June Butler reviews the first full-scale biography of Sidney Lumet.

Sidney Lumet, who directed Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976) forms the subject matter of Aubrey Malone’s most recent writings in all things filmic. Having reviewed Malone’s 2015 book Hollywood’s Second Sex: The Treatment of Women in the Film Industry, 1900 – 1999, it is apparent that Sidney Lumet occupies an equal footing to his previous work – Malone is utterly dedicated to every topic he investigates with a mission to impart exhaustive and in-depth observations to the reader. 

Born in 1924 to Polish-Jewish emigrants who were both veterans of the Yiddish theatre, Sidney Lumet made his stage debut at the age of five. When still a child, he appeared in a number of Broadway productions, among them Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End which featured young actors known as the Dead End Kids. Lumet wanted to play the role of a ‘dead end kid’ but was considered too short in stature – an issue which caused great amusement to Kingsley and even more to Lumet himself. Lumet once quipped to a journalist “I could have been tall but I turned it down”. 

Sidney Lumet’s early years as a director were spent working in television and he learned his craft well, becoming adept in his chosen metier. He soon began to be labelled as an ‘actor’s director’ referring to the high level of support he gave to actors in his films. In turn, the performers went on to repay his faith in them with abject loyalty. Malone notes that when working with an insecure actor, Lumet would shout ‘print’ even after a bad take – Lumet did this to boost the actor’s morale. As well as being an exceptional director, attuned to the needs of the people working with him, he was also a shrewd psychologist – skilled at eliciting the best performance possible from every person he encountered in the industry.  

Lumet was, according to Malone, a miniscule giant – a man who reviled Hollywood and loved the stage. Every project he started was completed with passion. He lived for his work and often brought it home with him. He enjoyed being known as the ‘actor’s director’ because he felt that actors opened up more to him than other directors. Lumet didn’t throw tantrums nor was he a diva. His vision of New York where many of his films were set, was gritty and hard-core – he threw everything he had into each movie he made. Some of Lumet’s commitment paid off – at other times, projects that should have been given greater kudos, failed to make their mark. Not to be beaten, Lumet tackled the next film with even more vigour and dedication. Migrating from television to the cinema in the late 50s, Lumet hit the ground running with his first feature, Twelve Angry Men (1957). He preferred urban dramas where the action centred on psychological turmoil – decoding human emotion was more relevant to Lumet than the panoramic scenes of a John Ford or Howard Hawks motion picture. 

Aubrey Malone approaches all of his projects with the same commitment and enthusiasm – bringing with it a thorough and complete overview of, in this instance, the life of Sidney Lumet. Malone is an author who is methodical in his approach and equally painstaking in his studies – his readers are all the richer for it. 

  • Publisher : McFarland; Illustrated edition (30 Oct. 2019)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 200 pages

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