March 1, 2012
“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago. “The combination was rather difficult.” But the effort was worth it. Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.
Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week. He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.
Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous. His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality. Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.
And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian. Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney. (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)
Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death. Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.
In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season. His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time. Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin. (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)
A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer. He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him. He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour. Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.
Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling. The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.” Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975). After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.
On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history. Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work. In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity. Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.
Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?
I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post. This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training. I covered crime stories, bank stories. And about six months on what was then called ship news. This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat. The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat. We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.
That was really where I started. In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week. Everybody had been cut back. An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star]. My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”
Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day. So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting. After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.
The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.
That was interesting. That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote. We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all. So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady. Rather nasty! It didn’t go, the show.
David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners. What do you remember about him?
He was a newspaperman, too. We met working on the Post. A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper! That’s how we met.
Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it. Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play. I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson. He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them. I did more shows, I think, than most. About 125 shows over about four years. That was the TV version. It started, I think, as a radio show.
What were the rules for writing Mama?
It was a warm, lovable family show. Nobody could do any wrong. Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too. Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship. Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days. We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.
There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes. This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract. But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike. It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.
You were also involved with the Television Academy.
Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s. Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan. [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever. Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.” Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.” This was the Academy.
Did you know Ed Sullivan well?
Not very well, no. I can’t remember where we met. I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days. I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason. I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.
How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?
A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time. This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show. Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito. This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels. I had my whole family out one summer. Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool. Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.
When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East. I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper. And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A. It was shocking. Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.
Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?
I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good. The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out. “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.
On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?
At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York. [I wrote plays that] tried out. Nothing that ever reached Broadway. I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received. And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.