the Mount Rushmore of great New York directors is made, the selection committee might have a tough time figuring out whose head goes alongside Martin Scorsese's, Woody Allen's, and Spike Lee's. Cassavetes? Warhol? I'd vote Lumet if only for the warm, illustrative opening montage of "Dog Day Afternoon," which skips around New York looking for an electric kind of trouble and finds it in a car of bank robbers. But there is more where that came from both in that movie and in most of Lumet's.
Lumet's films are alive with authenticity. The man knows New York City (he's lived there much of his life). Even better: He knows the people. Character, of course, is what separates a Lumet picture from many other directors' - the way circumstances, urban and otherwise, bring out in a person something that you didn't see coming. His mastery of tone and shaping of performances are skills that elude simple description.
When they work, they achieve a deceptive, organic intimacy. The hugeness of any of his subjects seems manageably life-size relatable. The actors don't appear to be acting. They seem caught on film by a man who happens to be Sidney Lumet. There's something loosely documentary-like in that trait cool, observational transparency. That detachment comes in part from shooting other people's screenplays. He's not a visualist in the way Scorsese and Lee are, either. When many of his movies came out, some critics groaned about their bad technique and crude staging. That doesn't feel true now. The circumstantial chaos seems to produce the visual chaos. Polish would upstage the grit.
The camera is dynamic - wide shots, close-ups, hand-held photography, long still takes but it's not a character, per se. It's a tool. In a fully functioning Lumet picture, the acting and the writing are alchemized. You're forced to suspend your awareness that they're separate ingredients you're no longer watching an actor perform in a screenplay that a camera has filmed. You're watching the ultimate synthesis.
This probably sounds like what any decent movie director should be able to do, but with Lumet the difference is beguiling. Realism just seems real. It's not a movie. It's snapshots of lives in all their swinging moods and clashing personalities. Those shifts and clashes are crucial with Lumet. His movies are generously full of tonal complexity. Any emotion is possible in any movie, and, for an audience member, so is every emotional response.
Take "Network." The movie Chayefsky wrote is satire and a melodrama. Loosely, the satire is of television entertainment and a kind of fall of civilization. The melodrama, in part, involves the employees who program and resist programming that stuff. The film's achievement is the way those two seemingly disparate genres come together off the page onto a movie screen. The movie is darkly funny about the politics of entertainment and, in a sense, the politics of politics. But it's also a movie about the lust for power and the power of lust. There are black radicals, Marxist talk, a kidnapping, statistics, and many, many meetings. Basically, "Network" is a movie of high ideas, and another director might have let them speak for themselves while letting Chayefsky's outrage intimidate and shame either us or the actors. Lumet, though, boldly turns up the volume on the performances. They're as stratospheric as the ideas. A stereophonic effect is achieved.
When his movies don't work, all you get is mono. Either Lumet has been let down by an actor whom he obviously believed in but who was obviously wrong for a part - Matthew Broderick in "Family Business," Sharon Stone in "Gloria," Vin Diesel in "Find Me Guilty" or, in the case of movies like "Just Tell Me What You Want" or "Power" ("Network" for political campaigns) because he couldn't find a way to produce stereo."Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" works. It has the harmonized tone the script and the acting are pitched operatically high that has eluded Lumet recently. He's regained his form, and his timing couldn't be better. He can show the much younger directors working under his influence (whether they're conscious of it or not), that he's still got it stylistic looseness, a human touch, and, of course, pessimistic ferocity. Lumet is as certain as ever that the world is out of order. But for the first time in a great while he can show us while sitting on top of it.