When Sidney Lumet passed away a week ago, it was interesting to see how many of the tributes and eulogies characterized him as a filmmaker with no real aesthetic sensibility. For the most part, people managed to spin that in a positive way—nobody wants to speak ill of the dead, after all—but the idea that Lumet was a visual chameleon, uniquely devoted to serving the material rather than imposing his own personality upon it, cropped up again and again. Many of these pieces, following the lead of the New York Times obituary, quoted Lumet himself on the subject, from his memoir Making Movies: “Good style, to me, is unseen style. It is style that is felt.” The tributes offer the general impression of a world-class director who would just set the camera down somewhere at random, focusing entirely on the actors and the screenplay.
Which is nonsense, of course. Lumet had something of a meat-and-potatoes approach to his profession, but he was perfectly capable of striking imagery when he felt it appropriate. Even in Network—a writer’s movie if ever there was one—you can see the hand of a filmmaker who’s thought every scene through, carefully balancing the cinematic and the televisual for maximum effect. And when the moment arrives, late in the movie, for a wholly unexpected dose of surrealism, Lumet nearly upstages one of Paddy Chayefsky’s most inspired monologues. I remembered almost every word of this celebrated meeting between lunatic anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and conglomerate honcho Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), but I’d forgotten that it’s every bit as thrilling to the eyes as to the ears, in ways both magnificently overstated and remarkably subtle. You could watch it with the sound off and be impressed. See for yourself:
Granted, it’s hard, especially upon a first viewing, not to simply get carried away on the fierce tide of Chayefsky’s elegant rhetoric and Beatty’s fire-and-brimstone delivery. We’re now 35 years out from Network, and people have yet to stop marveling at how prescient it appears; substitute Microsoft for IBM, and this speech could have been written yesterday. Indeed, a recent documentary called The Corporation spent nearly two and a half hours saying more or less exactly what Beatty bellows here in less than five minutes. But The Corporation doesn’t possess an ounce of the antic poetry that—to pick but a single example out of many—finds Chayefsky leaping numerous orders of magnitude in a single turn of phrase, from the sub-atomic to the galactic. And what was the last Hollywood movie that necessitated a trip to the dictionary (not counting, say, medical or legal jargon that’s meant only to create a sense of verisimilitude)? I had to look up “immane,” which means both “huge” and “dreadful.”
Still, I want to concentrate on what Beatty calls “Valhalla.” When we first enter the conference room, it looks opulent and enormous, but eminently plausible; we have no reason to think we’ve left behind the film’s heretofore realistic world (in terms of locations and sets, if not of human behavior). It looks like a conference room. Only in retrospect might one ask: Why, exactly, would a company’s conference table require each seat to have its own individual desk lamp? What possible function could they serve? The answer, of course, is that they serve only to create an illuminated runway leading to Beatty. Note that our perspective isn’t that of Finch, seated at the table’s end—the camera isn’t centrally located. Lumet has positioned it just a bit to the right, and fairly low, the better to create a sense of heightened perspective, with the right-hand row of lamps in nearly a straight line and the left-hand row sharply staggered. Subliminally, this makes Beatty seem immense (and immane, come to think of it), by making it appear as if he’s farther away than he actually is—at the far end of a long, long road.
Having established this unusually flamboyant angle, Lumet now does something wonderfully cagey. He begins cutting back and forth between Beatty, ranting and raging at a distance, and a close-up of Finch, watching in stunned silence. The first time he returns to Beatty, it’s the exact same shot, or at least the exact same camera position. The second time, however, we’ve moved slightly closer to Beatty, though the effect at this point is so subtle that I didn’t spot it until I just now went back and started looking specifically at what’s visible on the wall to his left. (I would have sworn nothing changes until after “AND YOU. WILL. ATONE.”) He remains at this distance for the remainder of the splenetic portion of the monologue, and then, as Beatty calms down and begins speaking in a friendlier, more avuncular tone, each successive cut brings us closer and closer to him, until eventually Lumet moves the camera out of the “runway” entirely so he can follow Beatty as he walks the length of the table over to Finch. (Finch’s close-up gets correspondingly tighter as well, though I don’t find that ploy nearly as effective.)
At this point, cinematographer Owen Roizman (whose other notable films include The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the original Taking Of Pelham One Two Three) deserves credit for some of the most spectacular shadow work this side of Gordon Willis. I have no idea how difficult it is to light an actor’s face so he’s barely visible, with the key light spilling just far enough to reveal a faint trace of his expression, but I see it done so infrequently that I’ll assume it’s a bitch. The sense of moral ambiguity that pervades the screen as Beatty quietly intones “All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused” is truly unnerving, especially given the cartoonish bombast with which the sequence kicks off. Beatty demonstrates amazing range, to be sure, and Lumet puts him through his paces brilliantly, and Chayefsky has given him one of the all-time great speeches. But it’s the perfectly calibrated gradation of light and darkness that really brings this Machiavellian oration home.
Can we square all of this with “Good style is unseen style”? To a degree. No other scene in Network looks remotely like this one; Lumet’s touch elsewhere is far more restrained. He clearly felt that this was an unusual interlude that demanded an unusual approach, and in that sense, he was striving to serve the material as best he could, as opposed to just showing off. But remarks like “To say he lacked a noticeable visual style is a compliment”—that’s from Roger Ebert’s appreciation—seem overstated. You notice the clarity. What that entails may vary from picture to picture, and even from scene to scene within the same picture, as here. But it’s a consistent signature all the same, and one that I, too, am immensely sorry to have lost.