By Sidney Lumet (2016) Nancy Buirski

by_sidney_lumetAlong with Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Brian DePalma, Arthur Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, John Frankenhiemer and Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet was one of the filmmakers from the period roughly beginning in the late 1950’s through the late 1970’s that shaped and formed my love of cinema. With the imminent demise of the studio system, that period was a significant turning point in American film. Overblown, over budgeted Hollywood productions and television would help end the Hollywood Studios stranglehold. A new order was on the horizon as were a new legion of filmmakers and Sidney Lumet was right in the mix. Continue reading

Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) Sidney Lumet

Okay, first let me say that “Night Falls on Manhattan” is not a bad movie; it is just by 1997 we had seen it all before and better. Lumet is on familiar territory here, political fraud, crooked cops, and ethical dilemmas. It is a road he has traveled on many times and at a far better speed. What was once shocking in “Serpico” is now old hat, been there, saw that last night on “Law and Order” or some other TV police show. 

Life isn’t black and white; there are always shades of gray, that’s the theme running through this political drama. Based on the novel, “Tainted Evidence” by Robert Daley, author of “Prince of the City” and “Year of the Dragon” among others, high values are thwarted, the good guys are not all good, the villains are victims of life, and all are casualties of their owned flawed behavior. Lumet made movies for adults, his characters were not cardboard cutouts, they were real three dimensional people in difficult situations, and never perfect. No matter how hard they tried, they would get caught up life’s complicated twist and turns. Continue reading

Sidney,We Hardly Knew Ye

Like his New York cohorts, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet never quite fit in with Hollywood and remained outside the system for his entire career. A career that spanned well over forty-five years going back to the days of live television dramas when he and fellow directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, among others were creating their own version of a new wave.

Actually, Lumet’s career goes back to his childhood in the Yiddish theater district along 2nd Avenue in lower Manhattan. His made his Broadway debut, as a child actor, in the original production of Sidney Kingley’s “Dead End.” He appeared in at least ten other Broadway productions including the 1946 production of “A Flag is Born” where he was a replacement for Marlon Brando.  Lumet made one appearance in a film as an actor in “One Third of a Nation” (he also had a cameo appearance in Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”), a film most noted for being the last to be shot at the old Astoria Film Studio in Queens that is until Lumet inaugurated the refurbished studio in 1978 with the making of his failed musical, “The Wiz.” Continue reading

The Fugitive Kind (1959) Sidney Lumet

Recently released on DVD by Criterion this little seen film is a revelation. Based on Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending” the film focuses on Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier (Marlon Brando), a drifter whose sexual magnetism disrupts life in a small Mississippi town.  Interesting enough Williams wanted Brando and co-star Anna Magnani to be in the play. Both declined and the roles eventually went to Maureen Stapleton and the less than charismatic Cliff Robertson. The play was a flop financially, Williams first major bomb closing after only 68 performances, still the producers were able to make a deal with United Artists to make the film with Sidney Lumet who only had four films to his credit as a director.  Anna Magnani agreed to do the movie as long as Anthony Franciosa, who she was having an affair with at the time, was awarded the role of “Snakeskin.” Franciosa potentially would have been good in the role, however he was not a big enough star to get UA to provide the budget needed to make the film. The producers wanted Brando and offered him one million dollars, at the time the highest salary ever, if he accepted the role. Brando just finished directing his first and only film, “One Eyed Jacks.” Financially he was in a  hole. His production was in the red due to the slow pace he worked while directing the western. Additionally, he was in the middle of a divorce. Needless to say, he quickly accepted the deal. Later he would claim he sold his soul when agreeing to make this film. The producers now had two “Snakeskins” and had to get rid of one, namely Tony Franciosa. The question was how was the fiery Anna Magnani going to respond. To the surprise of all, she was okay with it, deciding that she too would dump the unfortunate Franciosa and planned to begin an affair with Brando her new co-star.  The problem was Brando was not interested. This caused much friction on the set between the hot-tempered Magnani and the rebellious million dollar star, with the young director in the middle.

As the film opens, Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier is run out of one town by a judge. He arrives one dark rainy night in a small town in Mississippi.  His only possessions are his guitar and his snakeskin jacket (one wonders if this was the inspiration for Nick Cage’s character in “Wild at Heart?”). The women in town are attracted to the enigmatic stranger. There is the young and wild Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) and Vee Talbott (Maureen Stapleton), the wife of the brutish town sheriff, who will find her artistic calling after meeting Val. Of all the women in town, it is Lady Torrance who is most affected byVal’s attention. She gives him a job at her husband’s general store. Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory) is a racist and an abusive husband who does not let the fact that he is slowly dying stop him from being an ornery SOB. Lady, an outsider herself, is trapped in unloving marriage, in a town filled with narrow-minded conventionality and bigotry. With Val her passions for sex, love and life are rewakened. She views this awakening as her refuge from her bored existence ignoring the potential consequences that may result.      

The story is filled with what one expects from Tennessee Williams, the gothic south, sexual frustration, repression and a bit of madness all rolled up into to one big wet mint julep. The pace of the film is unhurried, it just adds to the slow boiling volcanic eruption that you can feel is about to take place before the film ends.

Sidney Lumet, best known for his New York films, veered away to the South for this, just his fourth film (he actually went north, upstate New York near Poughkeepsie to a small town called Milton that was made up to look like a small southern town). With the help of cinematographer Boris Kaufman whose stark black and white images gives the film’s visuals a gothic noirish quality at times reminding one of “The Night of the Hunter.” Brando looks great, his performance filled with a powerful intensity and the animal magnetism the role requires.  Anna Magnani is mesmerizing with her fierce personality and Joanne Woodward, in a role that is as unguarded and dangerous as anything she has ever done verges on the edge of going overboard but never quite does. Victor Jory is the face of nasty evil and R.G. Armstrong is perfectly cast as the sadistic sheriff. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the acting alone.

As an Italian-American, for me one of the more interesting aspects of this work is the treatment of the Lady Torrence character. Like Val, Lady Torrance is an outsider; she is even treated by her tyrannical husband with no respect.  One has to remember that the source material was written before the civil rights movement where Blacks, and Italians, were treated as second class citizens in the South.  When many Black people began to move up North in hopes of a better life, Italians were brought in to replace them as cheap laborers. They were looked down upon and treated as second class citizens by the locals.  Growing up in the South, Williams would have been well aware of this. He also had an Italian character in his play, “The Rose Tattoo” (again played by Magnani).

Over the years, most critics have damned this film as minor Williams, a twice failed play; the original version was called “Battle of Angels” which closed in Boston never reaching Broadway.  Years later he rewrote the play renaming it, “Orpheus Descending.” As a movie, the story was given a third chance at life . “The Fugitive Kind”  is one of those films that just gets better with age.

****

Serpico (1973) Sidney Lumet

Heroes are in short supply these days. A recent article in the New York Times made me take another look at one real life hero from my own younger days.  Sidney Lumet’s 1973 work, “Serpico”, based on Peter Maas’ bestselling non-fiction book of New York City detective Frank Serpico, who along with fellow officer David Durk, confronted wide spread police corruption placing their lives on the line in the face of a closed culture that best considered to leave things status quo.  Maas’ book focuses on Serpico’s story reducing Durk to a supporting player, though one suspects he had to be more involved that the film lets on. In the film, Anthony Roberts portray Bob Blair supposedly Durk, under a fictional name.     

Serpico is a young Italian-American who seems is alone in his position as an honest cop. Surrounded by a closed society, the blue wall, that consents to police officers getting a free lunch, literary, receiving payoffs to look the other way, and extorting money from criminal elements allowing to “do their business” without interference from the law.

 

An oddball within the police department, not just for his honesty and refusing to accept favors, but also in his rather bohemian lifestyle, at least bohemian for a police department filled with “straights” versus a “hippie” mentality. Serpico lives in the Village; he reads biographies of artists like Isadora Duncan. His girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) is a dancer with a seemingly waspish background. Serpico is the antithesis of your typical police officer wearing long hair and a beard in a time when the style was considered radical.   

We first see Serpico graduating from the police academy with his proud immigrant parents at his side. As a rookie, Serpico just observes his fellow officers, saying nothing preserving his own code of ethics though every other cop seems to be accepting favors, even if it is just donuts from a local coffee shop. When he eventually expresses his objections to his superiors, he is placated by superiors who promise an investigation but do nothing. He soon builds a reputation as someone who cannot be “trusted” because he’s honest. He is transferred from one precinct to another. No one wants him around; the honest cop cannot be relied upon. His continuous accusations are met with false promises that there will be an investigation. His life is in danger; the threats come from his fellow officers, not from the criminal elements he faces in the streets every day.

Realizing the department will not clean up itself, Serpico and Blair leak the story to a major newspaper and the internal corruption becomes front-page news. Frank becomes a star witness in Mayor’s commission to investigate corruption within the police department.  Transferred to a narcotics squad in Brooklyn, it all come to a tragic eruption when during a drug bust, two fellow officer’s stand by and watch Serpico be shot in the face. The film concludes with Serpico sitting at a pier with his dog as the final words on the screen tell us he is now living somewhere in Switzerland.

Al Pacino gives a tense but controlled performance as Serpico, an intelligent and idealistic man who refuses to accept the status quo. At this early stage in his career, Pacino gave us some of his best work in a series of films that could not be sustained for long, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “The Godfather 1& 2”, “Scarecrow” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, it was one heck of a ride.  “Serpico” also gives us a rarity in American film, a heroic Italian-American instead of the usual portrayal of Italian-Americans as underworld figures or stereotyped as lower-class goomba’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx. Still the film plays down Frank’s Italian-Americanism, we do not see much of Frank’s background, his parents are shown only when he graduates from the academy and in the hospital when he is shot, other than that, Frank lifestyle is free of ethnicity. He moved out of the old neighborhood and into the more bohemian Greenwich Village, his girlfriends are non-ethnic and or artistic types.

Sidney Lumet has a feel for New York rivaled by only a few other directors (Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen are others that come to mind) and during his career Lumet has had a special affinity for looking at corruption and the relationships between good cops and bad cops within the New York City police department. He has address this subject in at least four movies, “Prince of the City”, “Night Falls on Manhattan”, “Q&A” and “Serpico” with varying degrees of success.

More than 35 years later “Serpico” remains a powerful and unsettling film. It’s not perfect, ii is marred specifically by an annoying soundtrack, and unlike, “All the President’s Men” a film made a few year later, by having to have use fictitious names for most of it real life characters. The film also gives the impression that practically the entire police department, except for two or three individuals, were corrupt, a fact that is hard to believe. That said the corruption that did exist at that time had to be wide spread enough that the true life Knapp Commission, formed by then Mayor John Lindsay did investigate police corruption and reform soon followed.

****1/2