The immediately engrossing documentary By Sidney Lumet is going to be best appreciated by serious fans of his large and impressive body of work. Similar to this year’s more exuberant filmmaker study, De Palma, director Nancy Buirski wisely puts the focus on the director himself, but instead of being a blow by blow account of each film on Lumet’s distinctive resume, the documentary explores the various recurring themes that can be found in nearly all of his films, and how his upbringing shaped him into the storyteller that he would become. Despite never having won an Oscar for Best Director, his films amassed 46 nominations, with six wins, while Lumet would work tirelessly into old age, with 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead being the final of 44 movies over 50 years in the business. And if he didn’t hit a home run every single time he released a picture, you could count on his efforts to be intellectual and serious-minded, never intentionally playing for the cheap seats, and always interested in character and story before sensation or artifice. In fact, Lumet might have been one of the more pragmatic and realistic big-screen directors of his day, less flashy than other “New York filmmakers” like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, but no less impassioned about that special city that never sleeps and the various people, places, and things that make it up. He got the city, and the city got him.
Lumet was a filmmaker with the sights and sounds and smells of New York City running through his veins, with a large number of his films taking place in and around the state, always knowing how best to capture the daily grind of one of the most iconic cities on the planet. Shot in 2008 before Lumet’s death, By Sidney Lumet smoothly cuts back and forth between fascinating talking-head footage of the legendary director recounting his life and work, with smartly chosen film clips from some of his better and slightly lesser known (and appreciated) pieces of work, which results in a brisk hour and 40 minutes of wise discussion, personal and professional introspection, and info-packed entertainment.
Some of my personal favorite efforts from Lumet would include Dog Day Afternoon, The Hill, The Offence, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Power, Fail-Safe, 12 Angry Men, Prince of the City, Night Falls on Manhattan, and The Verdict. There are films of his that I’ve not yet seen, and titles that beg to be revisited. When someone leaves behind this many cinematic offerings, it can become rather daunting when trying to track down each and every movie. But when you consider Lumet’s output (nearly a film per year since he got his start in 1957), it’s a body of work that deserves the fullest sense of recognition and respect. In 2005, the Academy would rightfully bestow him with an Honorary Oscar for his life’s work. By Sidney Lumet, which was produced by RatPac Entertainment, is currently playing in limited theatrical release, and is set to air on the PBS program American Masters on January 2, 2017.