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What's The Verdict On American Masters's Take On Sidney Lumet?

By Sidney Lumet is a lost master class for the director's fans. How's it play for everyone else?

High-Profile Show Attempted: American Masters.

Subject: By Sidney Lumet, a never-before-seen interview with the late director of Serpico, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and Network intercut with Lumet's films.

How Far I Expected To Get: I'd hoped to watch the whole thing, and learn something about Lumet that might change my mind about him -- but going into BSL, I considered his work overrated. Not bad, mind you, but often self-serious and overlong and tending towards pointed and mawkish shot compositions (the lighting of Howard Beale in Network; the phone call to the precinct in Serpico informing the front desk that Serpico's gotten shot). Lumet had a gift for getting great, dimensional performances from his stars, but many of the works we're now told are classics, I simply don't respond to, the The Verdict isn't one of those...but at the same time nobody talks about how weirdly terrible it is.

As well, I read Lumet's Making Movies years ago, and found it a little off-putting, so, as this promised to be...that, in filmed-interview form, I wouldn't say I was hopeful, but at the same time, it's not that I enjoy being that guy who's all "ugh shut up about Network's prescience already"; I'd thought I might learn something, even if it didn't change my mind exactly.

How Far I Did Get

10:11 (out of an hour and 52 minutes)

What Did It: Opening with a story about what may or may not have been a gang rape (...it was) is an attention-getter, and Lumet's segue from that into the way he tries to convey social consciousness via a specificity of character and scene is noteworthy, but the viewer's soon mired in one of those weak-legged old-man stories -- this one about the production origins of 12 Angry Men -- that isn't as interesting as Lumet thinks.

But from there, we go straight into a lengthy clip from a You Are There episode -- that '50s show that transported headlines of the past to a "present-day" TV-news-report format, obliging Walter Cronkite to read copy about the "Hellenistic world" holding its breath re: the fate of Socrates. You Are There is a solid early-television concept that hasn't aged very well, and we'd have gotten the point from a clip at half the running time. That's Lumet for you, though, really. Or for me, anyway. Never met 90 minutes he couldn't underline up to two hours and change.

By the time BSL gets back to 12 Angry Men, a Lumet joint I do think merits its accolades, I'm reading Twitter in another window.

Worth Taking Another Run At It? If I can't even make it to works in color? ...By Sidney Lumet just isn't for me. If you have a rosier view of Lumet's works and days, though, give it a shot; it's well put together by director Nancy Buirski, and if you haven't read Making Movies, you're sure to find some behind-the-scenes intel about the creation of Lumet's best-known works. My own time's better spent on this William Goldman book about Broadway.

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