Why Sidney Lumet Fought the Law

Thane Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal Speakeasy blog, April 11, 2011

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By Thane Rosenbaum

Legendary New York film director, Sidney Lumet, who had been nominated for five Academy Awards before winning one for lifetime achievement in 2005, died this past Saturday at the age of 86.

He directed over 50 films and another 200 teleplays during Television’s Golden Age in the 1950s, but for many he will be remembered most for his iconic films about the legal system: “12 Angry Men,” “The Verdict,” “Daniel,” “Find Me Guilty” “Night Falls On Manhattan,” along with his television series, “100 Centre Street.”

I knew Sidney for many years. He once appeared on our stage at the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School, which I direct. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who we hosted last year at our annual Film Festival for a screening of Lumet’s, “12 Angry Men,” told the audience how that film influenced her decision to become a lawyer.  And I am co-producing a documentary film about Lumet along with director, Daniel Anker.

One thing I know about Sidney Lumet: it is no accident that he directed so many law-related films that concerned the possibility for moral choice even amid the more daunting challenges of moral corruption.

Lumet was very much a man of his time, except that his time as a filmmaker extended through many decades of American history. He was a child actor during the Depression where he witnessed examples of human failure that lingered in him and found expression in his films. He once told me that as a young boy on the Lower East Side he saw a policeman disbanding a bunch of school kids who were harmlessly pitching pennies on the street. When the children sprinted away, the policeman picked up the pennies for himself.

Although he didn’t like to reflect too deeply on the subject matter and larger meaning of his films, Lumet said that he always asked himself the same question: “Is it fair?” He wasn’t a melodramatic filmmaker, but his fixation on the moral choices of human beings and the anguish of ordinary people clearly informed so many of his films in which the unfairness of society was on full display. No one who watches “Dog Day Afternoon” will ever forget how a human being can find himself stuck in a moment where there is no exit and no good ending.

Lumet’s vision and moral critique of the law was always depicted as urban, gritty and dehumanizing—the tormented faces of failed humanity everywhere. The sexiness and lavishness of “L.A. Law” and “Boston Legal” was not for him. Nowadays the CSI iterations of TV police serials feature cops as brainy scientists, forensic experts, or highly trained FBI profilers. For Lumet, cops had beats and not PhDs; they walked the streets of New York and tried to do some good. Often, however, they got themselves into their own troubles.

The setting of New York and its broken legal system was very much locked into the lenses of so many classic Sidney Lumet films of the 1970s and 1980s, when New York City was known for high crime, blackouts, and neighborhood rioting, and where the Bowery was still the Bowery and 42nd Street had not yet received its Disney makeover.

Lumet’s Lower East came equipped with its own code of honor: Don’t squeal about what goes on in the neighborhood—especially to the police. Perhaps that explains why his masterful films about police corruption, “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” and “Q & A,” all involved moral conflicts between doing the right thing and keeping silent. But the imprint of loyalty that was projected into his films also had its roots in the 1950s Blacklist, where Lumet himself once faced a threat of being named as a communist. In response he directed an installment of the TV series,“You Are There,” one re-enacting “The Salem Witch Trials,” which purposely was aired during the same week that Edward R. Murrow exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy as a hate-mongering Red-baiter.

New York lost one of its favorite sons on Saturday, a man who used his movies as a mirror for something far more important than vanity. We may never be able to look at ourselves the same way again.