The title of By Sidney Lumet can unfortunately be understood all too literally given that the documentary is essentially a monologue by Lumet as he narrates the course of his professional life as both an actor, writer, and director. Much like the recent De Palma, which equally suffers from the implicit reverence held by its makers, this feature-length doc sets out to do little more than provide a streamlined overview of the way certain details and events in Lumet’s personal life led him to a number of topics within his prodigious oeuvre, which spanned 44 films in just over 50 years.
For some, the mere proximity to Lumet will be enough to suffice as substantial viewing—a perspective that’s understandable given Lumet’s gravitas as both a thinker and a speaker. As the film opens, he’s detailing a pivotal moment in his life in the 1950s where he witnessed a young Indian woman being raped by a group of American GIs just outside of Calcutta. Confronted by one of the infantryman and asked if he “wanted a turn,” Lumet claims the moment became the defining question of his life: “Do I do anything to stop this?” He didn’t, and it was a decision that clearly recurred in his mind with enough frequency to be a point of trauma, having found its way into the ethical center of his work, from 12 Angry Men to The Verdict to Daniel.
Lumet, though, is adamant that he was never conscious of his films as message movies; he conceived of them as a matter of craft, believing that “if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” Such lines are scattered throughout the film as gems of wisdom that sound definite in their appeals to introspection, even if Lumet says his own mind, and art, doesn’t quite work that way. Lumet was clearly educated and precise in his artistic ambition; when he quotes Bertolt Brecht’s line about human needs, which goes “first feed the face, then tell me right from wrong,” it’s less of a mantra for Lumet than a reminder of a certain order of operations to politics and social action.
Director Nancy Buirski’s strength lies in taking a thematic approach to Lumet’s work, which prevents a chronological rattling off of one title after another. In fact, when topics such as father-son bonds are raised by Lumet, Buirski juxtaposes clips displaying such relationships from Long Day’s Journey into Night, Running on Empty, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead to immediately showcase the recurring theme, which Lumet says comes “perennial sources of drama” such as Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.
However, the effective assemblage of clips from Lumet’s films remains largely absent throughout lengthy portions of By Sidney Lumet, where a long clip may play for two or three minutes with questionable relevance to the words just spoken by the filmmaker. When Lumet discusses his ambivalent perceptions of Treat Williams’s character in Prince of the City, the discussion climaxes with Lumet realizing, “I made him a hero.” That the word “hero” prompts a cut to Paul Newman’s character from The Verdict suggests some parallel will be made to heroism. Yet the clip plays without commentary and creates the sense that Buirski may have lost sight of a rigorous formal engagement of her own while in the throes of Lumet’s body of work.
Lumet’s films have a gravity and a tightness that defines both their characters and their politics as urgent cries to some form of audience action. Chosen scenes from Dog Day Afternoon and Network, in particular, are scorching reminders of Lumet’s diverse but thematically focused catalogue. All of which marks the film’s final gesture, in which title cards trot out Academy Award statistics and Lumet’s lacking of a Best Director Oscar, as particularly dubious. It’s a head-scratching retreat into meaningless industry legitimacy, something Lumet’s films were seemingly never designed for in the first place.