Excerpt from SUNSET EMPIRE by Josh Weiss

The following article was originally published in an April 1957 issue of the Jewish Daily Forward (a paper that has technically been banned in the United States of America for close to five years owing to its socialist ties). It has since been translated from its original Yiddish into English.


First-Time Film Director Elevates “Smut” into Rarified Air of Memorable Cinema


To call Sidney Lumet a visionary filmmaker may be a little presumptuous. After all, the 33-year-old director only has one feature under his belt as of this writing. But to say the Jewish New York native isn’t a talent to watch would also be disingenuous.


In his feature-length debut, 12 Horny Dames (now playing on an incredibly—and criminally—limited number of screens throughout the country), Lumet has done the impossible: transmogrified adult entertainment into bona fide cinema with genuine staying power.

One might be inclined to use the words “smut,” “nudie films,” or even “pornography” when it comes to a film like Dames, but in Lumet’s hands, the genre of pure carnal desire becomes something else entirely.


“I’ve been fascinated with plays ever since I was a boy,” says Lumet, whose father is a veteran performer of the Yiddish Theater in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I wanted to take that intimate, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the stage and transfer it onto celluloid if I could. It didn’t matter that the script ended with an all-female orgy—I simply treated the material as seriously as I could.”


Loosely based on a 1954 teleplay penned by Reginald Rose, 12 Horny Dames follows a dozen female jurists deliberating the fate of an 18-year-old criminal defendant. The proceedings take an unexpected turn when the women—sequestered in a cramped and sweaty room—begin to squabble over the verdict. All too soon, their various turn-ons and kinks are brought to light in the face of “reasonable doubt,” a phrase espoused by the unnamed jury foreman (Ann Austin).


As Lumet states above, the story climaxes—no pun intended—with a free-for-all of sexual pleasure between the female jurists. Before we get there, however, Lumet and his talented cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, turn the deliberation room into a veritable hot box of disagreement, shame, and most importantly, jump-to-conclusion mob mentality.


“I’d be lying if I said this picture isn’t a slight commentary on the state of our country these days,” says Lumet, referring to the deplorably draconian policies of President Joseph McCarthy that have resulted in a systematic and calculated purge of suspected Hollywood Communists, as well as the formation of a single, government-run studio (United American Pictures).


At the time of McCarthy’s unprecedented crusade to nationalize the film industry, Lumet was directing episodes of You Are There, hosted by CBS journalist Walter Cronkite. One day, Lumet and several other crew members were told to leave the studio and never come back. The CBS program—created by fellow Jew Goodman Ace—was canceled not long after due to a blatant lack of anti-Communist messaging.


“The Jews found themselves out of work in an industry they helped build from the ground up!” exclaims the filmmaker. “UAP obviously wouldn’t hire us, so after a while, we decided to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get off our lazy tuchuses. We couldn’t make the mainstream stuff anymore? Fine with us. We’d simply move into adjacent work that was considered to be ‘lesser’ and make it respectable. We had to start completely from scratch.”


Nevertheless, it took a while for the public to take notice that the quality of X-rated “skin flicks” was slowly on the rise. These pictures aren’t exactly honored at the Academy Awards, least of all screened in federally mandated movie houses. There is still a thick layer of grime coating the reputation of silver screen erotica that doesn’t simply wash off overnight.


“It’s going to take some elbow grease,” Lumet admits. “But we’re already starting to see some promising returns at the box office, which means bigger and bigger budgets in future. People are taking notice and frequenting those underground theaters they once gave a wide berth. They want something new and unexpected and subversive. Something that goes against the tedious UAP narrative. They say to cut a steak against the grain if you want it to be tender. The same principle applies here.”


Lumet remains mum on the names of his fellow pornographic collaborators, lest HUAC take an interest in their work, but he insists that these explicit films have more in common with “pure art” than anything the government has made in the last four years.


There is certainly no denying that the up-and-coming director is at the forefront of a brand-new epoch of American filmmaking—a wave carried forth by a tide of once-naughty exhibitionism. With rigorous studio oversight a thing of the past (at least for Jewish and Communist storytellers), the creative cuffs are off. As we speak, Lumet is entering production on his next feature, Stage Shtup, the story of a woman willing to do anything to become a Broadway star.


And we mean anything. 


“Give a man a camera, a vision, and cast of actors willing to do . . . well, just about anything, and the skies truly are the limit,” Lumet declares with a knowing smile. But how does he feel about making a living off what many would characterize as indecency?


At this, the down-to-earth filmmaker shrugs and throws up his hands. “What can I say?” he concludes. “Sex sells. Don’t like it? Go join a monastery!”