Sidney Lumet, modern master

Special to The Times

THE name Sidney Lumet conjures a certain manner of movie -- a tough, tight film filled with strong performances and an exacting sense of process, an interest in procedure and how things work. In a run of films that included "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network" and "Prince of the City," Lumet laid down a template that is still closely followed today. One need only look at the press for such recent films as "Michael Clayton" or "American Gangster" to see how deeply ingrained and frequently referenced his style has become.

His latest, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which opened in limited release Friday, finds him firmly in his sweet spot. A gripping, tense thriller, from a script by playwright Kelly Masterson, the film is about brothers (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who decide to rob the jewelry store owned by their parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Nothing is supposed to go wrong and everything does.

Lumet is 83 now, and part of what keeps him going seems to be a hard-wired need to keep himself moving forward. Though he is one of the few people who can refer to Brando as "Marlon" and Chayefsky as "Paddy" and get away with it, he has never fit comfortably into the role of Grand Old Man. Seeing as he worked early in his career as a director during the "golden age" of 1950s television and has recently become a convert to working with digital video, one might even say he has come full circle.

"Do say it," Lumet remarked recently on the phone from New York City. "One of the things that delights me about high-def is I can work completely in live television techniques -- multi-cameras, two cameras, three cameras. And I find that a joy and very, very exciting for the actors."

He elaborates by mentioning a specific moment in "Before the Devil," when Hoffman tosses off an aside that brings an unexpected response from Hawke.

"I don't know why Philip threw it in. I don't care," Lumet said. "It was just the most perfect moment. That would have been almost impossible to capture if it had been shot by individual cameras -- we wouldn't have been able to get the spontaneity of that reaction. So the lucky accident, which is what we always hope for, seems more attainable with multi-cam."

Lumet was a onetime student of Sanford Meisner and "The Method," and he has directed 17 performances nominated for Academy Awards, including those by Katharine Hepburn, Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway and River Phoenix.

Amy Ryan, who appears in "Devil" as the ex-wife of Ethan Hawke's character, first worked with Lumet, whom she refers to as "the master," on the television show "100 Centre Street" and was surprised by how encouraging he was to her.

"I played three different parts in the two years it was on," she recalled. "He just kept having me back. I'd say, 'I was just on three episodes ago. They're gonna notice.' And he'd say, 'No, they won't. You'll figure something out, you're a good actress.' "

Lumet got involved with "100 Centre Street" largely to satisfy his own curiosity about working with a high-definition digital camera. He has no hesitation in saying that if he could have shot some of his classic films in the new format, he would have.

"That kind of naturalistic look, I cannot tell you how hard we worked on 'Dog Day,' " he said. "And we almost succeeded, but not quite. And I could have succeeded if I'd had high-def then."

At the end of the day, however, he says his interest in the technology of filmmaking serves only one purpose -- capturing the acting.

"The technical side is only there to support what I'm going to try and get in performance. That's what it's about. The main point of any technique is, to me, to get the best possible work with the actors.

The awards of a lifetime

Nominated for the best director Oscar four times, Lumet has more recently received numerous lifetime achievement awards. He will receive another in January from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

Rather than bask in a moment of adulation, Lumet is already preparing his next film, which he hopes to begin shooting early next year.

Lumet points out that there is often a simple, practical impulse behind critically lauded notions of style or theme. The much-vaunted New York films of the 1970s, he says, found their gritty street style in the fact that there wasn't enough studio space and there was nowhere else to shoot. Likewise, Lumet finds himself drawn time and again to procedurals because of the intrinsically elemental nature of the stories told.

"To get into any sort of cop drama, you've got one guy breaking the law, one guy upholding the law," he explained. "All of a sudden you don't need any explanation, any exposition. You get to the thing which I like as much as possible, getting right into a scene, right into the meat of a scene, rather than building up to it. That subject matter gives me a head start.

"But I don't think it's only that. I'm going to sound like something out of a 1930s drama now, but being a poor Jewish kid brought up on the Lower East Side, that's something that's automatically with you for the rest of your life -- the sense of us against them."

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