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On Sidney Lumet

In the age of high-speed access lines and reality TV insta-celebrities, it’s easy to forget that there are certain kinds of artists who are in it for the long run—not just to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. Their stars may fade to dimness over the years, without quite extinguishing. Critics might take them for granted, audiences may dwindle, and in fact, inspiration may dry up, but they keep going—because, well, what else is there to do? They keep hustling, scrounging for money, struggling to survive from project-to-project, persisting in the face of the world’s growing indifference.

But every once in a while, they blaze to life again. They seize the thing that made them great with renewed vigor and mastery, with a knowledge of what time can give and take away, a deep winter’s wisdom, an older person’s appreciation for the beauty of waning light. And what makes their achievement all more powerful is the fallowness of those intervening years, those periods when it seemed their best work might be behind them. I’m thinking of John Huston, plowing through about twenty years of sub-standard pictures between directing The African Queen and Fat City. Or Bob Dylan, twenty-two years between Blood on the Tracks in 1975 and Time Out of Mind in 1997. Or Philip Roth—may fans of Zuckerman, Deception, and Sabbath’s Theater forgive me—twenty-eight years between Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 and American Pastoral in 1997.

And then there’s Sidney Lumet. Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon were among the first movies I ever went to by myself. To a young man growing up in the grungy New York City of the 1970s, sitting there alone in the darkened theater and watching them was a revelation. This was the real world, without parents’ excuses or teachers’ explanations. This was humanity, in all its glory, its venality, its blunt ugly emotions and messy unexpected sentimentality, its surreal humor and sudden violence, its soul-corroding lies and small common decencies. Films like these—and Martin Scorsese’s more visually kinetic city operas—changed not only my view of storytelling, they gave me a notion of what I might do with my life.

But years go by and reputations fluctuate. Lumet made other great films, including NetworkPrince of the City, and The Verdict. But I noticed he was seldom written about with the same enthusiasm that was accorded to younger directors like Brian De Palma and Scorsese or foreign ones like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Part of that coolness was critical fashion. In the 1960s, Pauline Kael wrote an influential piece denouncing Lumet as a tasteless shlockmeister, a purveyor of sloppy overwrought melodrama and others followed her lead. The whole emotionally intense sincere Method-influenced school of acting and directing came to be regarded with disdain, while cooler and more detached stylists were celebrated.

In truth, Lumet himself contributed to that decline in standing by the sheer number of mediocre films he made. The WizThe Group, and A Stranger Among Us are hard to defend, especially when the latter features Melanie Griffith playing a New York City police officer infiltrating Brooklyn’s insular Hasidic community. And so by the time Lumet was finally given an honorary Oscar two years ago as a consolation for all the awards he never won, it had been at least a decade since I’d seen a feature directed by him.

All of which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Lumet’s most recent film, released in his 84th year on earth, a special pleasure. In outline, the story could amount to little more than a heist drama with a minor twist. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a desperate, sweaty, drug-addicted payroll manager at a real estate office, convinces his younger, weaker-willed brother, played by Ethan Hawke, to rob their parents’ jewelry store in Westchester County. Inevitably, the plan comes apart with horrifying consequences. The script has a tricky time structure—somewhat similar to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—and in the hands of a younger director less interested in character it could have been a mildly diverting genre exercise caught on late-night cable.

Much of the credit, of course, should go to the screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, who writes crackling realistic dialogue and subtle, lethally spring-loaded scenes. But any hack director can screw up a good screenplay. When was the last time you read a review in which the critic said a script was splendid and full of great lines, but the actors and the director murdered it?

Instead, Lumet takes his time with the material, allowing scenes to breathe, giving his actors room to move and actually discover their characters in a way that seems utterly foreign in contemporary American film. One of my fondest memories of childhood was the way my mother would come home after a night at the movies, bubbling over with descriptions not so much of the plot or the costumes but the way people revealed themselves at certain moments. How Jack Nicholson smoked just so a cigarette in a doorway. Or the chilly way Catherine Deneuve almost smiled when a man held a door open for her. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is full of such moments, which give the film even more distinction than the clever time structure. There’s a terrific scene where Marisa Tomei, showing far more dramatic intensity—and skin—than usual, walks out on her husband following a devastating betrayal. Instead of ending the scene neatly on the kiss-off, Lumet lets it play out uncomfortably. We get to see Tomei trying to pick up her overloaded suitcase by the handle and then awkwardly boosting it up on a step and dragging it slowly to the front to the door while her husband watches, refusing to help her but helpless to stop her. So in essence the scene becomes about something more than just the betrayal; it turns into an agonizing little study about how hard it is to leave someone you’ve shared a life with.

The whole picture has something of that raw unvarnished feeling. Its jittery camera work and deliberately washed-out color scheme are more what you’d expect from an edgy young director straight out of Berlin or the East Village than a supposedly staid master who’s been working for more than a half-century. I think critics have grossly underestimated Lumet’s achievement in making the film this way. Most artists his age have begun to withdraw from life. I remember reading an interview some years back with his near-contemporary Elia Kazan, who directed Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront in his glory days, but confessed that near the end of his life his main interest was in his own thoughts. There is no sense of retreat or nostalgia in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. The man who made it seems to still be in thick of life’s melee, alert and alive to his characters’ sweaty desperation and thwarted dreams, ready to shine a harsh light into the darkest corners of their souls and perhaps discover something he didn’t already know there.

Sometimes, you’ll catch a great artist in decline and almost feel the need to apologize or make excuses for them. “Yes, I know Closing Time isn’t much, but you should have caught Joseph Heller when he wrote Catch-22.” Or: “I know that old man with the guitar is out of tune, but he did once write Johnny B. Goode.” But no one needs to make excuses for Lumet. Well into the sixth decade of his career (actually, the ninth if you count his experience as a child actor), he’s made a film that can stand beside his very best work. So maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.

© Peter Blauner
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