Have we lost Deathtrap to political correctness? It was once celebrated for its frank depiction of sexual orientation, but in an era of safe spaces, are its unsavory characters now a too edgy for the professionally sensitive? You have to wonder, since it is completely absent from a new career-surveying profile of its director, Sidney Lumet (aside from the final screen crawl of his filmography). Nancy Buirski covers all the Lumet core requirements (12 Angry Men, Network), but her choice of electives is frustrating in By Sidney Lumet (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
There was good reason for Lumet’s reputation as an actor’s director. He understood thesps because he once was one himself. As a child actor, Lumet started out in Yiddish theater, before moving onto Broadway and radio (where the bread was really terrific). In time, the grown-up Lumet segued into theater and television directing, working prolifically on the Golden Age dramatic showcases. He also happened to direct an Off-Broadway production of Mr. Roberts Henry Fonda rather liked, so the star was amenable when someone suggested Lumet to helm the theatrical feature version of Reginald Rose’s teleplay, 12 Angry Men.
From there, Lumet and Buirski go film-by-film, mostly in rough chronological order. Plenty of time is justly devoted to The Pawnbroker, Network (still a grossly misunderstood film), Serpico (including a few bars of Bob James’ kind arrangements), and Dog Day Afternoon. On the other hand, Lumet’s red diaper baby films, Daniel and Running on Empty get disproportionate attention. Fail-Safe and The Verdict are also duly covered, but not as extensively as you might expect. However, his Oscar-winning outlier, Murder on the Orient Express is only seen in passing.
When you have credits like Lumet’s, an interesting minor film like the le Carré adaptation The Deadly Affair is understandably overlooked (it also might have been better known if it had not changed George Smiley’s name, for contractual reasons). However, Buirski’s determination to frame Lumet as the great voice of morality in American culture gets a little heavy handed, especially for the generally modest Lumet.
The best of Lumet’s films could provide grist for hundreds of film studies theses, but when he was off his game, he could drop bombs like Gloria and Critical Care. Hey, nobody is perfect. Of course, it might have been interesting (and even instructional) to hear more about the misfires. As it stands, By Sidney Lumet is highly watchable, like an installment of American Masters, where it is indeed ultimately destined. Recommended for fans of 1970s New York cinema, By Sidney Lumet will eventually air on most PBS stations, following its special screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.