Veteran director challenges today's films -- and audiences

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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.

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.

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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.

Why?

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.

That's similar to what "Raging Bull" tried to do, avoiding "motivations" and showing people in all their rawness and ambiguity. But this goes against the old Hollywood tradition, where everything is carefully worked out and explained.

Yes, and people like me are largely responsible for that old tradition. In Hollywood, and back in the so-called "golden age of television," we'd always wrap things into a neat package. But I've gotten to the point where I can't stand that. I know it's not true.

Those are the two good things about "Raging Bull" -- it doesn't try to make the main character sympathetic, and it doesn't try to explain him. It will be interesting to see the reception "Prince of the City" gets from the critics, because it's their responsibility to point out the approach I'm taking. But I can name four critics right now who won't like it, because we don't explain everything. It's all there, of course, but you have to work for it. It's not laid out in psychiatric terms.

There's a restless quality in many of today's movies.Even frivolous films like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman II" have unsettled conclusions that don't tie all the loose ends into a neat knot. It's not artful ambiguity -- it's real indecision, or a shameless priming of the audience for sequels that are still years away. What's going on?

Something very distressing is going on. The reason for that unsettled quality is that the movies have gone brainless. And what scares me is that it's probably the audiences' fault -- not Hollywood's, because Hollywood is just catering to a taste.

It's depressing and alarming. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter how brilliantly a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is done -- and Steven Spielberg ism a brilliant director. Here, and in things like "Superman II," what we're dealing with is infantile behavior: comic strips and Saturday-afternoon serials.

I don't care how respected the homage is, it's a homage to idiocy. There's nothing wrong with anyone's childhood. But there's something wrong with stayingm in it.

Many of today's filmmakers appear to be gearing their work directly toward the teenage and early-20s audience, who have the most time, energy, and money to spend on movies.

The movie executives worry about falling grosses, yet they're abandoning a whole audience. Maybe the older people won't come to the movies anyway these days, but a vicious circle has been created. The youth thing -- the "me" thing -- took over in the '60s and '70s. Young people became a major part of the audience. Then the studios began catering to it more, out of their insecurity. Older people stopped going, more young people started, material kept getting more banal, morem kids kept piling in . . . and the cycle doesn't seem to be breaking.

You seem quite unhappy about this situation.

I've been distressed about it for well over a year. This fall and winter, during the season when serious pictures should have been visible, only two movies really made money. One was "Stir Crazy." The other was "Nine to Five," with a stupid script badly directed. Even Jane Fonda was bad for the first time in her life.

And the corollary is that drama gets dissipated too. Ultimately, "Ordinary People" is a banal piece of work, a soap opera from the Good Housekeeping set. Yet that'sm our serious drama.

For anyone who agrees with your observations, this is sad commentary on the current scene.

It all reflects a childish inability to pay attention. There's a cut every seven seconds in the "Raiders" style of picture -- you have to keep jazzing the audience, constantly giving them something new to look at.

How does your work fit into this bleak picture? What about the scope of "Prince of the City" and the literacy of the "Deathtrap" project?

I don't know. I'm very nervous about "Prince of the City." I hope it gets good reviews, which it'll need to even get launched.

As for "Deathtrap," it's an old-fashioned and literate comedy thriller. I don't know if they'll sit still for all that talk. But I love plot, and "Deathtrap" has the best plot since "Murder on the Orient Express." At first I thought it would make som much money.Now I don't know.

At least your films offer some alternative to all the adolescent hits, regardless of what the specific critical response and box-office figures turn out to be.

I'll be fascinated to see what happens to my new ones. You see, I don't deplore all the pictures we've been talking about. What I deplore is that there are no other kinds.

And by the way, as much money as those idiotic pictures make, they've lost a lot, too -- a comedy like "1941" that didn't do very well, and a drama like "Heaven's Gate" that was a disaster.

Ivan Passer, who directed "Cutter's Way," thinks the "art of film" may rebound because so many bright young people are studying it in schools and colleges. They could become the core of a serious audience that wants to support serious movies.

I hope he's right, but I don't think he is. When a pictue like "Deathtrap" costs $9 million, there's no such thing as a "smaller audience" any more: A "smaller audience" won't pay that picture off! When the ordinary budget is $10 million, you have to sell a lotm of tickets to break even.

Also, I doubt if seriously young people will be seeking out movies to any great extent. They aren't entering the political arena lately, and those things always go together. In terms of my own career, when I became so successful in the '70s with so many hits in a row, I think it had a direct connection with the politically active generation that had emerged. They wanted to see the kind of movies I made. The success or failure of that kind of film is directly in line with what's happening politically in the country.

As for older people, maybe they've been driven away from the movies permanently. It's the TV syndrome you find everywhere today. I don't even like to go to movie theaters any more, because people just talk and smoke -- they think they're in their living rooms! I won't see movies under conditions like that.

You began your career in television. Might you return there someday?

I started in the early days of television. And I never left TV -- it left me , to follow a course I wasn't interested in.

Some of the TV movies lately have been pretty good. By contrast, I've read a lot of film scripts recently -- firm projects looking for a director -- and they're all rotten. But I don't think I'll go back to TV. Things aren't thatm desperate yet. And I wouldn't want to return from the big theatrical screen to that little box.

Unfortunately, that big screen hasn't been filled wtih much inspiration in recent times. Pictures don't even have endings any more!

When there's no mind behind a movie to begin with, there's nothing to resolve at the end. It's like the "feelie" in "Brave New World" -- we have movies designed totally for momentary sensation. They're just supposed to blind you for two or three hours.

Fortunately, though, a few thoughtful films are due in the near future -- "Ragtime," from the E. L. Doctorow book, and "Reds," the big movie from Warren Beatty. We'll find out a lot from the reception those pictures get. Whatever else you can say, we're entering a very interesting time. I can't wait to see how things turn out.

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