Prince of the City, 1981, Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet

September 1 to October 19, 2023

We start the season honoring Sidney Lumet (1924–2011), one of the most exciting filmmakers to come out of the United States. In the half century between his celebrated debut Twelve Angry Men (1957) and his final work Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), Lumet directed over 40 features, including well-known classics like The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982) and Running on Empty (1989). Although these earned him a place among Hollywood's major directors, he kept his distance from both the studio system and Hollywood itself. He preferred to choose material set in the city where he grew up and to which he remained connected all his life: Like few others, Lumet left his mark on New York City in the second half of the twentieth century and captured the metropole's pulsating energy and diversity.
Lumet's parents were Polish immigrants who established themselves in New York's Jewish theater scene. Sidney himself made his stage debut as a child and, after serving in World War II, he founded a theater workshop with ties to the well-known Actor's Studio. His own acting experience and resulting skill for dealing with actors no doubt contributed to his reputation as an actor's director: He helped Ingrid Bergman win an Oscar (for Murder on the Orient Express) as he did for Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway (both for Network) and helped many superstars deliver top-notch performances, including Henry Fonda (Twelve Angry Men and Fail Safe, 1964), Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando (The Fugitive Kind, 1960), Al Pacino (Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon), Paul Newman (The Verdict) and Sean Connery. With the latter, Lumet had a special relationship that culminated in one of his overlooked masterpieces, the British police thriller The Offence (1973).
But Lumet also foregrounded collaboration in every other department: He compared his work with the creation of a mosaic in which each tiny piece should fit perfectly into the overall image. Like Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer, he belonged to that generation of American filmmakers who learned their trade in the 1950s under the extreme conditions of live television. This experience not only paved Lumet's way to the big screen, but also left a mark on how he saw himself as an artist: He considered French auteur theory to be nonsense because it ignored the important contributions of the rest of the crew. He always subordinated style to subject, which, along with his extraordinary productivity, resulted an extraordinary filmography.
It is hard to think of a stronger contrast, for example, than that between the elegant fluidity of an all-star ensemble piece like the Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express, whose historical flair Lumet brings to life through lavish decors and the conscious invocation of "romantic nostalgia," and the chiseled naturalism of Dog Day Afternoon, for which, one year later, Lumet aimed for a newsreel style so as to present as realistically as possible the true story of a recent sensational bank robbery – he even urged the cast to appear without make-up and in their own everyday clothing.
Despite his knack for stylistic transformations, Lumet remained true to his stories: Thematically, he was (ironically, considering his own skepticism) an auteur par excellence. His major subjects were conscience and the law – the justice system and the police apparatus appear again and again in his work. But Lumet was not interested in simple messages, trying instead to guide his audience to deeper reflections through dynamic dramatic constructions: Twelve Angry Men is in fact more contradictory than its reputation as a brilliant example of a liberal film suggests and in his major New York epic Prince of the City (1981), featuring Treat Williams as a police officer who becomes an informant to uncover corruption in his own ranks, Lumet was unsure about his relationship to the protagonist "until I saw the finished film."
It is this constant struggle in a system that corrupts and represses individuality that Lumet depicted in the widest variety of ways – and in every possible tone, ranging from apocalyptic drama to light comedy. In his stirring studies of the question of responsibility, he expresses his own individuality as a filmmaker, channeling his wealth of experience from classic theater to professional tradesmen open to every new technical innovation. The late honorary Oscar Lumet received in 2005 closed a circle for him: The economic advantages of digital technology allowed him to return to the multiple camera methods of his TV years, bringing him renewed success in TV and movies. Our selection of available 35mm prints provides a new opportunity to reconsider a classic American filmmaker. (Christoph Huber / Translation: Ted Fendt)

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