Veteran Director in Top Form with Devilish Thriller (11/07)

Fifty years after the filming, Juror 5 (otherwise known as Jack Klugman) is all that is left of the 12 Angry Men who hit movie screens bickering and nitpicking their collective way to a murder-trial verdict on a sweltering summer’s day, but the boy-wonder director who rode herd behind the scenes over those heady, heavy jury deliberations is still alive as well—alive and well and reveling in a medium that he continues to distinguish at age 83.

Sidney Lumet entered movies with that film classic, earning Oscar nominations for himself, for Reginald Rose (who was adapting and expanding his hour-long teleplay) and for Best Picture of 1957. He brought it in under budget, too—in 19 days of shooting!—and although it never made a dime, it remains one of his most prestigious achievements. Not the least of its distinctions is that it was his first Manhattan melodrama—Lumet is Woody Allen’s equal in depicting the many sides and shades of New York City life—but what’s tricky about this first time out is he did it without ever leaving the room, triumphing over a single-set handicap by contriving visual variety with his cameraman, Boris Kaufman.

Urban strife is very much a part of Lumet’s golden-anniversary feature (his 44th)—ThinkFilm’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead—and it glittered much like gold at its film festival launchings in Toronto, Deauville and New York. Critics count it among Lumet’s best. Certainly, it’s more aggressive, vigorous filmmaking than one has the right to expect from an octogenarian.

But then the boy-wonder mystique still clings stubbornly to Lumet. At the press conference following the New York Film Festival screening, he spoke robustly with an enthusiasm and authority that belied his true age. No doubt the subject—film—energized him a lot.

“The reaction has been extraordinary,” he happily admitted about his latest opus. “When people ask questions about the film, what I find very interesting is that the picture has enormous personal resonance. The questions come from a really personalized source.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions, funnily enough, connecting this film with Dog Day Afternoon. Now, in my view, the two pictures are not similar at all. Also, I’ve been getting questions about it being a Greek tragedy. In my view, it’s a first-rate melodrama.”

The Dog Day Afternoon allusion comes up because Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead deals with a heist that goes monumentally awry, and the price one family pays for it is steep enough to have a certain Greek cast to it. But Lumet draws a heavy line between what constitutes drama and what constitutes melodrama: “There are two things that I always think about [in telling the difference]. In a good drama, the characters are going to determine the story. In a good melodrama, the story is going to determine the characters. Melodrama is about story story story. The second thing is that, in a melodrama, the feelings and emotions that we have swept under the carpet and don’t admit are there.”

The story story story here concerns a pair of loser brothers, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who have such a pressing need for money—Hoffman for drugs, Hawke for child support—that they entertain the idea of knocking off a Mom-and-Pop jewelry store. Their own Mom and Pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Since the shop is well-covered by insurance, the sons see the robbery as a mere formality. Then enters the wild card: To do the actual stick-up, Hawke solicits a crazy crony (Brian F. O’Byrne), who brings a pistol to the table, and it’s the devil to pay.

The plot unravels in fits and spurts, from the fractured perspectives of the three men in the family. Scenes are frequently repeated from completely different points of views. “The time shifts existed in the screenplay, but I clarified them for the film,” said Lumet, who didn’t realize on first reading the script’s eccentric time leaps back and forth.

“There was no indication of them in the script. You’d be going along, and then all of a sudden you’d be back covering the same ground. Because I was enjoying it, I didn’t break it down when I first read it. I was a little confused about the repetitions and not quite sure what the writer’s intention was. It wasn’t until the second time that I read it that I went ‘Oh, my God!’—and that’s when I thought I’d better do something about this. If I didn’t get it from reading it, I thought that I had better make sure that the audience gets it.”

Considering how well the film turned out, it’s a little astonishing how the screenplay—by playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson—fell into Lumet’s hands: “I got it in the mail,” he declared simply. It intrigued him from the get-go, but he felt certain key adjustments needed to be made. In the original script, the two lead characters were best pals, even though one was cuckolding the other. Making them brothers raised the stakes.

“When I started thinking about the intensity level that was needed, I realized that the first thing you need are marvelous actors because, if that level of intensity is forced or fake, you’d be able to see that as quickly as I would. So I started to think in the age range, and I felt, ‘Well, Philip Seymour Hoffman is about as good an actor as there is working in America today, as far as I’m concerned,’ so I sent him the script and said, ‘Pick either part’—I didn’t care which one he did—and he said, ‘Who are you going to get for the other one?’ I said, ‘Well, there ain’t no ‘other one’ till you tell me which one you want to play.

“The one thing I knew was that that brother had to be the older one because I needed the manipulation of an older brother on a younger one. He said, ‘Well, who else are you thinking of?’ so I coughed up four actors’ names, and he asked my preference. I said, ‘I want to send it to Ethan to see which one he leans toward, and I hope it won’t be the same part.’ I was lucky. It wasn’t. Ethan read it and loved it and—bang!—it all fell into place.”

The film begins with a startlingly raw sexual encounter between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, which was not in the submitted script. “I felt it was very important, especially for the first scene. This is what he wants. The two things that character wants more than anything are that kind of fancy sex in an idyllic away-from-everything setup—in this case, Brazil—and that apartment his drug dealer has where he just loves to wander. These are his hopes, the standards to which he aspires. I felt you had to know that to understand anything about him. Those two elements were a perfect representation of what he was really all about.”

Location as a crucial element of characterization is something Lumet has practiced his whole career. “When you’re doing a movie, there is no such thing as a casual selection. Everything is critical. I’m very careful about anything that’s going to get into the shot.”

It’s not mere happenstance, for example, that the scene of the crime is a nondescript little jewelry shop, dwarfed next door to a Foot Locker in a dreary strip mall in Westchester. The scene was shot in Queens, but, reasoned Lumet, “All strip malls are crappy. Show me a classy strip mall, and I’ll show you a guy named Joe. I thought that told you something about Papa and Mama, their aspirations, what they really wish for. It’s a great indication.”

The veteran moviemaker shot Before the Devil… on high-definition video and is an enthusiastic champion of the format. “When the studios and the exhibitors settle on who’s going to pay for the electronic projectors, I think that’s the end of film,” he predicted. “I don’t think there is one director who has ever liked film, except as a tactile thing. It’s wonderful when you’re in the cutting room trying to rewind it. It feels great on your fingers. But it’s a pain in the ass. It’s cumbersome. It’s rigid. You’re constantly at the mercy of not just the cameraman—you’re at the mercy of the lab. John Schlesinger told me he went through 16 answer prints of Midnight Cowboy before he got one that satisfied him.”

Lumet also recalled struggling to “defeat film” to get the naturalistic look he wanted for his ’70s classic Dog Day Afternoon. “Look, there’s been a hundred years of glorious movie photography, but naturalistic photography does not exist in any form to get what the eye gets… To me, high-def is it. I love it.”

Midway through the press conference, a profound pronoun problem developed. Lumet kept referring to Kelly Masterson as a “she”; the production notes list the writer as “he.”

“Is it a ‘she’ or a ‘he’?” the director wondered aloud. Someone in the audience yelled out that the screenwriter was a “he,” and Lumet sheepishly fessed up: “I never met him. People have always said ‘she’ to me. I know that it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
Four or five questions down the line, the other shoe dropped: “If you never met the screenwriter, then who did the rewrites?” an inquiring mind wanted to know, noting that the retooling had been extensive. Lumet’s answer—auteur, auteur—was “I did.”

Indeed, one of his five Oscar nominations was for co-scripting Prince of the City with Jay Presson Allen in 1981—the others were for directing 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict—and, in some of his recent films (Q & A, Night Falls on Manhattan and Find Me Guilty), Lumet has taken screenplay credit. Kelly Masterson takes sole credit for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, conceivably because Lumet thought he was deferring to a woman. The title, which the director had not heard before, is an Irish toast: “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”