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‘American Masters: By Sidney Lumet’ review: Welcoming documentary on underrated filmmaker

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The PBS "American Masters" documentary, "By Sidney Lumet," looks at the prolific director's career. Credit: PBS

THE DOCUMENTARY “American Masters: By Sidney Lumet”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday, Jan. 3, at 8 p.m. on WNET/13


WHAT IT’S ABOUT When the director Sidney Lumet died in 2011, he left behind 44 feature films made over 50 years. His best — “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “Network” — are American classics, each one about an individual fighting against a rigged system or a mob mentality. A “Lumet movie” is typically characterized by powerful moral themes, a vibrant New York City backdrop and searing performances from the best actors of the day (Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman), yet the director’s only Oscar was an honorary one in 2005. “By Sidney Lumet,” based around an in-depth interview conducted in 2008, gives the filmmaker the final word.

MY SAY Lumet is the perfect candidate for PBS’ “American Masters” treatment. Chances are you’ve seen a dozen of his movies — “Fail Safe,” “The Verdict,” the list goes on — without knowing much about him or his work as a whole. “By Sidney Lumet,” directed by Nancy Buirski (“The Loving Story”), shines a welcome light on this underrated filmmaker, though it could have made an even stronger case to rank him as one of America’s finest.

Lumet comes across as a genial, humble fellow concerned less with notions of art and politics than with the value of hard work and craftsmanship. That attitude marked his career from Depression-era child actor to live-television director (for “You Are There” and other shows) to feature-filmmaker (his impressive debut was “12 Angry Men” in 1957). Lumet’s filmmaking style, a combination of stage-style dramatics and gritty realism, developed organically: He worked famously well with actors because he was one, and he shot in New York City because he grew up there. (Even in his least typical film, the 1978 Motown musical “The Wiz,” Lumet cast the World Trade Center plaza as the Emerald City.)

“By Sidney Lumet” works as a solid survey course on the director, using well-chosen clips from movies (including such forgotten ones as the military drama “The Hill,” starring Sean Connery) to connect several dots we might have missed. It would have been nice, though, to hear outside perspectives from scholars, family (his daughter Jenny Lumet is a screenwriter) or colleagues. Only Treat Williams, the star of “Prince of the City,” appears at the end, in a separate interview with Buirski. Still, Lumet clearly regarded the opinions of any herd with suspicion, so perhaps it’s fitting that we hear his voice alone.

BOTTOM LINE A welcome re-appreciation of a prolific but underrated director that should send you digging for gems in his 44-film catalog.

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