“I’M NOT DIRECTING THE MORAL MESSAGE,” the filmmaker says in American Masters: By Sidney Lumet, on PBS. “I’m directing that piece of the people, and if I do it well, the moral message will come through.”
Subtly or otherwise, a moral sense pervades the prolific director’s 44 movies in 50 years—starting with 12 Angry Men in 1957, until his last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in 2007. In between, Lumet gave us Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict and many other pictures, at a rate of nearly one per year.
As he explains early in the PBS documentary, an experience that he had as a young soldier in World War II instilled in him a lifelong desire to fight injustice. Near Calcutta, Lumet witnessed a 12-year-old Indian girl being gang-raped by American G.I.’s on a train. He did not intervene.
Lumet, who grew up “dirt poor” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Great Depression, says that all his films share the bedrock concern: “Is it fair?”
“I love characters who are rebels,” he says, “because not accepting the status quo, not accepting the way it’s always been done, not accepting that this is the way it has to be, is the fundamental area of human progress—and drama, God knows.” The other perennial source of drama is family, he says.
Lumet, who died in 2011 at the age of 86, three years after filming the interview, never received an Academy Award for Best Director. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.