Obituary: Sidney Lumet

Image caption,
Sidney Lumet: Director with a social conscience

In a directing career lasting more than half a century, Sidney Lumet enjoyed a reputation for examining justice and integrity in films ranging from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon.

Born in Philadelphia in 1924, the child of two actors of the Yiddish Theatre, Lumet had trod the boards himself at a tender age, moved from stage school to Broadway and formed a theatre group that included the actors Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach.

After wartime service in the Pacific and study at Columbia University, Lumet served his directing apprenticeship in the 1950s factory of live television drama.

His lifelong mission to see justice upheld was demonstrated during the McCarthy era when he helped to protect the identity of blacklisted writers.

This same passion came to light in his electric big screen debut. Shot in 19 days, 12 Angry Men had a tight budget and virtually a one-room set, but it also boasted a striking cast and stark message.

Starring Henry Fonda as one individual determined to untie the prejudices of his fellow jurors, the film marked a whole new, intensely personal, era in legal drama.

None of the actors in 12 Angry Men was Oscar-nominated, but this was a rarity among Lumet's work.

Over the course of his career, he guided his actors to 19 nominations, varying from Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker to River Phoenix for Running on Empty.

Winners included Ingrid Bergman for Murder on the Orient Express, and Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, all three for Network.

The director was an actors' favourite, his theatrical background meaning he always encouraged their creative collaboration. He said, "I was an actor, therefore I know where it hurts."

Moral ambiguity

During a long career that produced more than 40 films, Lumet himself was nominated four times in all, for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict.

Image caption,
Faye Dunaway won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Network in 1976

His huge portfolio also included Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Anderson Tapes and Equus.

Although he occasionally ventured west to Hollywood to make such films as The Wiz and The Morning After, Lumet was at his best and happiest documenting life on the streets of his beloved New York.

Films like Serpico, Prince of the City, Night Falls on Manhattan and Q&A charted the moral ambiguity of the city's police force, its ethical code compromised by the need to protect its own.

Married four times, once to the American heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt, Lumet never really slowed down.

His 1995 book Making Movies, is a nuts and-bolts look at how films are made and remains required reading for up-and-coming directors.

At the age of 80, Lumet brought in yet another production, Find Me Guilty starring action star Vin Diesel, ahead of schedule and in time to accept an honorary Oscar for his "brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of motion picture".

His well-received last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, showed he had lost none of his touch, even at 83.

Describing his style in more typical modesty, Sidney Lumet said himself of his towering cinematic achievements, that "with a sure script and great players, it's natural to make a good picture. I work on what interests me, and I hope that it makes a difference for somebody."