Nancy Buirski’s By Sidney Lumet opens with the filmmaker reflecting on his witnessing, as a young man, the rape of an underage girl by a group of soldiers on a train. Lumet was permanently haunted by the incident; what’s left unclear, until the end of the movie, is whether in that moment he acted on his outrage or did nothing.
That’s a bold way to start a tribute, to introduce someone with whom we’re going to spend the next 105 minutes and are supposed to admire. It’s also a sly way of suggesting why, in so many Lumet films — The Verdict, Serpico, Prince of the City — the hero is a lone, morally righteous figure in a sea of corruption or violence. Sadly, it’s the only truly memorable story told in this documentary, which shares the flaws of the late Lumet’s own movies: It’s workmanlike and impassioned but ultimately preaching to the choir.
Part of the problem might be that Lumet’s calm, benevolent nature doesn’t yield all that exciting a screen presence. An early stage thespian who eventually moved into directing, he rejected the Actors Studio’s dogged championing of naturalistic “method” performance. Lumet’s insistence that there was room in the world for several approaches to acting got him booted from the Actors Studio. He trusted actors to cut loose and build a scene on their own (a tendency that some critics considered lazy, though no dissenting voices make the cut here — in fact, Lumet is the sole interviewee). And, unlike peers such as Elia Kazan, Lumet refused to manipulate his actors or break them down, instead treating them with utmost empathy.
All this harmony is nice to hear about, but surely a director who rarely took a year off from shooting and made close to 70 pictures in a 55-year career hit some bumps along the road. (For instance, Lumet said in interviews elsewhere that Al Pacino’s constantly-in-character mindframe during the production of Dog Day Afternoon unnerved him.) But, ever the mensch, Lumet discloses zero anecdotes about on-set blowups and precious few lessons on how to direct such capricious talents as Pacino, Marlon Brando or Paul Newman.
Though he talks, briefly, about how the studio heads’ habit of prying into some of his early projects influenced his angry television satire Network, Lumet comes across as having had a perplexingly smooth career. That's odd, since it spanned the McCarthy blacklist as well as waning audience demand for the sort of pious, man-against-the-system melodramas that were his stock-in-trade. (Virtually none of his films from 1989 onward, which were notably slicker, are analyzed. Nor, besides The Wiz, are any of his movies outside the drama genre — Deathtrap, Murder on the Orient Express, Critical Care — which is a bizarre omission given Lumet’s gift for comedies and thrillers.)
The biggest issue with By Sidney Lumet, though, is that the clips from his work are mainly virtuous and didactic monologues, which, when seen outside the framework of the full, wrenching films, appear stagy and obvious. At one point, Lumet sums up his career succinctly: “I’m not unique, I’m just lucky.” Whether he’s being sincere or not, few people will swallow that belittling statement. But while it's certainly a pleasant portrait, this film doesn’t do much to make its subject engrossing.