Sidney Lumet, Film Director

by Sonya Friedman

Sidney Lumet had recently married a friend of my husband Herman, and we were invited to dinner. His was a large handsome brownstone near the 92nd Street Y. It had a rather somber interior with dark walls; however, on those walls were stunning American paintings mainly of the Wild West by Frederic Sackrider Remington.

Sidney’s wife Paidy (this was a third marriage for each of them) was a superb cook now married to, Sidney told us, a superb eater. The first course was artichokes. I noted with silent admiration how Sidney lined up his used leaves in a perfect circle around his plate, like the petals of a flower.

He was a charming host – no shop talk, at least not about his work. His many questions were about Herman’s documentary films and my subtitles for foreign films. At 8 p.m., he abruptly rose from the table, said goodnight, and retired. Paidy told us that he was – as usual – shooting the next morning and that anything in the world that would not pass in front of the camera lens did not, for him, further exist.

A few months later, Sidney phoned me to ask if I’d oversee the Italian subtitles for his new “Prince of the City,” which was to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The film is about a narcotics detective in the NYPD, who, for idealistic reasons, chooses to expose corruption in the force, with dire consequences for him and those he turns in. An Italian translator was already at work on the subtitles, and Sidney wanted me to be sure that the Italian vividly replicated the rough-and-dirty slang of the original dialogue.

(As a Fulbright film student in Rome in the 50’s, I had lived in Trastevere, then a working-class neighborhood with its share of petty crime. No American girl had typically been seen walking its streets. I’d heard a lot of local slang.)

I was intrigued. Sidney wanted to send me to Rome to oversee the titles, but it was early summer, and I was at our Vermont country cabin with my husband, who didn’t want me to go. (I had just recently returned from Europe on a job.) So Sidney said he’d arrange for the Italian translator to come to me in Vermont. Little did he know I was on an isolated hill near nowhere. Herman and I arranged to put the signor up at a small inn about five miles away.

The translator, Signor O, set off from Rome to change planes in Brussels, where unexpectedly there was a total strike on air travel that grounded Signor O for three days. “Better him than you!” my husband said. It was decided that O would return to Rome and we would work it all out by phone (long distance calls, no cell phones back then).

Every morning at 6 a.m. my time, I would leap out of bed, quickly wrap myself against the Vermont chill, and converse with Signor O. As I heard his titles, I pointed out that much of his language didn’t have the roughness of the English.
-“Ah, Signora S., we don’t have all those drug terms here – like your ‘horse’ or ‘skag’ or ‘speedball.’”

– “Really? How about if you double-check at your local police station and give a listen?”

He called back, excited. “Signora, they do have a word for every one of those terms! And, of course, I’ll use them.”

Next, what to do about “fuck youse” and “cocksucker” and “your mother’s slit”? Again, he did his research and again called in the appropriately purple Italian equivalents – triumphant about finding this newly discovered vocabulary. I could now assure Sidney that the Venice Film Festival would get the full dose.

The film was praised at the Venice premiere (September 1981) and then got kudos in the States (even without subtitles).

A few months later, Signor O. was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. At our lunch at the Plaza Hotel, what a shock and probably a great disappointment for him to find that Signora S was a rather ordinary, well-turned out lady. Nothing even resembling a narco moll. We spoke of politics and the weather.

Sidney was delighted by it all. As was I.

Sonya Friedman: As a writer/translator, I created subtitles for many foreign-language films (Rossellini, Fellini, Godard, others) and was the innovator of “supertitles” for opera (The Metropolitan Opera Company, New York Opera, Seattle Opera, others). Among the documentary films I directed is “The Masters of Disaster,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and was broadcast nationally on PBS.