Sidney Lumet, Remembered

Filmmaker died in Manhattan from lymphoma on Saturday at the age of 86
Sidney Lumet

    Sidney Lumet, who died in Manhattan from lymphoma on Saturday at the age of 86, was the director of more than 40 feature films, including several that have been hailed as landmarks of American cinema. From “Twelve Angry Men” in 1957 through the gritty street dramas of the 1970s (“Network,” “Serpico,” and “Dog Day Afternoon”) until his 2007 swan song, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” he was recognized as a master who explored both the darker recesses of the criminal psyche and the higher moral planes to which people sometimes can ascend.

    But when he was at home in his East Hampton house — where he spent weekends and summers since the 1960s — he was better known for sleeping.

    In 2007, he told The Star that he used his days off as a rare opportunity to stay in bed.

    Tony Walton — who served as a production and costume designer on several of Mr. Lumet’s films, and was reached for comment this week by The Star — confirmed that on the East End Mr. Lumet “had a lot of time religiously set aside for snoozing and watching ball-games.”

    The downtime was a crucial release after the breakneck pace he set during the filming of his intense dramas, and his highly demanding rehearsal schedule.

    Mr. Lumet was nominated for an Academy Award for best director four times, but never won. Instead, he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars ceremony in 2005.

    His filmmaking was characterized by two things: his slavish devotion to his actors’ performances and the naturalistic look and feel of the sets and production, often on location in New York City. He had acted himself in the Yiddish theater in the city as a youth, and on Broadway, he was quoted more than once explaining that that experience had taught him never to exploit an actor to get a scene. He grew tired of the emotional exposure necessary for success as an actor, he said, and that is what led him to pursue directing when he returned from service in World War II.

    Mr. Walton, who was until recently a Sag Harbor resident, recalled on Tuesday that Mr. Lumet had “an unusually long rehearsal period of three or four weeks. The same way you would rehearse for a theatrical production. And he was mobile all of the time, moving about the actors, becoming the camera in his head.” The process allowed Mr. Lumet to know before he even entered the set “about 80 percent of what he wanted to do. He saved 20 percent for lucky accidents,” according to Mr. Walton.

    At the same time, he was also a brilliant technician. As he noted in his book, “Making Movies,” in 1995, “A movie is like a giant mosaic made of thousands of tiny tiles.” He was responsible for all of them.

    “The lenses are the eyes of the movies,” he once remarked, in a talk in New York City in 2007. For example, “ ‘Prince of the City’ is a story of betrayal, so one of the things I did was throw out the normal lenses. Thirty-five or 40-millimeter lenses are considered closest to the eye. I used wide angle and telephoto so that distance was never what you expect.”

    Mr. Walton told The Star that in that same movie, in which he served as production designer, Mr. Lumet’s vision became more stylized as the detective played by Treat Williams, taking heat from narcotics cops during a corruption investigation, disappeared further and further inside his head.

    In a scene where the color was very controlled, “the prop master popped a bright red milk carton into the camera frame. It destroyed the design scheme we had made up.” He credited Mr. Lumet’s collaborative process with helping to see how jarring the color of the carton was to the rest of the scene. “He would insist that you as the designer look through the lens for the setup of each shot.” This was unusual in a business where there was often competition or tension between the camera and design departments.

    “Working with Francois Truffaut,” Mr. Walton said, “I was not able to look through the lens, but on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and every film I worked on with Sidney, he encouraged closeness with the cinematographer.”

    Mr. Lumet’s work sometimes brought him out to the South Fork, as in “Deathtrap,” a 1982 movie with exteriors shot in East Hampton. Rather than use the Connecticut farmhouse setting of the original play, Mr. Walton said, they decided it would “be more fun to have the couple live in East Hampton where their home could be a converted windmill,” using the unusual structure in a spooky and strange way reminiscent of the Hitchcock film “Vertigo.”

    In one scene, he said, “Dyan Cannon fears that the villain played by Christopher Reeve might be getting at her, and he is actually climbing the windmill and holding onto the blades, and she can see the grinding of the gears above her as she lies in bed in the scary moments before he breaks in.” They also filmed in and around the South End Burying Ground and Town Pond, as well as in Springs and at the East Hampton train station.

    Mr. Walton added that the play “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, which had a run at the Jewish Repertory Theater in 1996 and was directed by Mr. Lumet (with his set designs) had its origins at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

    Friends will remember fondly Mr. Lumet’s birthday parties in East Hampton. He was born on June 25, and shared his birthday with Bob Fosse, another moviemaker with a varied résumé, who died in 1987. The screenwriter Peter Stone and the stage and screen director Gene Saks would give “historically hilarious speeches about one or both of them,” Mr. Walton recalled, that were always eagerly anticipated and uproariously received.

    “He was just one of the most lovable people imaginable,” Mr. Walton said, “and the closest and best collaborator and friend.”

    Although he spent practically his entire life in New York City, which became the setting for most of his films, Mr. Lumet was born in 1924 in Philadelphia to Baruch and Eugenia Wermus Lumet. They moved to New York when he was still a baby, and he became involved in his father’s Yiddish-language theater troupe by the age of 4; according to Time magazine his first Broadway role came when he was only 11. After wartime service in Burma and India he returned to the States as a director. He worked in theater and television before moving to film.

    He is survived by Piedy Lumet (née Mary Gimbel), his wife of three decades. She was at his side through his decline in recent months; friends said that they were the sort of couple who never seemed to want to spend an hour apart. He is also survived by his daughters from his previous marriage to Gail Jones, Amy Lumet and Jenny Lumet (the screenwriter of “Rachel Getting Married”), as well as a stepdaughter, a stepson, nine grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. His marriages to Gloria Vanderbilt and Rita Gam, like that with Ms. Jones, ended in divorce. A private service will be held in New York City this weekend with a memorial service to be planned at a future date.