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Sidney Lumet – Confinement and Claustrophobia

SIDNEY LUMET: CONFINEMENT AND CLAUSTROPHOBIA

Restricting Space for Dramatic Purposes

Sidney Lumet was a masterful filmmaker. He directed films like Twelve Angry Men (1957, starring Henry Fonda), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962, starring Katharine Hepburn), The Pawnbroker (1964, collaborating with Ralph Rosenblum, the longtime editor for Woody Allen and Lumet), and Network (1976, with Faye Dunaway). One common element which I’ve noticed being used in a multitude of Lumet’s films is the use of a single area as the principal setting:

Twelve Angry Men takes place almost exclusively in a jury deliberation room.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975, with Al Pacino) takes place almost entirely in a bank and on the street outside the bank.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is set almost entirely inside several compartments of a train.

I have not seen The Hill (1965, starring Sean Connery), but I have read that it takes place primarily in an isolated military prison.

Despite the lack of frequent location changes, the Lumet films listed above are some of the most gripping works of cinema I’ve ever seen. The goal of a filmmaker is to hold the audience captive until the final frame. Through spacial limitations, Lumet achieves this goal in a literal sense as well as in a psychological sense.

The physical confines of his films significantly contribute to the psychological control he is able to maintain over the audience. Below, I recap some techniques used by Lumet in one of these single-location films, Twelve Angry Men. He capitalizes on the confined space in order to enhance dramatic situations.


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Twelve Angry Men: A drama about twelve jurors coming to a verdict regarding a murder case.

As the film progresses, the jurors become fatigued, drained, sweaty, agitated, exhausted, and, most importantly, more and more pressured. Lumet makes us, the audience, experience this intensifying amalgam of emotions along with the jurors.

— Longer lenses are used as the story moves forward. These lenses compress space, causing things in the already small space to appear closer and more confined than they are perceived to be by the naked eye.

— The final sequence of the film features the jurors exiting the building and walking outside. An abnormally wide lens is used, which causes objects to appear more spread out than in real life. The wide lens accentuates a sigh of relief. It contrasts with the intense, small deliberation room which, up until this point, has trapped viewers and character alike. I enjoyed this ending because of the contrast. Recently, Roman Polanski’s Carnage was released, which also took place almost exclusively in one location: a couple’s apartment. Much of the movie was brilliantly done, but the ending killed the whole film. It was anticlimactic. Polanski, unlike Lumet, did not end with a powerful contrast.

— The first third of the film is shot above eye-level, the second third is shot at eye-level, and the final, climactic third is shot below eye-level. The below-eye-level shots direct attention to the ceiling. As the conversation heats up and arguments ensue, it seems as though even the ceiling is closing in, appearing (with the aid of the longer lenses) to ominously move closer and closer to the floor.

— We see the deliberation in real time. By never cutting away from the deliberation room, Lumet forces us to take on the perspective of a juror. As the jurors discuss the case, the audience — the thirteenth juror, if you will — experiences the palpable tension. No cutaways, transitions, or time lapses dilute the realism.

Watch the Lumet films I’ve mentioned! He does all he can to engage audiences and communicate to them the pressures of portrayed situations.

Of course, the audience cannot identify with the feelings of the actors if the actors are not doing their jobs. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino (as Sonny) does an unbelievable job of displaying his overwhelmed state. After a bank robbery goes wrong, he is trapped in the bank with his partner and hostages. Crowds of civilians and teams of armed officers stand their ground outside. At one point, Pacino sits down to make two phone calls, one to his wife, and another to his “wife” (a man who is in fact the true love of his life). Lumet has described the making of this scene. He removed almost everyone from the set, hid most of the camera with some sort of black cloth, set up two cameras (each loaded with a ten-minute reel) side by side so that the film stock would not have to be reloaded in the middle of the long scene, and hooked up the phone with a live connection so that Pacino could actually speak with his co-stars during the scene. With most of the crew members gone and those present hidden (to prevent distraction), Pacino was truly alone, just like his character. These efforts led to a mind-blowing scene which effectively conveys the agonizing nervousness, heat, and claustrophobia experienced by desperate Sonny. Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, and Lumet made the story real for the audience.

Bottom line: Sidney Lumet is fascinating and one-of-a-kind, and I had to write about him.


Still of Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon.


Lumet is the author of the well-known book Making Movies, an essential read for anyone interested in the world of filmmaking.

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