Cinema’s Last Great Moralist

While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.

– Sidney Lumet (as quoted in his New York Times obituary)

At PDP, we have a reading list of essential books about the art, craft, and business of entertainment.  A couple of years ago, during our Scene From Both Sides class, Nikki and I updated it for the students, and have kept up with it ever since.

I take that list pretty seriously.  And when we were preparing it for that class, I knew that there was one book that had to be on it, the one book that for me is not merely essential, but necessary for everyone who’s serious about film: Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet.

When I first discovered Sidney Lumet, I was too young to appreciate his place in film history.  I can’t even tell you the first of his films that I saw – at the time, he was more a presence than a reality to me.  But I knew that presence mattered, and as I continued my journey in film, I came to understand why.

It was through Lumet that I first began to appreciate that films could be more than mere escapism.  They could be about ideas, issues.  They could say something about the world, about what we are as human beings, and about what we should be.  They could have a consciousness, and a conscience.  And I think the moment you first realize that is the moment you first begin to understand what film is truly capable of.

Of course, this blog will be neither the first nor the last place to explore the moral themes of films like 12 Angry Men or The Verdict or Dog Day Afternoon.  You can’t talk about Sidney Lumet and not talk about the place honor, conscience, ideals have in his best films.  And you have to wonder if those films would have been his best films had he (alongside writers like Reginald Rose, David Mamet, Frank Pierson) not insisted on exploring them.

What makes 12 Angry Men a great film is that as much as a trial drives the plot, it’s not really about the trial, or about the legal system.  It’s about the one thing that’s both a fatal flaw and a saving grace to our systems of law and order: human belief.  It’s Juror No. 8’s belief in justice, in reason, in integrity, in being true to himself and to what he holds right, that compels him to stand firm, to fight for justice, to inspire the other jurors to overcome their own prejudices to accept and, more importantly, to do what conscience and the law require of them.

The thing I find most incredible about it is that 12 Angry Men was Lumet’s first feature film.  Shot in 1957, on a budget of $350,000.  And yet all the elements that made a Sidney Lumet film A Sidney Lumet Film were already in place, and would stay there throughout his career.

By the time Making Movies was published, just over 15 years ago, I was ready for it, in that strange way you can’t define until years later when you look back on a moment and realize it was one of the defining moments of your life.  I don’t know if any other book about film has had as great an impact, both for what it says about how films come to be and for what it says about what they can be.  For, of course, Making Movies isn’t merely about making movies – with Lumet as its author, how could it be?  It’s about making movies matter.

More than any other filmmaker, it was Sidney Lumet who taught me that they could.  And for that, he’ll always have my admiration, respect, and gratitude.

With that, Godspeed to one of the true greats – we shall not look upon his like again.

In pace requiescat…

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