By Sidney Lumet is nothing more than the director discussing his life and films and life in films, with scenes from his films underlining Lumet’s point one way or another. That’s it. It’s as bare bones as you can get. Luckily, Lumet is an intelligent, enjoyable presence with plenty to say about his art, and, for the most part, the films he directed are pretty fabulous.
One could compare this to the recent Brian De Palma documentary, De Palma, except that De Palma is a colorful, mischievous, brooding, egotistical, and occasionally petty subject, while Lumet seems pretty well-grounded. Along with his process and his predilections, viewers find out some remarkable observations about a destitute childhood on the Lower East Side, the general atmosphere of growing up among radical Jewish leftists, and getting questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee for attending a “meeting.” All of this becomes fodder for his work, and he is quite aware of the connections and explicates on it expertly, with some particular insights. For one example, he considers himself a New York filmmaker: “You take me out of New York and my nose starts to bleed.” He also has interest in the antihero and bases it on an incidence of cowardice that he experienced as a young man.
What you don’t get is great filmmaking about this great filmmaker. The talking-head interviews are framed in a medium shot, with occasionally a close up, of Lumet against a dark background. There’s no probing interviewer asking questions. Essentially, if you closed your eyes and considered this as, say, a podcast, you would be no worse for wear. However, you do see clips from his great films: Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and also some forgotten classics from his oeuvre, The Fugitive Kind and Running on Empty.
If you are a fan of Lumet, and I am, this will be worthwhile checking out.