5 Essential Life Lessons From the Films of Sidney Lumet
The late filmmaker Sidney Lumet leaves behind a half-century's worth of masterpieces (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict), misfires (The Wiz, Gloria, Guilty as Sin), and enduring curios (Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, The Group, The Offense). Among that body of work are a few vital lessons any moviegoer would do well to take to heart.
1. First impressions are everything
Contemporary filmmakers could learn a lot from Lumet's openings, the most expressive of which feature long, gradual shots working from the outside in. Sometimes this is literal; take 12 Angry Men, which marvelously sets up the entire narrative in about seven shots -- a courthouse exterior to a young murder defendant's close-up -- before getting to the opening credits. The effect compels viewers to digest the stakes while entering the deliberation room with the jurors. Subtle stuff, but utterly standard-defying for its time.
On other occasions the outside-in technique is more figurative. For my money, Lumet never surpassed the opening credits of The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, a washed-up, ambulance-chasing attorney gripped by a crisis of conscience. Dollying in to Newman's profile -- virtually a silhouette to start -- Lumet gradually blocks out Galvin's pinball game, beer mug and cigarette distractions, leaving only a pub-cloistered nobody against the chilly backdrop of winter. The intrigue is instant. (And who needs credits music, anyway?)
2. All you need is a table.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. From the start, Lumet went simpler: Just sit some excellent actors down at a table with a good script, and get out of the way. "But how is that directing?" one might ask. It's all in the set-up, as evidenced by these three diverse, extraordinary scenes from Network, The Verdict, Running on Empty -- to say nothing of 12 Angry Men.
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