Sunday, April 17, 2011

Remembering Sidney Lumet, and "The Pawnbroker"

Sydney Lumet died last week.  Another hero of the American screen is gone....
"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--Sidney Lumet
Until he died I never saw this quote.  I cannot offer anything better by way of characterizing the kind of filmmaker Lumet was, or why a few of his movies stand out as essential viewing for me.

Through only a handful of titles, he helped influence my way of regarding films, and my attitudes of the world as well.  The quote by Lumet, describing the potential of film and the responsibility of serious filmmakers, summarizes my own view, word for word.

Maybe that's why I have always been unusually drawn to the satisfactions offered by the movies he made. Lumet was not known for a particular style of film or for a recognizable cinematic technique. I will remember him for the kinds of subjects he would tackle, subjects that forced me to examine myself and the larger world.

Lumet never won a competitive Oscar. Every time he was nominated, another film captured the popular imagination more. He wanted to win, badly, and believed he deserved to on a few occasions. Maybe it was his devotion to New York that made him an outsider in Hollywood, where he never worked. Maybe his films bore the sting of truth, and voters were uneasy singling out his movies for the top award because they  were unflattering to themselves.

When I reviewed Lumet's Filmography after he died, I discovered that out of the 45-or-so pictures he directed, I have seen maybe only a dozen, at most. Of those, there are a few that are part of the grammar of my life, and are essential viewing.  I will briefly list these below, with an extended look at what I believe is Lumet's most important contribution to modern filmmaking: "The Pawnbroker."

SERPICO (1973):
It could be my memory of seeing this film at the Chicago Theater, an old movie palace that is now a live theater venue, that keeps this fondly in my list of top Lumet movies.  The awesome surroundings of the theater added to the mystique of this Al Pacino Oscar-nominee, the true story of Frank Serpico, an honest, hippie-like New York cop who endured a gunshot wound to the face and lived to stand up to corruption in the police force.  Pacino was animated and likable, one year after his brooding first round as Michael Corleone.  I still remember the music by Greek composer Mikis Theodorikis.  Lumet's camera was alternately down-and-dirty in the New York streets and admiring of its protagonist. I loved Pacino's portrayal, and his Serpico poster portrait graced college dorm rooms for years.

A departure for Lumet in subject matter only, as he deftly kept things lively aboard a stranded European train in this delightful Agatha Christie murder mystery with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.  What was not new to Lumet was his incredible facility with top actors, and this was an all-star cast: John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael York, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Laren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and surprise Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman (her third!).  On the surface this was a breezy and suspenseful exercise in film craft and ensemble acting. Geoffrey Unsworth's masterful photography and the music of Richard Rodney Bennett carried this along until the mystery is solved...and a moral dilemma is left to ponder.

It's sad that almost a year ago to the day, I highlighted this film in connection to the death of its outstanding Hollywood film editor, Dede Allen.  This is classic Lumet: a true story of the New York streets; characters in extraordinary circumstances; a protagonist who is an obsessed loner; a moral quandary; an entertaining and important subject done well by a crack screenplay; and actors given the support and direction they needed to perform at their peak.  At the heart of the film is a relationship between two men, one of whom will do anything to secure the money needed to effect their eventual marriage.  This was gripping, exhilarating, and way ahead of its time.  Pacino, again turning up the heat, and Chris Sarandon (Susan's ex) as Leon, Pacino's "wife".  John Cazale makes an iconic appearance too.

NETWORK (1976):
This is Lumet's masterpiece, his enduring legacy, and Lumet's best-known picture.  It's one of my favorite films by any Director or Writer.  Admittedly, the lion's share of this film's success belongs to Paddy Chayefsky for his visionary screenplay, a story about what happens when a 4th-rate TV network exploits the mental illness of its news anchor, and hands over its news branch to be programmed by the Entertainment Division. But Lumet found the tone, offered a fertile creative atmosphere, and brought in a classic of all time.  It was a comedy of absurd proportions---in the 1970's.  Shockingly, much of what was depicted as comedy is now accepted as routine practice.  Peter Finch was ouststanding as Howard Beale, the suicidal anchor who gets a "new lease on life" by being allowed to rant live on-camera, and who delivers the film's classic "Mad as hell" line. The film juggles a number of subplots, one involving a Patty Hearst-style kidnapping (developed into a weekly series, arguably the first "reality" show), and an affair between an aging newsman (William Holden) and a shallow, single-minded bitch of a Programming Director (Faye Dunaway).  Finch, Dunaway, Chayefsky, and Beatrice Straight (for her six-minute powerhouse monologue) all won Oscars.  Lumet, and the film, were robbed.  "Rocky" was that year's popular choice.

I would argue that "The Pawnbroker" is one of the most powerful films ever made in the U.S.  I would also contend that it was this film that exploded the Production Code, and the taboos surrounding what could be depicted on American movie screens.  It paved the way for adult fare that could be treated seriously, like "Virginia Woolf" and "Blow-up". 

Without the courage of Sidney Lumet and "The Pawnbroker", the innovative 1960's film renaissance might have taken much longer to develop, if it developed at all.

I watched "The Pawnbroker again last week.  Even by today's standard, a complacent acceptance of almost any on-screen atrocity, this is still a shocking, gripping and uncompromising film.  It is in-your-face, with no sentimentality or comfortable resolution.

Rod Steiger is Sol Nazerman, a harrowed survivor of the Nazi death camps, numbly earning a living as a proprietor of a shady pawn shop in a New York slum.  He supports the oblivious suburbanite family of his deceased wife's sister, mentors a young Hispanic man (named Jesu) who is trying to break away from the local crime boss (and Nazerman's employer), and fends off the attentions of a well-meaning and lonely social service worker.

Nazerman has grown a hard and angry shell, so that he can endure the constant reminders of the horrors that eventually took his family from him.  He fights so hard to numb himself against pain, and alienate anyone who might rekindle his tender feelings, that by the film's end he is consumed by pain.  He realizes that his very existence depends on the kinds of exploitation that lead to the suffering of his wife in the camps, that anyone he ever cares for will suffer, and that there is "nothing he can do". 

Steiger nearly melts a hole in the screen with his quiet and building intensity.  His work here ranks among the best that has ever been committed to film.  (In Oscar's long-running popularity contest, voters passed over Steiger in favor of Lee Marvin in "Cat Ballou".)

I can't imagine how audiences reacted to this in 1965.  The look and sound of the film is unpolished and has neorealistic immediacy.  The unusual balance of power and corruption between the races is unconventional and jarring. The controversial segment involving a naked prostitute, whose bared breasts remind Nazerman of the indignities suffered by his wife, is far from erotic, but heartbreaking, and it makes a moral point.

This still has the power to rattle one's sensibilities.  I credit Lumet with extending his artists full latitude to be creatively free, while providing a consistent tone, look and sound to the finished product.

Along with a simmering screenplay, there's film editor Ralph Rosenblum's experimental (at the time) use of "shock-cuts" to suggest Nazerman's fractured memories.  I long for this film grammar to be used again.   Quincy Jones' wildly discordant score, going from plaintive string-and harpsichord to late-night-jazz brass, is brilliantly right in providing mood and texture. 

(One of Jones' numbers, used during a steamy hotel tryst, was written in 1962 and was called "Soul Bossa Nova".  It will produce an unfortunate laugh now, because Jones also used it, at Mike Meyer's request, in the opening dance sequence in "Austin Powers").

By 1965, audiences had been exposed to the horrors of the death camps in "Judgment at Nuremburg" and "Night and Fog". It would be another 27 years before Spielberg completed "Schindler's List", which gave a more emotional, even sentimental account of Jewish persecution.  Still, "Schindler's List" was often a bitter tonic. It owes something to "The Pawnbroker", which is like that same tonic in concentrated form.

Sidney Lumet--1924-2011


  1. a true great who will be sorely missed. I NEED to see The Pawnbroker and Serpico. Fortunately, I'm familiar with the others: Murder on the Orient Express is one of my favorite movies, Dog Day Afternoon comes from that great year of cinema 1975 (Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, and our favorite NASHVILLE), and Network...dear God, Network is one of the greatest films ever made. Staggering in its achievement.

    I am also an admitted fan of the Connery-Hoffman-Broderick flick Family Business, an underappreciated dramedy that is only beloved, it seems, by my best friend and me.

  2. Family Business passed under my radar in the late '80's...a very busy time for me..But on your recommendation I will see it!
    Hope you can find a copy of The Pawnbroker...if only to deepen your appreciation of great film technique.
    Ah, 1975...a truly interesting movie year!!

  3. Oh my gosh. LOVE Orient Express! I'm a big ol' Christiephile to the nth degree. Grew up reading her novels. And what a cast! Too bad something like that hardly seems possible in this day and age - assembling a high-pedigree cast for a fun murder mystery... that'd be the day! Well done homage here, my friend. :)

  4. Thank you for your comments about both the shocking power of The Pawnbroker and the overall work of superb filmmaker Lumet.