Sunday, April 10, 2011
An Unseen Style
Thirty years ago I was walking through the park near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge when I saw a film crew shooting a scene for a movie.
The film was Prince of the City, a story about police corruption in the NYPD starring Treat Williams, and the director was Sidney Lumet.
I was just out college, a budding film genius, and I was dying to get a look at the man who had given us Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Pawnbroker and so many other great films.
They were shooting right under the bridge—the scene is only a few minutes long in the movie—and I couldn’t see very much.
There was this rather obnoxious English production assistant stalking around the barrier—what the hell was she doing in Brooklyn?--and I asked her if Lumet was there.
“Yes,” she said with mild exasperation, “he’s here directing.”
Well, screw you very much, sweetheart. Maybe he hadn’t gotten there yet, okay?
I hung around a little while longer, hoping I would see Lumet, bowl him over him with my awesome talent, prompting him to take me on as his assistant, which would kick off my fabulous career on the other side of the barrier and soon people would be craning their necks in hopes of getting a view of me.
That didn’t exactly happen. I hung around for a little while before leaving and I never got the chance to meet Sidney Lumet, who died on Saturday at the age of 86.
Glad as Hell
As I read his obituary, I couldn’t get over how many great movies this man had made. In addition to the ones I already mentioned, there was Network, The Verdict, The Hill, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, The Anderson Tapes, just to name a few more.
And he was working almost up to the end, having made Before the Devil Knows Your Dead in 2007. If you want to see my head explode, just ask me to name my favorite Lumet film. I don’t think I could do it.
Lumet’s films were always so powerful, mercifully lacking in all the film school trickery that may look good on the screen but doesn’t advance the story or expand the characters one inch.
“Good style, to me, is unseen style,” he once said. “It is style that is felt.”
Oh, how right he was. Who could forget Al Pacino chanting “Att-it-ca! Att-it-ca!” in Dog Day Afternoon? Or those gripping scenes in Fail-Safe where Henry Fonda, as the president, tries to avert Armageddon as he speaks through an interpreter—a young Larry Hagman--to the Soviet premier. The scenes feature just two fine actors, a telephone and some incredible filmmaking.
I recall reading that Lumet never allowed the credit “A film by Sidney Lumet” to appear in any of his movies. This is shocking when you think of all the no-talent losers out there who have the gall to use the “A film by…” line on the some of crappiest movies imaginable.
And interestingly, Lumet said that he didn’t think art changes anything.
“I do it because I like it,” he said when asked why he made movies, “and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.”
Watching his movies is a wonderful to spend your time.
I try to imagine what I would have said if I had actually gotten the chance to meet Sidney Lumet by the bridge that day.
Knowing my younger self all to well, I probably would’ve gotten all tongue-tied and wound up making a fool out of myself.
But I know what would I like to say to him now and it’s summed up in just two words: