Director Sidney Lumet's Movie's View of the Law
by Terry Diggs
Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, Q&A and The Verdict: All are films that involve crime and/or courtrooms, and all were made by director Sidney Lumet, who will lecture and read from his autobiography Making Movies tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at Herbst Theater in San Francisco as part of the City Arts and Lectures series. Other of his movies are The Pawnbroker, Murder on the Orient Express, Network and Running on Empty . Terry Diggs, who teaches trial advocacy at Hastings College of the Law and a seminar on film and law at Golden Gate University School of Law, spoke with Lumet in advance of his San Francisco appearance, about the role of law in his films. Transcribed excerpts from their conversation follow.
TERRY DIGGS : Is there any difference in the way you approach films that are fictional, and others that arise from real-life events, like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, or Prince of the City ?
SIDNEY LUMET: Fictional narratives, movies, take a lot of liberties with the law. I'm quite aware that in The Verdict , the nurse who went to New York and was the "surprise witness" at the trial, if her testimony had been allowed at all, it probably would have been overturned on appeal because she was a surprise witness and the defendants never had been notified of her appearance. So those kinds of liberties that make the story work beautifully are not, as we know, correct legally.
But that is in a fictional piece. On something like Serpico or Prince of the City , I'm very careful because they are true stories. Therefore I feel an obligation, first, to let the audience know that this really happened; second, that because it really happened, not to violate any legal premise at all. We were extremely careful in those pictures to make sure -- and in Dog Day Afternoon -- to make sure that we were not violating any legality at all.
So, for me, there is an initial separation. If it's a fictional piece like The Verdict , I certainly feel the dramatic right to take some liberties. But in a true story, I never would.
DIGGS: It seems as if you always come back to the subject of law, whether you're dealing with an outlaw, a lawyer or a police officer. Why do you find this metaphor, of law, to be such an expressive one?
SEPARATING LAW, JUSTICE AND TRUTH
LUMET: Let's start with a very simple statement: If the law doesn't work, nothing can work in a democracy. It's the basis of everything. Then you come to that separation between law and justice. As every lawyer knows, sometimes they don't go together. Lawyers find themselves using literal legalities to, in a sense, evade the justice of the situation. It's that kind of complexity, where there is a separation between the law and what justice actually is that fascinates me so.
DIGGS: In your films there is sometimes a separation between finding truth and finding justice. A survey of your films suggests that our present legal system works many times to crush truth, and if truth is revealed, it's at a really kind of terrible price, as in Prince of the City or Serpico . If we do find the truth, it's a kind of a miracle, as in The Verdict -- which was the answer to a prayer. Is that an accurate statement of your films?
LUMET: I think it's completely accurate, and all of this within the framework of, as far as I know, one of the best legal systems in the world. I've served on a jury three times. It was a great experience, by the way. What I found was that it was a miracle that it worked as well as it did.
DIGGS: How did these jury experiences fit on a time continuum between Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict ?
LUMET: It was all after Twelve Angry Men and all before The Verdict . Interestingly enough, I got summoned for jury duty after The Verdict and I was turned down, because it was something that involved drugs and I said that I would have a very tough time dealing with anybody accused of pushing drugs. Just out of my own moral basis, I would assume guilt.
At that point in the voir dire where the judge says, if any of you have any internal reservations, would you stand up and articulate those now, I raised my hand and stood up and said I would find it very difficult in my own heart and mind to start with a presumption of innocence, simply out of my own reaction to what drugs mean in the world.
DIGGS: One of the things that's overwhelming in terms of watching Twelve Angry Men is that jurors in that film were not as forthcoming with their biases as you were in your voir dire experience. Were you so forthcoming about what your role should be because of the extent about which you'd thought about the subject for Twelve Angry Men ?
LUMET: I don't know. I just knew it was an immediate, instinctive reaction and, needless to say, I was excused right on the spot.
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE SYSTEM
DIGGS: One of the key points of Twelve Angry Men seems to be that the jury doesn't really exist for the purpose of exposing the truth. What the jury system exists to do is interrogate -- and to set up a scheme by which interrogation takes place -- so that the biases we have in society don't block the truth. Does that seem an accurate statement of what Twelve Angry Men is about?
LUMET: Yes, it does.
DIGGS: There is a movement now in California to allow juries in criminal cases to convict on less-than-unanimous verdicts. Given the goals that you set out in terms of Twelve Angry Men , what do you think are the ramifications of legislation like that?
LUMET: I think it's very dangerous, and especially in criminal cases where you're talking about changing a person's life forever. I'm still for the unanimous verdict. It may spring people. I think the chances are very good that O.J. Simpson is going to get a hung jury, but my own feeling is that it's one of those safeguards like our other constitutional safeguards of search and seizure and warrants and so on; Fourth, Fifth Amendment.
It may be a help to the criminal element. Undoubtedly people have gotten away with something because of those laws, but it's still better than innocent people being convicted because of the absence of those laws.
DIGGS: Your work seems to be so explicit about some very, very troubling things, about the extent to which we really mask our own psychoses and neuroses, about the extent to which we tolerate racism, about our desire for expediency. You're so conscious of all of those things and how they impact on criminal justice. Where does that sensibility come from?
LUMET: There's your instinct and then there's your life experience. I grew up very poor in the roughest sections in New York, and you simply become very interested in justice because you see an awful lot of injustice around. I just know it's there and has been there from the beginning.
A picture I did called Q&A is a hell of a movie and it's about that specifically, about the sort of built-in racism and assumed racism. Not even on a vicious level. It's just part of the normal behavior of anybody of that white, male world.
The interesting thing to me is that out of my own experience, it's not that I'm against the justice system as it exists in America. Hardly that. I not only have the greatest respect for it as I said before. I think it's a miracle that it works as well as it does. But I think it has to be constantly checked. It has to be constantly questioned because it has to be kept honest.
DIGGS: Q&A makes one constantly aware of how unpleasant a system we have in operation and how terrible and oppressive the racial aspect of it is. I also come back to The Verdict over and over again because it seems to be such a relentless picture of how law silences women. Is that an accurate call about that film?
LUMET: No. Every picture has its resonances, because the more resonances there are, the richer the film is. But primarily The Verdict was about a man looking for his own salvation, and it was a question of finding a way of achieving that salvation in, in this instance, law. It could have been in any other number of professions, but in this instance, the law was the instrument of finding that salvation.
DIGGS: I have a classroom of 24-year-old women law students who recently saw The Verdict and received it in one of two ways, as a film that denigrates women or a film that's about a system that marginalizes women.
LUMET: It's the first I've ever heard that anyone thought that it in any way denigrated women. The women were to me such victims of male superiority, such victims of the kind of law that the James Mason character practices. There's a moment when he finds out that the expert witness for Paul Newman's side is black and he says, well, let's get a black guy sitting at the table with us.
I automatically reject any idea that because it's a woman or a black person or a Jewish character, that they can't have any faults. It seems to me the object should be the exact opposite. The whole point of equality is that so this character can be the same son of a bitch that every other character is without it being relegated to woman, black, Jew, etc. That's where equality lies. Talk about flawed characters, nobody begins this picture more flawed than the Paul Newman character. He's not even an ambulance chaser; he's a graveyard chaser.
THE ROLE OF THE CAMERA
DIGGS: I can't talk to the director of Network and those fine films exploring the legal process without asking you about O.J. Simpson. You have really dealt with all of the components of this dog-and-pony show in one form or another: the reactionary frenzy that the media is capable of creating, the fallibility of the system when the media works on it in that particular kind of way. What's your take on the trial of the century?
LUMET: The night of the white Bronco, that ride of the white Bronco that night filled me with such horror. I don't know if you've ever read a novel of Nathaniel West's called The Day of the Locust , but it was The Day of the Locust come true. Because what everybody was waiting for was for him to blow his brains out. That's what the attraction of the night was.
So I have not followed the trial. I don't read about it in the papers. I see what I see on the 6:30 news. I'm horrified at everything about it because I also, by the way, have come to the firm conclusion that television should not be allowed in courtrooms. I think half of the madness that we are looking at has to do with the fact of cameras being there.
I don't think cameras have left anyone's consciousness for one second. This includes Judge Ito. This includes the defense. This includes the prosecution and the witnesses.
From the most superficial knowledge of it, it seems to me (Simpson) probably did it. It seems to me that since the defense's job is so much simpler than the prosecution's, the prosecution has to prove everything beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense has to just set up a reasonable doubt in the mind of one person. So my instinct tells me that he's going to get off. And I know why people are so attracted to it. My God, it's got everything: race, sex, dope, a national hero.
DIGGS: You seem to have a fear of the spectacle and of our love of spectacle. What does the camera do in the courtroom?
LUMET: It makes everybody show off. As simple as that. There's a third presence there. There's not just prosecutor or defense and witness; there's prosecutor or defense and witness and camera. And I think it's finally going to be a very corrupt influence, an influence that will reduce the pain, the significance, the importance of what is going on, because it's going to become ordinary, because it's interrupted by commercials, because it is part of your sit-com, and it's going to trivialize it.
DIGGS: In the celebrity trials that we have had in the last couple of years, do you see any of them as containing a kind of great narrative that would actually let us learn something about ourselves or our culture if we kind of paid attention to it?
LUMET: I think that is happening, but in my view it's all happening on the negative side. We're debasing our culture. We're debasing our processes. It's all becoming more strident and therefore more insignificant.
DIGGS: What do you feel about our capacity as a legal system to progress?
LUMET: I feel it's retrogressing because of the introduction of television into it, making it part and parcel of trivialization. But I wouldn't presume to know anything about where the future of it might lie.
from The Recorder, Copyright 1995, American Lawyer Media.
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