Sidney Lumet: American Master

“American Masters,” the award-winning PBS biography series, will launch its 31st season on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS with the nationwide premiere of “By Sidney Lumet.”
The director Sidney Lumet being interviewed for “American Masters: By Sidney Lumet” in 2008. Augusta Films

Amid a flurry of holiday film releases and the inevitable handicapping of the races for Oscars and Golden Globes, “American Masters,” the award-winning PBS biography series, will launch its 31st season on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS with the nationwide premiere of “By Sidney Lumet.” 

The film, directed by Nancy Biurski and shown at the 2015 Hamptons International Film Festival, is remarkable for many things, among which is that Mr. Lumet, who directed 44 films, six of which won Academy Awards, never received a best director Oscar. (He did, however, win the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.)

His career, which began in 1957 with “12 Angry Men” and concluded in 2007, four years before his death, with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” offers an object lesson in the commitment to quality filmmaking and the examination of moral and ethical issues.

In 2008, PBS commissioned an interview with the director that yielded 18 hours of footage shot over a period of several days. The project lay dormant until 2014, when Ms. Biurski was engaged to undertake it. 

The resulting film alternates excerpts from the interview with clips from dozens of his films. The only talking head is that of Mr. Lumet, and talk he does, with candor, insight, humor, and self-effacement. When asked if “12 Angry Men” was fueled by his interest in the justice system, he said, “No, I was interested in doing my first movie.”

Among the films he discusses at length are “The Verdict,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Network,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and “Serpico,” in which Al Pacino portrays the idealistic New York City policeman who ultimately testified before the Knapp Commission. While Mr. Lumet acknowledges that he was often criticized for not having a thematic line in his work, he says, “It’s nonsense. There is always a bedrock concern: Is it fair?”

“Prince of the City” also examines the issue of police corruption. A new, exclusive interview with Treat Williams, the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated actor who starred in that film, will follow the telecast of “By Sidney Lumet.”

Speaking of her film’s focus on the moral and ethical questions examined in Mr. Lumet’s work, Ms. Biurski said, “The film could have gone in many different directions, because Sidney talks about a lot of things that aren’t in the movie. In all the hours of that interview there were certain things that began to come through that were important to him, and I wanted to make sure that’s what our movie dealt with.” 

Ms. Biurski was a documentary photographer and a picture editor before becoming a filmmaker. Her first film, “The Loving Story,” from 2008, was a documentary about Richard and Mildred Loving, who fought to overturn Virginia’s law against interracial marriage. Their arrest and subsequent struggle were dramatized in this year’s narrative feature “Loving.”

“By Sidney Lumet” will be available on digital video on demand and DVD/Blu-ray from FilmRise in early 2017.

Sidney Lumet, right, with Ethan Hawke, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman on the set of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” in 2007. Think Film/Everett Collection