Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Evening with Sidney Lumet, and RIP Roy Scheider

Although film repertory houses having been dying out all over the country for decades now, a few are still going strong, and one of the better ones is Film Forum in New York City. It’s there that a co-worker and I went to see one of the true survivors of the movie business, Sidney Lumet. It’s true when people hear the phrase “New York filmmaker,” most of them think of Martin Scorsese, or maybe Woody Allen, or Spike Lee, but Lumet also belongs in that category, even though that label is also somewhat reductive towards his rich and varied career. It’s true he’s made his share of stinkers (I have no desire to sit through Deathtrap or The Wiz again), but when he’s good, he’s very good, as films like Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, and his new one, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead demonstrate. So I was very glad when the host and interviewer, Foster Hirsch, left my co-worker and tickets to tonight’s show (Hirsch is a customer at the video store I work at, and my co-worker and I are friendly with him).
As you might figure, the theater (which, alas, is pretty tiny; Film Forum gets great movies, but as befitting a theater depending on memberships, has lousy seating. As glad I am that Martin Scorsese spends a good amount of his money on film preservation, I wish he or someone would throw some of that money towards making sure the theaters showing those restored movies were nicer. But I digress) was packed, and as entertainment, we were shown the original theatrical trailers for both 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, neither of which resembled the finished movie (we can debate till the cows come home on how today’s movies compare to past movies, but the trailers today are undeniably better than the ones even 30 years ago). Then we saw a rare clip of Lumet acting, as a Dead End kid in One Third of a Nation, opposite Sylvia Sidney. Finally, Lumet and Hirsch came out, to great applause.
Although Lumet did talk briefly about his showbiz origins (his parents were in the Yiddish theater, and he is one showbiz veteran who actually encourages children to go into the business), and how he lived through his early years (he grew up during the Depression, “which most of you may come to know” he joked), mostly, Hirsch talked about Lumet’s 50 years in films. Of course, they talked about how fast Lumet usually works (after working with him on The Verdict, Paul Newman called him “the only man I know who would double-park outside a whorehouse”), which Lumet calls not a product of working in television (which is where he got his start), but just his natural tempo. First, they showed a clip of 12 Angry Men, and Lumet mentioned how little film he shot compare to most films (60,000 feet of film, whereas most films shoot over a million feet). Hirsch also praised the opening scene, where you see the defendant’s face, and immediately, you think of him as a person rather than an abstract thing the jury will later deliberate over. Following that, we saw a clip of The Fugitive Kind, and Hirsch mentioned, for the only time that evening, how he thought it didn’t quite work. Lumet refused to tell tales out of school, but he did mention how star Anna Magnani had a difficult time on the set, because she wasn’t fluent in English, and was recovering from a romantic breakup. He also told a tale illustrating his approach to actors; Marlon Brando had a big speech to deliver in the movie, and every take, at the same exact point, he blew the take. Lumet felt it had something to do with something personal Brando had told him that was interfering with his ability to deliver the speech, but he felt mentioning that personal thing to Brando would have violated his trust. After about 30 takes, Brando finally got the speech right. Afterwards, Brando asked Lumet why he didn’t say anything, and when Lumet said it wasn’t his place, Brando kissed him on the cheek, and they never had a problem again.
One of the knocks against Lumet is that he has no visual style. His counter to that is he has one, it’s just always subordinate to the story and the characters. An illustration of this came with the next clip shown, from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, based on the Eugene O’Neill play, and one of Lumet’s best. It’s when Katharine Hepburn delivers a long speech on the unsuitability of a doctor treating her husband (Ralph Richardson), and the camera holds on a medium shot of her, her husband, and their sons (Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell) at the dinner table, instead of cutting away. He also pointes out that each of the characters were shot differently and lighted differently, and mentioned any critic worth their salt should recognize something like that. After that came a clip from The Pawnbroker, where a ride in a subway car reminds Rod Steiger of his time in a concentration camp. Since the film, to Lumet, was about memory (in his book Making Movies, Lumet distinguishes what the story of the movie is about, and what the movie itself is about), he edited the scene so the regular subway and the prisoner trains were done in precise increments, to illustrate Steiger’s state of mind. While Hirsch brought up how hammy Steiger’s performances can be, Lumet said he’d rather work with someone who gave too much than too little (which, to be fair, is another knock against him). That same year, Lumet made Fail Safe, which had the unfortunate luck to come out after Dr. Strangelove, which had a similar story (albeit a wildly different approach). They were made at the same time and released by the same studio, and Lumet wanted his film released first (he thought it would even help Strangelove), but to no avail. Next up was The Hill, Lumet’s first collaboration with Sean Connery (they made four movies together), and Lumet agreed with Hirsch that he tended to work with actors he liked many times (he claimed to avoid the lunatics when he could).
One of his most famous partnerships, of course, was with Al Pacino. They only made two movies together, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, but both of them are among both Lumet and Pacino’s seminal works. Lumet mentioned how with Pacino, as with other acting greats he worked with, he merely got out of his way and let him act. He also mentioned again how the theme of Dog Day Afternoon – in Lumet’s words, that freaks aren’t as freaky as you might think – dictated the look of the film, which strove for realism. Totally opposed to that is Network, which was highly stylized, and they showed the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” scene. Lumet also illustrated how modest he is about credit when he mentioned how the film is really Paddy Chayefsky’s and not his, crediting Chayefsky with wrapping the message inside of humor to make it work better (Hirsch also brought up the hard part about watching it today; namely, everything the film predicted would happen has come true, except no one has killed anyone on the air for ratings – yet. So except for Faye Dunaway, it’s not as funny as it may have been 30 years ago). After that, Hirsch returned to Lumet’s New York oeuvre with Prince of the City, my personal favorite of his films, and Lumet mentioned how he took a writing credit on the movie only because Jay Presson Allen asked him to work out the structure for her, since she was busy writing a couple of other movies. He also mentioned how he felt his ambiguous feelings towards the Treat Williams character – was he a hero or a rat? – helped the film. Another one of Lumet’s common genres is the crime film, and while The Verdict is more a legal drama, it does deal with a crime. Lumet denied any life experience influencing his choice of movies, but did admit he finds cops, lawyers, and their stories fascinating. Finally, we ended with a clip from his most recent movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a melodrama, and while Lumet has directed all kinds of movies, he is still fond of melodrama as a genre (his next film, Getting Out, is also a melodrama).
I do wish the audience had been allowed to ask Lumet questions (I would have asked if any more of his films, including The Offence, one of his best and most unsung movies, was coming out on DVD in the near future). I also would have chosen some slightly different clips - from Prince of the City, for example, I would have chosen when Treat Williams runs into one of his former partners near the elevator and begs forgiveness, rather than when Williams is chasing a junkie in a parking lot in the rain (although Lumet said he was proud of that moment because Kurosawa praised it). Finally, while Hirsch made it more a conversation than an interview, which meant it was that much more entertaining and insightful, I do wish he had challenged Lumet a little more. Still, I definitely got my money’s worth out of the night. Lumet knows his stuff, and he knows how to please the crowd.
And now, a few words on the passing of Roy Scheider. I know there are people who gnash their teeth at yet another piece extolling how great the movies of the 1970’s were, but one thing you can undeniably say is male actors who weren’t necessarily traditional leading men were allowed to flourish as they hadn’t since the 30’s and early 40’s, and haven’t since. Scheider was one of those. Although he doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Klute, where he played Jane Fonda’s pimp, and he was second banana to Gene Hackman in The French Connection (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but unlike Hackman, he lost), he lends both movies an air of authenticity, which he carried to the enjoyable knock off of the latter, The Seven-Ups. Still, he had more range than just a hard-nosed tough guy, as he showed in perhaps his two most celebrated roles – Chief Brody in Jaws, and Joe Gideon in All That Jazz, which garnered him his second nomination. In the former, he played a man not in control, with appealing vulnerability and confusion (as when a grieving mother slaps him in the face) that serves as almost a riposte to Robert Shaw’s masculine caricature Quint, and in the latter, Bob Fosse’s 8 ½ (for all intents and purposes), he not only showed he could sing and dance, but he also played the character with the least amount of self-indulgence that I’ve seen in any movie remake/homage of Fellini’s film. And while neither Marathon Man, where he played a supporting role as a spy who happens to be Dustin Hoffman’s brother, nor Last Embrace, where he plays a widower spy who thinks someone is trying to kill him, were completely successful as pictures, each featured Scheider to great effect; watch his confrontation with Olivier in the former, or when he finds out the identity of the killer in the latter.
While on stage, he started the 1980’s off in triumph with his turn in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (he started out in Shakespeare plays, and he explained his love for them when he said that whatever the royalty may be saying or doing, it’s the gravedigger who explains what’s really going on), Scheider’s career hit a rough patch starting that decade and never really stopped. As critic Ryan Gibley pointed out in It Don’t Worry Me, his excellent critical study of 1970’s cinema, Scheider would come more and more to seem like a man out of his time when every leading man all of a sudden needed to look like Tom Cruise In fact, when Scheider got his own TV series in the 1990’s, SeaQuest, he later complained he was being phased out in favor of younger co-star Jonathan Brandis. Still, Scheider was appealing even in substandard fare like Still of the Night, Blue Thunder, and 52 Pickup, as well as better, if not great, fare like 2010 and The Myth of Fingerprints. And he shone in the highly underrated The Russia House as a spy who believes in glasnost, but maybe not Sean Connery (his interrogation of Connery is a highlight), he chewed up the scenery with style in Naked Lunch while giving new meaning to the term “mad doctor,” and was menacing as a gangster in the very offbeat Romeo is Bleeding (although, like everyone else, he’s overshadowed by Lena Olin as a hitwoman). He will be missed.