There was a time when films were not just content/product and film criticism wasn’t an adjunct of the advertising and marketing wing of major studios. This essay is the first in a series of short pieces about filmmakers and the ideas that motivated them — not profit, IDEAS — politics, history and the esthetic forms of cinema. Be sure to share.
When I was a boy we moved around a lot and I repeated the pattern into adulthood.
On sleepless nights in a new city, a new flat — and, be honest, it is always hard to sleep those first nights in a new place — instead of counting sheep I would run backwards in my memory through all the different bedrooms I had slept in.
I had an analogous experience when I took my 13 year old daughter to see Avengers Endgame at our local multiplex. We don’t go to the cinema very often. It is expensive and much of what’s on offer isn’t interesting to either of us. When we do go, the experience to me is depressing, the soulless lobby, the cinemas themselves are just bland boxes with screens at one end. So while she watched the film I found myself trying to avoid its very loud idiocy by counting backwards through all the cinemas I have ever gone to.
Things long forgotten burbled up, out of sequence. the Tuchinsky in Amsterdam, Studio Galande in Paris, I was born ceaselessly back: to New York, the Thalia, New Yorker, Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, Anthology film Archives, the Trans-Lux on 57th street where I saw my first film, Bambi, the Loews on 86th Street, my first local, the Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse near my grandparents home in the Bronx. And on and on until I had a vivid memory of the Bala Theatre, an Egyptian, art deco conflation in Bala Cynwyd the first suburb over the city line from Philadelphia.
The Mise-en -Scene where you see a film, what the world is like outside the cinema’s darkness, who you are as a person, all affect the way you take in a movie, and how it sits in your memory. I felt a pang of regret for my kid that her mise-en-scene will never include the splendours of the Paradise or the architectural concatenation of the Bala, what will cue her memory of films?
Dredging up my list I stopped at the Bala and remembered a film I saw there. The Hill, directed by Sidney Lumet, although the director is not the reason I had gone to see it. The Hill starred Sean Connery — “As you’ve never seen him before!” the trailer promised — he was just past Goldfinger, his third James bond film. I was not quite fifteen when the film came out — summer 1965 — and I went to see it at a matinee. Probably on my own. I went to the pictures by myself a lot,
The film was like a two-hour long punch in the face.
It wasn’t just Connery’s performance that shone although I came out of it aspiring to live up to his, I don’t give a damn there’s nothing you can do to hurt me masculinity.
The Hill, from a script by Ray Rigby, is set in a British Military prison in North Africa during WW2. In the middle of the stockade is a massive hill of sand built by the prisoners as a form of punishment and when they break regulations they are forced to run up and down it in full kit and packs under the African sun until they drop.
Connery is an army lifer who ends up a prisoner because he no longer buys into the mind-numbing discipline of the military.
The place is run by the guards. Abuse is rife and the psychopath in chief is Staff Sgt Williams played with sadistic gusto by Ian Hendry.
After pain and death, the officers finally find their backbones and reform is on the way. Williams decides to give Connery one last beating. He is dragged off him by two of Connery’s cellmates and, out of shot, is heard being beaten himself, quite possibly to death. As Hendry shrieks in fear and pain, The camera focuses on Connery shouting at his comrades, “You’ll muck it up! Don’t punch him. We’ve Won!” They don’t listen
The fierce intensity of that moment burned itself into my early adolescent mind. I found myself siding with those giving Hendry what he deserved. Why is Connery calling them off, without some kind of justice delivered to the sadist what victory have the men won?
It was a question I think embedded in the times. Outside the Bala theatre real-life Staff Sgt Harris types were acting with impunity. The Civil Rights era was at its bloody height. Campaigners were being murdered helping African Americans to vote down South, a few months before the film came out Sherriff Bull Connor — really, that was his name — unleashed dogs, water cannons and riot police on Martin Luther King and hundreds of non-violent protestors marching from Selma to Mongomery Alabama, more people were killed.
The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, Dr. King said. But there are many corpses strewn along the way, including that of Martin Luther King … and murderers walk free.
In the 60s we understood this was the problem of liberalism. The imperfect reach of justice in a power structure that is basically unchanged.
Another part of the social mise-en-scene in which I first saw The Hill: The civil rights movement was about to split apart — even as the Voting Rights Act was became law — between those who wanted to continue with non-violent action and those who had taken enough blows and were demanding greater militancy. In my mind this echoed the split between Connery and his cellmates.
As the 60s unfolded and I started taking it to the streets and my rhetoric against my country became more militant, my father would say to me, Work within the system, son. His words didn’t make much impact.
Over the years when The Hill turned up on television I would always try to watch. It isn’t a great film but the question raised by the final scene nagged at me and I thought this time if I watch it I will understand Connery’s behaviour. By the time I was in my 20s and living the acting life in New York I knew the name of the director, Sidney Lumet. And at that same moment, the 1970s, Lumet was making the quartet of films that recorded the truth of my native city and would cement his reputation: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Prince of the City.
All, one way or another, were about this dilemma of liberalism. All, one way or another, were about trying to work within the system, reform from within, no matter the personal cost.
Maybe it was a generational thing
Sidney Lumet was a year younger than my Dad. Age, New York, and New Deal liberalism were what they had in common. Lumet’s parents were actors in the Yiddish theatre. He would later recall his father as a man of real talent who was never able to make the transition to the mainstream because he couldn’t shed his Yiddish accent.
Lumet, on the other hand, had no such problem and started working on the stage as a child. The photos don’t lie. He was a very cute little guy. He made his Broadway debut in 1935 at the age of 11 in Dead End.
Dead End is a slice of social realism about life in the New York slums. The action centers on a group of street urchins living in tenements just below Sutton Place, a very posh neighbourhood, by the East River. Written and directed by Sidney Kingsley, the play was a success in large part because Kingsley cast 14 child actors who were the same age as the characters they played, including 11 year old Sidney Lumet. The play was a hit and became a successful film directed by William Wyler starring Humphrey Bogart, (not as one of the kids!)
Lumet did not appear in the movie but did other film and stage work, until the war, then Army service, then he mustered out into the new age, where New York was the world centre of culture, particularly theatre. He inevitably hooked up with the Actors Studio shortly after it opened in 1947. So many of the people who had been part of his pre-war acting world — members of the Group Theatre — were part of the scene there.
The Actors Studio it has been repeated a thousand times was all about Stanislavski but it was also about much more. It was about a political and social esthetic and that esthetic had grown out of the social realism of the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. Stanislavski’s technique trained actors to bring the “truth of life” to their performances.
The Group brought the truth of life to the plays it did in the 1930s, the social realism of Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley. Now in the post-war era, the Studio was continuing that tradition. Stanislavsky, as my teacher, Stella Adler, who, like Lumet was a child of Yiddish Theatre actors, and who, like Lumet began acting as a child, constantly reminded us that part of our training was to be politically aware. We used our empathic intelligence to understand why characters in plays behaved in certain ways. In the years after the war, when Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams dominated, and the kitchen in a tenement complete with sink was the mise-en-scene of many dramas, the politics of actors, writers and directors was empathetically left-wing — although I’m not sure that was a term of art back then.
There was also continuity with the politics of the Group. In the years before the war many of the actors were involved in anti-fascist activities connected to the Communist party. And when the post-war communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee began in earnest, a lot of people connected to the Studio had problems. Most prominent were the Studio’s founder, Elia Kazan, who directed the original production of Death of a Salesman, and Lee J. Cobb, who had originated the role of Willy Loman. In 1951 Cobb was blacklisted for refusing to name names of people who might have been members of the Communist Party to HUAC. No one would hire him, in two years he went from creating one of the most important roles in 20th century theatre to unemployable and broke. Banks wouldn’t lend him money, friends had to be circumspect in seeing him because the FBI tailed Cobb wherever he went. His wife had a complete breakdown from the strain and had to be institutionalised.
Eventually Cobb named names, so did Kazan. Others didn’t. Lumet was tangentially involved and ultimately confronted by FBI agents looking for dirt on somebody else. Lumet remembered walking to the meeting thinking the career he had just got going was about to be taken away from him. But in the end nothing came of his interaction with the not so secret police.
And his career really was going well. There was a new medium for telling dramatic stories: television. And there were very few rules about what could or could not be done, except the rigours of the clock and making sure there was time for the commercial break. There were hours to fill and not a lot of programs to fill them with. Content is what its called in the digital age. the networks had an unquenchable need for dramas and comedies. The actors, writers and directors, who could provide high quality on quick turnaround were all in New York. Lumet had the door opened for him by a pal, Yul Brynner, not the King of Siam yet, but a jobbing director in the new medium.
Lumet directed everything including one of the first TV programmes I remember with clarity: You Are There. It was, in Lumet’s words, a silly programme. It took an historical event, everything from the Death of Socrates to the Battle of Hastings to the Gettysburg Address and reported it as a live news event with reporters in contemporary dress interviewing characters about the events as they unfolded. Each program was introduced by a real-life news reader: Walter Cronkite. He signed off his intro: All things are as they were then except … You, are there!
The show went out at family time on Sunday, 6 or 6:30, and we watched it every week. I can still remember vividly the episode about the great Chicago Fire, and someone saying it was started by Mrs. O’leary’s cow.
The show offered a haven for blacklisted writers, if they were willing to work uncredited. And they did.
I wonder what impact living through the paranoid intensity of the McCarthy era had on Lumet’s sensibility. He was a ludicrously prolific filmmaker, more than 40 features in the 50 years he was active — not every film he directed can be parsed for political subtext: Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot? No, I don’t think so.
I wonder how surviving the witch hunts and building a thriving career shaped the way he told stories, how he directed his actors — and he was one of the greatest directors of actors in the history of cinema. He coaxed Al Pacino and Treat Williams through the moral and political complexity of their roles in Serpico and Prince of the City. Like Connery in The Hill they wear a uniform but have become disgusted by the corruption that it hides. They risk their lives and fortunes to bring about reform, but remain committed to the system. They are betrayed over and over by those encouraging them to come forward. some rotten cops are punished … the system carries on.
55 years after I first saw The Hill, in an America on fire — literally, the Watts riot in Los Angeles which would leave 14 people dead took place a few weeks after the film was released — I’m still thinking of Sidney Lumet and the dilemma of liberalism. I think of how in The Hill his direction brings an audience to the boil at injustice and then leaves them with the difficult message, that winning a victory against oppression means some crimes must go unpunished.
I flip over to my twitter feed and see people — on the right & on the left — brought to a boil by one thing or another. And I wonder if they could begin to understand the lesson Sidney Lumet was trying to teach.
It’s not easy. I am still trying.
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