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Veteran director challenges today's films -- and audiences

By David Sterritt / August 13, 1981

In the center of a rustic living room, Michael Caine sits behind a desk. Christopher Reeve holds a pistol to his head. With menacing calm, Reeve explains the next step of his evil plan, backing slowly from his victime and out of the room. As he exits, a smallish man behind a large movie camera yells "Cut!" and jumps to his feet with a delighted smile.Another scene from "Deathtrap" is wrapped up and in the can.

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Like most Hollywood movies, "Deathtrap" is built mostly of illusions. The lightning that flashes during Reeve's monologue is generated on cue by a busy special-effects man, and even the living room is no rural retreat but a carefully constructed set on a New York City soundstage. Like the plot of "Deathtrap" itself, nothing is what it seems. And it's the job of the director, that furiously concentrating man behind the camera, to lead us through the labyrinth so artfully that we enjoy both the illusions and the story that they serve.

Since the director is Sidney Lumet, there's a strong chance that "Deathtrap" will prove as popular on-screen as it is onstage. Despite a plot that's too tricky for comfort, it has been running for years on Broadway, with a variety of stars in the leading role of a playwright who gets snarled in one of his own whodunit schemes.

Lumet is one of the most versatile filmmakers in Hollywood today. A veteran entertainer who insists on treating his audience and his material with equal respect, his work ranges from "Twelve Angry Men" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network."

He was attracted to "Deathtrap" by its wit and literacy, scarce qualities on the current movie scene. Before it goes into release, however, lumet will be represented by another picture of a very different kind, which opens later this month: "Prince of the City," an epical study of crime and punishment based on the real-life story of a New York cop who sparked a major probe of police corruption and connections with organized crime.

On the surface, it sounds like a reprise of "Serpico," an earlier Lumet hit. But this is no cunningly contrived "biopic" with a photogenic Al Pacino grabbing all the attention. "Prince of the City" is a long, relentless melodrama without a single movie-star face to conjure its many plots and subplots into a neat celluloid package. Though it periodically loses its way among cardboard characters and stereotyped scenes, it deserves hefty credit for attempting more than the average movie dreams of accomplishing.

Over sandwiches in a modest Manhattan office, Lumet recently discussed his latest ventures, and the Hollywood scene in general.

What appealed to you about "Prince of the City?"

It's a classic tragedy: A guy steps into a situation thinking he can control circumstances, and circumstances end up controlling him. I wanted the chance to do that time-less subject in modern times.

Why is it such a long picture -- nearly three hours?

I thought it would be even longer. The story covers several years, but that's not the main reason. We needed a lot of time because everything in the story must reverse itself sooner or later. Everyone who starts out looking good has clay feet revealed. Everyone who starts out low has moments of magnanimous behavior.

And it all happenedm -- we didn't invent any of it. It's a very uncommon picture, with no ordinary heroes or villains.You never get your feet planted -- everything is pulled from under you all the time.


Because I wanted no rubber-ducky psychological stuff about why people did things. I won't know why so-and-so did what he did, and he probably doesn't know either. And it doesn't matter. All that matters is what happens.