A film career of law and order
On the eve of a tribute by the Turner Classic Movie channel, director Sidney Lumet reflects on more than 50 years of filmmaking.
Film director Sidney Lumet has spent more time in courtrooms than many professional lawyers. From Lumet's first big-screen venture, "12 Angry Men," in 1957, through movies such as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City," "The Verdict," and "Night Falls on Manhattan," the director has consistently focused on stories that probe law enforcement and the judicial system to reveal what justice is and what it is not. As Lumet put it in a recent phone interview with the Monitor, "there is no justice without love."
On Oct. 11, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will pay tribute to the director in an in-depth interview with Robert Osborne, the TV channel's resident film sage. In addition to the discussion about Lumet's childhood on the stage, his apprenticeship in early TV, and a 50-year career that includes an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, TCM will air seven Lumet films. The package is a terrific introduction to his work, though the film selection is by no means comprehensive.
Lumet himself would be reluctant to pick out favorites from his extensive filmography, which encompasses 45 films and nine made-for-TV movies. "It's not fair to the people I work with," he says. "They come to work with you and they come in faith and ready to do their best. So if I say one is my favorite, then that means another film is not."
But Lumet cannot hide his fondness for "The Verdict" (1982), starring Paul Newman. Graced with an eloquent screenplay by playwright David Mamet, the legal thriller tells the story of Frank Galvin (Newman) a down-and-out lawyer who takes a medical malpractice suit to trial rather than settle the case. The main character is looking for salvation of sorts, says Lumet.
"Galvin uses the word 'faith' several times in his summation to the jury," observes Lumet. "He says, 'In my faith, we are told you have only to act as if you have faith and faith will be given you.... You have only to act with justice,' and so on. He is using 'faith' absolutely synonymously with 'love.' "
The Turner channel retrospective shouldn't be seen as a retirement party of sorts. His next film, tentatively titled "Find Me Guilty" (he prefers "Bad Guys"), is based on the longest mob trial in history.
The movie, starring Vin Diesel, is about one Mafioso who fired his lawyer and defended himself with charm and humor. "He had plenty of ego, of course, but he rapidly learned to rein it in," says the director. "He was smart in that street-smart way."
There were 76 charges against 21 defendants in the case, which lasted two years, but the jury threw out all charges against all 21 defendants in just two hours. The government made a mess of their case, says Lumet. He adds hastily that he's no anarchist. "Without the law, everything collapses," he says. "But the separation between law and justice is getting wider and wider all the time. That may be one of my greatest concerns today. The law says one thing, and we know what its intent was, but it is further and further away from justice. And it may very well be because there is less love in it."
Lumet says that he loves true stories because they are so much more dramatic than anything invented. "I don't pick material based on an idea I've got. I'm not a proselytizer," he says, adding in a self-mocking tone, "I'm a humble toiler in the vineyard who just keeps hoping the wine will be good."
• TCM will air: "Long Day's Journey into Night," "The Hill," "Network," "The Pawnbroker," "12 Angry Men," "The Appointment," and "Stage Struck." Check local listings.