Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A TRIBUTE TO DIRECTOR SIDNEY LUMET
Some "Serpico" Scenes Shot Right Here in Astoria
by Janet Lawler

Copyrighted Columbia Pictures   Sidney Lumet
My two favorite movie directors are named Sidney/Sydney.  I love these two guys!

There is Sydney Pollack, who directed movies like "This Property is Condemned" (1966) starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood (based on a story by Tennessee Williams), "Tootsie", "Out of Africa" "Three Days of the Condor", "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Firm". This Sydney also made "The Way We Were". Need I say more? Sydney Pollack passed away in 2008 at the age of 73.

My other favorite Sidney is Lumet.  If I name ten of my favorite movies -- many from the 70s -- this Sidney made most of them.  Sadly for us, Sidney Lumet passed away this week at the age of 86.
Image Credit Freestyle Releasing/Everett Collection
I first saw "Serpico" in 1973.  It was about a cop who blows the whistle on corruption inside the NYPD. I saw it while growing up in the Bronx. The grittiness of NYC up on the screen matched the rawness of the city streets I was experiencing. Crime running rampant. Drugs everywhere, destroying a generation. Government failing from local, state, right up to the White House in the 70s.

Sidney captured on film the fear that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, were feeling in that decade like no other -- long before 9/11 introduced us to a new kind of terror.

I live in Astoria, Queens today.  In "Serpico" there is a scene shot under the Hell's Gate Bridge here.  It's one of my favorite scenes in a movie.  It's just two men talking... a police chaplain and a desperate cop... shouting at each other on an overcast day by the East River.  The scene was used during the Oscars when Al Pacino was nominated as Best Actor for that role.  Pacino paces back and forth talking to the Chaplain like a caged animal... trapped... scared... enraged... the final image is of Pacino standing in a wide shot... under this MASSIVE bridge... alone... shouting profanities as the priest turns his back and walks away from him.  The image is haunting.  It says everything with one shot of film.
Al Pacino as Serpico
There were also other key scenes from "Serpico" filmed here in Astoria right on Ditmars Boulevard.  The scene where Serpico is almost shot by two uniform cops who think he's a perp.  They trap him on a side street by a dumpster until he reveals his badge.  Rent this movie if you haven't seen it -- or rent it again if you have.  It's one of Sidney's best movies.  One of Pacino's best too.

Al Pacino & Sidney Lumet
Sidney's next movie "Dog Day Afternoon" was a comedy/crime drama. A perfect blend of lunacy and suspense.  Al Pacino gave a dynamic performance -- after playing the reticent Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" and Frank Serpico in "Serpico" -- Pacino turns flamboyant in this movie, ranting, prancing outside the bank and stealing the show.

Pacino about to chant "Attica!"
The scene where Pacino yells "Attica! Attica! Attica!" outside that bank is amazing... when he kicks the glass door and tells the cops "to put your guns down"... and gays cheer him behind the police barricades... I couldn't believe this was happening in a movie.  What was going on here??

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon
"Dog Day Afternoon" showed gay and a transsexual character in a way that a mainstream movie hadn't before. Pacino's character sticks up the bank to get money for his transsexual lover's sex change operation. Sidney took on that story (based on a real incident) and directs a spectacular, confined film with heart.

Sidney said in an interview that he sweated over the scene where Pacino talks to his lover over the phone in "Dog Day Afternoon"... it was 1975, remember... because if done badly, that scene would kill the movie for the American audience. The movie would die on the spot.  It didn't. Pacino, Chris Sarandon and Sidney Lumet created a scene that was intimate, uncomfortable, comical and tragic.  Rent it and see for yourself.

What can I say about "Network"?

It's a classic and perhaps more relevant today. Made in 1976, it predicts today's state of journalism and media. It's as if Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky looked into a crystal ball and could see how TV News would change for the worse someday if we weren't careful -- if our news became entertainment for profit -- if corporations ran the evening news -- how we'd change as a collective audience and not for the better. Would we really watch a man blow his brains out on network TV?  Would it get huge ratings then and now?  What do you think?
We're still "mad as hell" like Peter Finch (if not more so today) and still taking it.

Sidney made movies about characters facing outside demons and inner ones and confronting authority. Rent "Prince of the City" or "The Verdict" with Paul Newman as an example of this.  Sidney made small movies (except for The Whiz). He made dramas with razor sharp New York wit and sensibilities. Characters in his movies talked like guys off the streets. His actors looked like guys you knew from your old neighborhood.

Sidney had an authentic eye and voice about New York.  He presented it warts and all.

If you love movies, or wonder how they get made, read Sidney Lumet's book Making Movies. He describes everything from blocking scenes, to rehearsing actors to editing. He lays it all out for us. He gives away his secrets for making magic.  I've read it often (highlighting parts in different colors) because it teaches me something new every time I read it.

There are so many distinct New York directors -- Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Edward Burns, Sydney Pollack, as mentioned above, each present New York City in a different shade of light. Some with romanticism, some with comedy, some with flaws and some with violence. Sidney Lumet is the master though -- the quintessential New York director in my opinion.  His work reflects New York City during the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. He worked in live TV during its Golden Age, the same in film, was a native New Yorker to his core and it showed through his lens with every scene, every syllable and throughout his long legacy of work.  Sixty years of brilliant work.

Sidney Lumet
Sydney Pollack
Thanks, Sidney (and Sydney), for what you guys left us and for what you will continue to teach us through your great movies.  

Until the next time.

2 comments:

Steven E. Belanger said...

Wow--Great entry! Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, and don't forget the first 12 Angry Men. Some of my favorite films. Classics that truly aren't made anymore. The scene in The Verdict where Newman stares quietly, seething at the woman...all silence, all quiet. His films were REAL, even when they were at times outlandish, like in Dog Day Afternoon. Makes me want to hold a Sidney Lumet marathon.

Janet Lawler said...

Thanks, Steven, for your post. I'm glad you enjoyed the tribute to Sidney Lumet and his movies. I know the scene in The Verdict you mentioned and it's one of Newman's best acting. And the ending, but I won't give it away for people who watch that final scene. A Sidney marathon is a great idea.
Janet