By Ty Burr
Updated March 31, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST
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Making Movies

type
  • Book

Sidney Lumet seems like an honorable fellow. He certainly makes honorable movies. If that sounds as if I’m praising with faint damns, I guess I am. In the 38 films he has made since 1957’s 12 Angry Men, Lumet has consistently been an apostle of middle-highbrow reasonableness, a provider of classy, fundamentally serious fare like Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict (his best, to my mind). He favors East Coast locations over West Coast glitz. He treats writers with immense respect. And he has pulled career performances from actors as diverse as Al Pacino, William Holden, and Paul Newman. So what’s not to like? Just that, to this reviewer, Lumet has always seemed a tad too reasonable. His earnest literalness hobbles him, keeps his work shy of the kinetic glory that movies, at their best, can possess. It’s no mistake that the few comedies Lumet has directed are shrill (Just Tell Me What You Want, Garbo Talks) or wan (Family Business), or that he has no touch for solid bijou junk (he unintentionally turned two recent projects, A Stranger Among Us and Guilty as Sin, into high camp by playing them straight). And yet in Making Movies (Knopf, $23), all of Lumet’s plodding virtues become genuine assets. His book isn’t an autobiography, although that would have made a fine read given a career that spans four decades of New York-based showbiz. It’s not a revenge-seeking, scorched-earth, as-told-to tell-all, either. No, Making Movies is a primer on just that: a self-effacing tour through the processes by which an idea becomes a film. It’s almost a how-to book. What it is, actually, is a how-I-do-it book. In engaging, patient prose, Lumet leads the reader from his first meeting with a screenwriter and into rehearsals with the cast. In both general terms and citing specific films, he discusses the workings of a camera and a camera crew, the importance of production design and costumes, and the details of how a musical score is laid onto the film. He takes us from the pell-mell frenzy of the shoot to the panicky quiet of viewing rushes to the bleary-eyed focus of the editing room to the boredom of the sound mix to the nervous awaiting of the answer print. More important, he tells us why he ”corrupted the camera” for Network, how the visual look of The Verdict was derived from a painting by Caravaggio, and the hows and whys of dozens of other decisions. And toward the book’s end, one understands what makes directors crucial: Not only must they live in preproduction, production, and postproduction modes all at once, but they alone have to retain the ability at all times to see the movie in their heads as it will eventually play on a screen. Not to mention noodging hundreds of cast and crew members forward in a common faith. It’s the latter, the pleasures of ensemble, in which Lumet clearly revels. He dismisses as ”’auteur’ nonsense” the notion that the director is the sole stylistic voice on a film, and he goes out of his way to give credit to everyone from script girl to star. About the only nasty things Lumet has to say concern Teamsters and studio heads. And, tellingly, the audience, about which Lumet lets slip some snobbishness. Here he is apprehensively watching the preview audience for Guilty as Sin file in: ”The trim houses and neat lawns (of the movie theater’s neighborhood) seem to have nothing to do with the cretins waiting for admission.” Well. Perhaps that hints at why so many of Lumet’s movies have an unsettling cool at their center, despite their streetwise characters, brawling emotions, and blazing star turns. Or perhaps it’s just the response of a lifelong New Yorker forced to be somewhere other than Manhattan. By the end of Making Movies, you’re inclined to give Lumet the benefit of the doubt. In every other respect, this is an honorable book-and I do mean that as praise. B+

Making Movies

type
  • Book
genre
author
  • Sidney Lumet
publisher
  • Vintage

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