By Stephanie Zacharek
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The veteran director Sidney Lumet is one of the few guys on the planet who can make Woody Allen and Spike Lee look like tourists from Des Moines. Lumet has shot 29 of his 40 films on the streets of New York, and he still captures better than any other moviemaker--including Martin Scorsese--the rude urgency, troubled heart and boundless energy of the place. Whether he's examining the dark terrors of a Jewish pawnbroker in Harlem or the quandary of a whistle-blowing Italian cop in Brooklyn, Lumet has the Big City nailed.
What's more, his interior landscapes are just as carefully drawn. Night Falls on Manhattan revisits themes that have obsessed Lumet for decades--loyalty, corruption, personal morality--themes that have fueled some of the most memorable movies of all time. Serpico, Network, Q.& A., Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict are hard acts to follow, and in some ways, Night Falls, the drama of an idealistic ex-cop who learns the hard way about the uses of compromise in a chaotic justice system, doesn't quite measure up to Lumet's best work. But no one understands the pavement better--or better grasps the necessity of making hard choices in a dangerously ambiguous world. From saloon to kitchen table to courtroom, this is one tough, smart movie. Briefcase-toting amateurs like John Grisham could learn a lot from it.
Lumet's hero is Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), a newly minted assistant DA from a police family in Queens who's worked his way through night law school and is suddenly thrown on a fast track to success. When a surly Harlem drug dealer (Shiek Mahmud-Bey) kills two cops and gravely wounds a third in a tenement shootout, Sean's opportunistic boss, District Attorney Morgenstern (Ron Leibman), seizes the moment to make political hay. As it happens, the badly shot-up cop, 36 years on the force, is Liam Casey (Ian Holm)--Sean's father. What better re-election move for Morgenstern than to put young Sean in charge of the prosecution, with his father as the star witness? It's a slam-dunk case anyway, a case by which everyone can get well--the DA, the kid, the father, even the fed-up citizens.
But wait a minute. Throw in one very slick, ex-radical defense attorney (Richard Dreyfuss did his homework on lefty firebrand William Kunstler), an ambitious WASP prosecutor wearing a bow tie (Colm Feore) and three precinct houses peppered with cops on the take and you've got a classic Sidney Lumet showdown--not between good and evil, but between warring shades of gray.
"You want clean hands?" Leibman's vivid, overstressed DA barks at his newfound protege. "Become a priest!"
No such luck. Week one on the job, our Sean Casey (one vowel short, apparently, of becoming Ireland's greatest playwright) finds himself mired in snarling junkies, incurable lunatics and snoozing judges--familiar figures in Lumetland. But a year later, Morgenstern is in the hospital and Sean's giant first case has catapulted him into the DA's chair. Unprepared, he eventually has to weigh the differences between the law and justice, between idealism and family loyalty.
This is, of course, a road traveled by Frank Serpico, the honest cop who became a pariah among his crooked brethren in an earlier Lumet film, and by the haunted and hunted Danny Ciello, in Prince of the City. That Casey is afflicted by similar doubts and demons testifies to two facts. First, Robert Daley, author of Tainted Evidence, from which Night Falls is adapted, is also the writer of Prince of the City. Second, Lumet believes there's still more to be said about the state of urban society by looking at, in his words, "cops, corruption, culpability." In the process, he's also searching for the haven between what he calls "healthy compromise" and the "destructive loss of idealism."
Lumet's screenplay is spiced, as always, with the quick, funny jargon of the back alley, the back room and the judge's chambers (every lawyer and cop show on TV should send him a fat royalty check), and he's lost none of his feel for New York's racial and ethnic mix of Italians, blacks, Jews, Irishmen, Puerto Ricans and WASPs. For Lumet, this is no romanticized melting pot but a volatile suspension of hostile forces, always close to explosion. He says his piece plainly in interviews: Racism and drugs remain America's deepest banes.
In Night Falls on Manhattan, we get another story of a conscience in crisis, a Lumet fixation that reaches all the way back to Twelve Angry Men and The Pawnbroker. He advances it largely through the unerring, instinctual detail work that has become one of his most powerful trademarks. Before bursting into an apartment seething with danger, Holm's Liam Casey carefully takes his chewing gum out of his mouth and sticks it on a banister knob--a ritual, we are quite sure, Liam has performed many times before. The heavily armed drug kingpin, making his way to momentary freedom, casually sprinkles shut-up money onto the prostrate forms of junkies nodded out on the scummy floor. When Dreyfuss's clever lawyer, nothing if not a showman, strips his client naked before the media to demonstrate that the man heading off to jail is in perfect condition, every tattoo is in the right place, and the cold sneer on actor Mahmud-Bey's face is perfection: It speaks of his cruelty and the cruelty of his childhood. When Liam's longtime partner, Joey (James Gandolfini), sucks his teeth, the gesture speaks of a lifetime of stakeouts and bargains. In the end, Sean Casey gets to grow up. He gets the woman (Lena Olin), although the woman is something of a dramatic decoration in this scheme of things. We get an impeccably acted, beautifully crafted Lumet film that will prove, to many moviegoers' relief, that the man hasn't lost his touch after less-than-edifying recent efforts like A Stranger Among Us and Guilty As Sin. If there's a strong feeling of deja vu here--that the shade of Serpico haunts the thing--there's also the undeniable sense that we owe it to ourselves to take another look at the issues that still rule Sidney Lumet's soul. They aren't going away anytime soon, and they might destroy us yet.
Night Falls on Manhattan.
Screenplay by Sidney Lumet, from the novel Tainted Evidence, by Robert Daley. Directed by Sidney Lumet. With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Leibman and Lena Olin.
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