The recent death of veteran film director Sidney Lumet, prompted his book , Making Movies, first published in 1996, to capture my attention on book shop shelves. In it, he offers a guide to the different aspects of movie making , with anecdotes mainly related to the making of his own films, as illustrative of how films actually get made. This book is not concerned with his personal life or retelling scandalous anecdotes, but focuses simply on the film making process.
In his long career, Lumet directed a diverse range of films, and he writes about the whole process from his wide experience of having made over sixty films at the time his book was written. He deals with how material is chosen, the roles and the relationship with the writer, the actors, the director of photography, the editor and finally the studio. This lucid little book pays tribute to all these people involved in the process, and Lumet is generous in the credit he gives to his collaborators , downgrading the importance of the director as so called auteur of any film. He particularly acknowledges the talents of Boris Kauffman and Oswald Morris, adding to the dramatic impact of the films,The Pawnbroker and The Hill with their distinctive black and white photgraphy. He also shows his respect for editor Dede Allen for her work on Serpico.
Ironically,his refusal to declare himself an auteur is despite the fact that he was one of the very few directors of the time, to have the right to the final cut, the final say in how the film was to edited to be viewed by an audience, overruling the studio executive, or in some cases the chief editor In addition,.the collaborative nature of the process he suggests is one way of getting some films made cheaply and how this might allow the studio to accept riskier or difficult material.
He does not pass judgement or list best and worst films, but he gives strong indications ,of where the process worked best or could have worked better. He comments on at least thirty or more of his films, but his detailed references throughout the book to notable films such as Long day's Journey into Night, Prince of the City, Murder on the Orient Express, Network,The Hill,The Pawnbroker,Dog Day Afternoon,suggest he is particularly proud of his achievement on these films. He also acknowledges how film making can be a learning process for a director, and admits that his direction of the well written Jewish comedy,Bye Bye Braverman, could have had a lighter touch, and that his choice of the great black and white cinemaotographer Boris Kaufman to work on this colour comedy may have been unwise.
Similarly he admits that his lack of confidence in irreversible choices he had made when he was filming Child's Play, a gothic thriller with James Mason, three days after filming started, would have destroyed morale on the set for the rest of the shoot had he openly stated his doubts. It is interesting to note that in regard to what many critics consider to be one of his worst films, The Appointment,a romance with Omar Sharif made in Rome, that despite what he considered its bad storyline,he made it to learn to work with colour film from a great colour cinematographer Italian Carlo di Palma.
Reading this book, part autobiography part film maker's handbook, gives the impression that Lumet might best be characterised as an old school director, as he began his career when black and white cinematography was considered to be an important asset for any serious dramatic film, and colour was best used for musicals or comedy. The later parts of his book,dealing with the role of the lab, and the treatment of the daily rushes, may now be outdated in the age of digital film and 3 D. Nevertheless the book remains readable for the insights that Lumet offers into the merits of many of his own films.