From the Archives: 1996 Book Review of Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
A dozen pages into Making Movies I sent a copy to a friend for graduation. I assumed the rest of the book would be good enough for such an occasion. I wasn't wrong.
At the time of the writing, Sidney Lumet had directed 39 movies, starting in 1957 with 12 Angry Men, peaking in the 1970s with classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, then gradually losing steam until, by the early '90s, he was directing vehicles for Melanie Griffith (A Stranger Among Us) and Don Johnson (Guilty as Sin). But this is not a book about one man's rise and fall. Lumet doesn't even see his career as following this trajectory. Who does? If anything, he sees the movie industry suffering in this manner. The last chapter includes diatribes against the National Research Group and their audience surveys, and the fact that certain studios won't green-light pictures until a major star is involved. He writes:
This has two immediate effects. First, the stars' salaries skyrocket... The second effect is that the agencies that represent the stars are automatically in a more powerful position.
Don’t forget script girls. Because certain scenes may require many takes, and because a portion of take two may be spliced with a portion of take 11, a script girl is employed to ensure that actors perform the same actions at the same moments. Making 12 Angry Men, for example, the script girl mentioned that an actor had taken a puff of his cigarette on Line A yesterday while today he did it on Line B. Henry Fonda disagreed; he said the actor did it on Line B yesterday. So two takes were made. It turned out Fonda was right. This anecdote is told to demonstrate Fonda's incredible movie memory but it also helps reveal movie making’s incredible complexity.
Add artistic considerations if you are artistically considered. It's not about lighting actors well; it's about lighting them in ways that relates to character and theme. Ditto camera shots and camera angles. There is no camera shot of the sky in Prince of the City until the lead character is contemplating suicide. Sky implies freedom, Lumet writes, and the lead character is finding himself more and more trapped as the movie progresses. Since he starts out the movie self-assured, too, and then slowly loses control, Lumet lights the movie to follow this pattern:
In the first third of the movie, we tried to have the light on the background brighter than on the actors in the foreground. For the second third, the foreground light and the background light were more or less balanced. For the last third, we cut the light off the background.
What camera angle? Which lens? How should character A be edited against character B?
With the director needing to answer each question, you might think Lumet would be a proponent of the auteur theory. Nope. In fact, he uses the favorite auteur of the auteur theory, Alfred Hitchcock, to fault it:
He always essentially made the same picture. His stories weren't the same, but the genre was: a melodrama, layered with light comedy, played by the most glamorous actors he could find...photographed often by the same cameraman, with music composed by the same composer... His how to do it was the same because what he was doing was the same.
“Movie directors do not work alone,” Lumet writes. “There will be a visual difference if we work with Cameraman A or Cameraman B, Production Designer C or Production Designer D.” Then he writes about those he works with. He gives credit to cameramen Peter McDonald and Andrzej Bartkowiak and Boris Kaufman; production designers like Tony Walton; editors like Margaret Booth; and stars like Paul Newman and Sean Connery, who wear their fame lightly; who travel without entourages.
He answers questions I’ve long had about the movies. How can the Academy give awards for Best Editing unless you know what they edited in the first place? “In my view,” he writes, “only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman.” He includes tantrums against the uselessness of the teamsters and love taps for Paddy Chayevsky, the screenwriter of Network. His love for the movies is apparent in every sentence, as well as his intolerance for the parasites that high-profile industries like film-making attract. Making Movies is that rare movie book that is as interesting discussing camera lenses as it is discussing Paul Newman. I’ve now got a new book to give to friends.
--May 24, 1996
“Paul leads one of the most generous and honorable lives of anyone I've ever known.”