Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet, who just died at the age of 86, was probably the most famous of the first generation of TV directors to move into film -- him or John Frankenheimer. In a Hollywood where movies had come to look stodgy and static, he was one of several young directors who helped bring a new vitality to visuals and performances in Hollywood film.

A lot of his early movies were based on stage or TV properties, didn't have a whole lot of money to work with, and featured long static speeches. Many directors, then and now, think the only way to make something like that "cinematic" is to open it up, take it outside, find something to break up the monotony. Coming from live TV, Lumet understood that one person standing in a room giving a speech can work extremely well on the screen, as long as the performance is right and the camera catches it in the right way.

So it is in this scene from The Pawnbroker, one of Lumet's most influential movies (not just for getting Production Code approval for nudity, and thus pushing the Code one more step further toward complete collapse). Lumet was rightly acclaimed for getting the very best out of Rod Steiger, an actor who could go over the top unless he was extremely well directed. But he also catches this speech in a long take that doesn't have any sense of show-offiness. It's a long take that's claustrophobic and, once it settles on the medium close-up of Steiger, increases the intensity of the scene by its refusal to let us take our eyes off him until the speech is over.


Steve said...

A powerful moment. In early television, with its limited resolution and often imperfect home reception, directors learned to "tighten up" on the actors so the viewer could see them. And hear them... no body mics, so the shotgun overhead had to dip in low. The result was the kind of moment we see here, intense, intamite, and gripping. And and an actor up to the challenge could soar.

Compare this to the typical CinemaScope style of shooting in this period where actors get lost in the background.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I wish Lumet and Connery made more films together.

Michael Sporn said...

Lumet introduced me to Sean Connery, in an elevator, after a rough screening of FAMILY BUSINESS. I was to do the credits of the film. Connery was wearing an odd multi-colored patchwork jacket. He announced to me that the Prince of Arabia had given it to him as a gift. He then had to say that there was nothing going on between him and the Prince, they were just friends. An awkward pause in the elevator. Lumet invited me to have a drink with them in the restaurant bar downstairs. We chatted about the film. I couldn't say that I had a hard time seeing him as father to Dustin Hoffman who was playing father to Matthew Broderick.