"There's a reason I've had some good pictures and other guys will never have good pictures," Sidney Lumet says matter-of-factly on a recent afternoon in his New York office — four cramped white walls, unadorned by awards or other memorabilia, on the top floor of the Ansonia Building, where Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini, not to mention Babe Ruth, once lived. Lumet's secret? "I know how to prepare the groundwork for the good accidents to happen," he continues, adding with an impish grin, "but whether or not they're going to happen, you never know."
That's the advice Sidney Lumet has been following for the breadth of a 50-year career that stretches from his Oscar-nominated 1957 debut feature, 12 Angry Men, to his latest, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which arrives in theaters following stops at the Toronto, New York, and Rome film festivals. All told, it is one of the more remarkable, if uneven, runs in American movies, marked by what the French critic Olivier Père has called Lumet's "hidden style" — not an instantly recognizable visual signature, à la Scorsese or Coppola, but rather a chameleonic adaptation of his methods to the material at hand, the cinematic equivalent of the architectural edict that form should follow function. He has also averaged a movie a year, resulting in several iconic and influential contemporary classics (Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon), a handful of overlooked gems (Prince of the City, Q&A, Running on Empty), and several unqualified misfires (including the boys'-school mystery Child's Play and the expensive musical The Wiz) that Lumet himself was loath to defend in his candid 1996 memoir, Making Movies.
An exceptionally taut, lurid thriller about two brothers — one (Ethan Hawke) down-and-out, the other (Philip Seymour Hoffman) living beyond his means — who conspire to rob their parents' Westchester County jewelry store, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of Lumet's finest, directed with ferocious energy and brutal efficiency that seem the achievement of a much younger filmmaker. But even in person, the jubilant Lumet belies his 83 years. Clad in his trademark uniform of denim shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he whooshes by me in the hallway upon my arrival, on his way to finish a photo shoot with a New York Times photographer. And as we sit down to talk, the legs of his 5-foot-6-inch frame swing animatedly beneath his desk chair, not quite touching the floor.
The Devil screenplay — the first by playwright Kelly Masterson — "just arrived in the mail one day" according to the director, who immediately liked the story but found it lacking a certain essential intensity. So he decided to make its two main characters siblings instead of merely old friends. "As soon as I thought of that," Lumet says, "it solved everything."
In that respect and more, Lumet's new film serves as a marriage between the hard-boiled, no-nonsense New York crime dramas with which his name has become virtually synonymous and the classical family melodramas (including his adaptations of Long Day's Journey Into Night and A View From the Bridge and the hugely ambitious 1983 film version of E.L. Doctorow's Daniel) that account for nearly as significant a portion of Lumet's filmography. It's a comparison Lumet is happy to hear.
"Melodrama is not considered a proper medium today. It's been relegated to the trash pile," he says. "But I love it. You know how they say that in a drama, you have to suspend your disbelief? Well, in a melodrama, you've got to create a belief, because the story is so outrageous and unbelievable. So how do you get your belief going?
"Well," Lumet says, answering his own question, "it doesn't hurt to start with a fucking scene." He's referring to Devil's opening bit of coitus uninterruptus between Hoffman's character and his wife (who happens to also be having an affair with his brother), played by Marisa Tomei. One of the most graphic sex scenes to be found in recent American movies, it, too, was Lumet's contribution to the script. "If you know my work," he says, "you know I don't exploit sexual moments. In fact, I rarely use them. But I thought you had to know right off the bat what this guy wants — fancy fucking with no reality around him. So that's what we started with."
Like many of Lumet's films, Devil is a treasure trove of brilliant performances, not just from Hoffman, Hawke, and Tomei but also from Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris (as the parents) and from the up-and-coming character actors (including Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, and Brian O'Byrne) who flesh out the supporting cast. Hailed as an "actor's director," Lumet has guided 18 performers (including Finney, in Murder on the Orient Express) to Oscar nominations, a skill he credits in part to his own training as a child actor and acting student.
"I know what frightens actors, and I know how they're paying for it," he says. "It's an enormously painful process. Look, all good work is self-revelatory. At least a violinist or a pianist has the abstraction of music as the statement. But when an actor's acting, when it's his anger or her sexuality or whatever has to be revealed in that moment, it's the actual person that's being revealed. Even when they try to hide, that's very revealing. Why did Laurence Olivier always find a reason for a false nose? If two actors are kissing and you believe the kiss, you believe it because they believe it. That's them up there, naked, ass out."
Asked to account for his own longevity in an industry famous for putting older filmmakers out to pasture, Lumet (who is already in preproduction on his next film) is more circumspect. "As we know, most people's best work is in the beginning," he says. "I don't know why I've kept working, and if the work is getting better — and I don't know that it is — I don't know why, either. I approach each thing for the sake of itself. I wish I could do in my life what I can do in my work, which is to really live in the moment. In my life, the past frightens me, the future frightens me. When I'm working, I'm all there."