Sidney Lumet has always been one of my personal deities. His work has always been ground breaking, emotional powerful but at the same time approachable. Sidney Lumet redefined so many filmmaking conventions that it is amazing how overlooked his work has been. Modern day filmmakers sometimes think of transitions to flashbacks, low angles to build tension, lenses and depth of field being used to define characters as clichés. When Sidney Lumet used these letters of the film alphabet to tell stories he was defining the film language as he went. It’s easy to look back now and consider something to be simple and dated unless you look at his films knowing that this was the first time someone used a frame by frame transition to move into a flashback. Only then can you appreciate the simple elegance of Sidney Lumet’s filmmaking. Here are just a few examples.
‘12 Angry Men’ was basically shot entirely in one room. As the film progressed Sidney wanted the room to get smaller and smaller. The film starts with wide lenses and then the lenses get progressively longer, flattening out the room, making it seem to be more claustrophobic. The camera height also changes throughout the film. The camera starts at above eye level, then moves down to eye level and ends up below eye level for the last 3rd of the film. Simple or at least it seems simple when this film gets explained to you in film class but it’s affect on the audience stands the test of time.
‘The Pawnbroker’ uses quick cuts that last only a fraction of a second to move from the present to the lead characters past. The film uses a “flutter cut” technique which uses very short shots from different scenes to transition back and forth seamlessly. This innovated and extended a european film editing technique that we now consider to be a normal transitional element. A simple answer to the flashback that redefined film language in the 1960’s.
In ‘The Fugitive Kind’ different lenses are used on main characters to represent their way of seeing the world. Longer lenses with less depth of field are used on Brando’s character Val Xavier to give him a dream like quality. Brando’s character walks around with his head in the clouds and he is shot in a way that represent that. The lead female character is forced to deal with the harsh realities of life, so throughout the film she is shot with wide angle lenses. As she falls in love the lenses used to shoot her slowly changes to the same long lenses used to shoot Brano’s character. Controlling the the use of lenses and depth of field is an elegant way to define characters.
Most filmmakers major concern is covering the scene so they can cut the performances together. Finding a way to use lighting, lenses and performances to come together in a way that completely supports the story is something else. Sidney Lumet is one of the pillars of filmmaking who helped create film language over a long career of story telling. I hope to find the time to revisit a long list of his films over the next few months.