I interviewed Lumet for the DGA Quarterly in 2007; we had about an hour and a half, we used two hours, and we could have gone on another two without flagging. If it was one of the best interviews I ever did, that was due more to the subject than to me. I commented to people after speaking with him that he had the energy of someone 25 years younger; that wasn't true. He had the energy of someone 40 years younger. God knows he had a lot more energy than I did at the time.
As excited as he was that Before The Devil Knows You're Dead was garnering the attention it was, he was caught a little off-guard by all the brouhaha. It was a production that had come together quickly, due to happenstance, and he was delighted to have done it, but he had other films to make, damn it, projects that he'd been aspiring to realize for a while, and going on the road and the festival circuit to flog Devil was keeping him from getting behind the camera. His ardor, the almost palpable need he projected during portions of our talk to get started again, blew me away.
He was terrifically self-aware without being self-conscious. He didn't consider himself an intellectual at all and gloried in having catholic tastes without gloating about it. He had a fantastically non-hierarchical mindset, and a refreshingly open approach to technology. His work in television and theater had gifted him with what ended up being an almost innate understanding of genres and the kind of approach/touch any given piece of material needs. He felt he didn't have the right touch for the middlebrow farce/elegy of Bye Bye Braverman in 1968, but had become seasoned enough by 1974 to give a frothy piece of semi-kitsch like Murder on the Orient Express the correct set of stresses. His three-film run with Sean Connery sees that legendary performer give two of his most committed (in The Hill and The Offense) and one of his most delightfully insouciant (outside of a Bond picture) performances (The Anderson Tapes). Yes, I did leave out Family Business just then,and yes, Lumet was frank with me about precisely how and why that picture didn't work.
The interview I did with him is here, and you'll note that among the many things he's candid about, one of them is money. About the choices he made as a director, he said, "Sometimes you want to stretch. Sometimes you want to buy a house. They're all legitimate. As long as you don't try to kid yourself." There, in those terse words, I think, is a kernel of what made Lumet who he was. He lived, functioned, and made films in the world, the world we live in, not in the exalted far-off fantasy land that any number of puling mediocrities who make a show of turning up their noses at "paycheck gigs" insist their favorite artists inhabit. He understood the making of art not just as a calling, but as a way of life, and of living, and of making a living, and he did not deplore any of it. Living on "the edge," or living "well;" he understood both. Some of the most convincing moments of Devil, which sadly was to be his last film, are in a faux-antiseptic high-rise Manhattan apartment, the drug dealer's den where Philip Seymour Hoffman's character frequently drops in to drop out. The prickly dread that atmosphere evokes is very direct, very real, very how-to-bottom-out-in-New-York-City. That Lumet, in his 80s, still had his antennae up to the extent that he could recreate such a very specific sense of place, both physical and psychic, is a great testimony to his gifts as an artist and his backbone as a human being.