Of all the films excerpted in Nancy Buirski’s warm, roving documentary “By Sidney Lumet,” the one that she keeps returning to is the great director’s 1957 first feature, “12 Angry Men.” It was, as Lumet recalls, a project he landed through sheer luck, after Henry Fonda saw an off-Broadway play he had directed and recommended him for the job.
Yet happenstance doesn’t account for how thoroughly that film encapsulates so many of Lumet’s career motifs: a persuasive portrait of a government institution, a fascination with the creaky machinery of law and order and a drama that pits one man’s principles against a hostile, uncomprehending majority. From “12 Angry Men” onward, through “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and numerous others, Lumet’s filmography has concerned itself with men forced to act on little more than conscience and nerve, to stand up to the sneering individuals and rotting systems that threaten to swallow them alive.
Early on in this PBS “American Masters” documentary — built around an interview that the late filmmaker Daniel Anker conducted with an 83-year-old Lumet in 2008, three years before the latter’s death — the director recalls his own fight-or-flight moment, when he once witnessed a horrific act of violence in Calcutta and failed to intervene.
But having offered up this confessional moment, Lumet deflects our impulse to read too much into it. While acknowledging the presence of a clear moral sensibility in his work, he notes, “I’d say it’s an unconscious choice. I don’t pay any attention to it.” Or, as he says later: “All good work is self-revelatory.”
True enough. Focusing on the task at hand, allowing deeper meanings to assert themselves naturally, more or less captures this director’s working method, and perhaps accounts for his tireless, astonishingly prolific output over his six-decade career. Luck, hard work, discipline, sensitivity, professionalism — these are the qualities that he repeatedly highlights as the hallmarks of his success, shunning even the slightest hint of authorial self-indulgence or ego.
None of which should be taken to mean that Lumet took an impersonal attitude toward his work, even if some of his critics have suggested as much over the years, mistaking the director’s stylistic restraint and clean, direct storytelling for a lack of aesthetic ambition. One of the achievements of Buirski’s absorbing documentary is that it allows Lumet to remind us, in his own voice, of the passion in his ostensible dispassion — the way he deftly subsumed self-expression within the brisk rhythms of his material and the superb performances of his actors.
Not unlike the recent “De Palma,” a similarly fine portrait of a great American director, “By Sidney Lumet” pulls us into the hypnotic, cascading flow of its subject’s words, with no outside voices on hand to challenge or corroborate them. It will come as little surprise to anyone who has read Lumet’s 1996 memoir, “Making Movies,” that he is a supremely eloquent and companionable presence, with a demeanor that suits this focused yet relaxed portrait.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the film spends some time initially laying out Lumet’s Depression-era New York childhood and his early start performing in radio and theatrical productions (courtesy of his father, a Yiddish stage actor), an experience that immediately set him on a creative path and established his tireless work ethic.
At one point, Buirski (working with editor Anthony Ripoli) intercuts Lumet’s reminiscences of his hard-working dad with an image of another actor father, James Tyrone (played by Ralph Richardson), in a scene from his 1962 film “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It’s a lovely, intuitive association of a sort that Lumet nonetheless seems to contradict later, when he notes that family, far from holding some unusual significance for him, is simply one of the essential building blocks of drama.
Certainly that insight seems to unite films as different as his 2007 tour de force, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”; his 1968 Chekhov adaptation, “The Sea Gull”; and “Daniel,” a 1983 dramatization of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Despite (or because of) the film’s critical and commercial failure, Lumet counts “Daniel” among his finest achievements. He also spares a few affectionate words for “Running on Empty,” his under-loved 1988 drama about a family of fugitive radicals, and 1978’s misbegotten “The Wiz,” particularly those sequences he wistfully recalls filming at the World Trade Center.
Buirski nimbly threads in insights about everything from Lumet’s love for his chosen city (“When I leave New York for anyplace, my nose starts to bleed”) to his thoughts on the legacy of the Holocaust, as seen through a detailed look at “The Pawnbroker” (1964). Lumet recalls his skirmishes with the 1950s Hollywood blacklist, to which he responded by directing an episode of the historical reenactment series “You Are There,” pointedly focused on the Salem witchcraft trials. Notably, he expresses a measure of sympathy for Elia Kazan, acknowledging the atmosphere of fear and persecution that led him and others to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
By the time Lumet arrives at the justly celebrated career pinnacles of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico” and “Network,” his empathy with the outsider and his instinctive distrust for the American establishment — whether it took the form of a police force, a TV newsroom or Hollywood itself — have come powerfully to the fore. “Everything conspires to crush your individuality,” he says, even as this documentary touchingly reaffirms this director’s own.
‘By Sidney Lumet’
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre