12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice by Brian Brems

12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice #9 – ‘Q & A’

Q & A Movie - Film Essay

Throughout his directing career, Sidney Lumet maintained a complex relationship with his most frequent subject matter, the justice system. Many of his films on the subject come in quick succession, followed by lengthy departures from its themes, only to give way to his eventual return some years later. After the cynical weight of Prince of the City (1981), Lumet offered a more hopeful, if still guarded, vision of the justice system in The Verdict (1982), before exploring a more ambivalent middle way in Daniel (1983). That film would be Lumet’s last direct engagement with the justice system for several years, although his cinematic output in the intervening period would show continued interest in its effects even in his nominally different films: his political thriller Power (1986) offers a jaundiced view of international governance that applies Lumet’s justice-system template to the intersection of corporate and state control; the same year offered Lumet’s potboiler about a washed-up actress (Jane Fonda) who is trying to prove herself innocent of murder in The Morning After, a self-aware play on Hitchcockian stories of the wrongly accused; 1988’s Running on Empty returns to the territory covered by Daniel, as the film’s central character (River Phoenix) comes to terms with his parents’ radical past, focusing the majority of the emotion on the family dynamic rather than the justice system’s oppressive weight; the same institution is once again at the heart of 1989’s Family Business, a critique of the destructive power of corporate capital ideal for the “greed is good” age. By the time Lumet was ready to return to the justice system directly with 1990’s Q & A, he was well-prepared to explore the impact of its capacity for total destruction of the self; his characters have a lot to lose.

Q & A might best be understood as the third film in an unofficial trilogy with Serpico (1973) and Prince of the City, a subdivision within Lumet’s larger body of work on the justice system. As is the case with the earlier two films, Q & A is set on the streets; Lumet’s characters are police officers and on-the-ground attorneys who are close to the action. Taken together, the films offer an almost-documentary glimpse of New York City during its darkest period, a near 30-year trajectory of seemingly unstoppable decline, the proliferation of crime so rampant that those entrusted to prevent and prosecute it are themselves inevitably made complicit in its spread. As in his earlier two cop thrillers, Lumet offers a fallen world beset by villains; the criminals, however, are nearly always incidental to the widespread violence and corruption gripping the city. The more compelling characters, and the film’s worst offenders, are embedded deep within the justice system’s power structure. The story of Q & A is somewhat familiar and covers well-worn narrative territory: an idealistic young assistant district attorney, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is called in to run point on what should be a fairly routine investigation of a police-involved shooting. The cop who pulled the trigger is the legendary Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte), whose reputation for brutally effective methods makes him a popular folk hero in the New York Police Department. Reilly’s own father was a police officer, killed many years before in an on-duty shooting incident, and his noble belief in the moral rectitude of the system’s players is shattered when he begins to uncover the truth about Brennan and the homicide bureau chief, Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal), whose corruption is a cancer on the system metastasized into its very bones. Reilly races to prove that Brennan is little more than Quinn’s enforcer while the exceedingly violent cop and the ruthless chief try to stifle his investigation at every turn.

The narrative clearly echoes the stories of both Serpico and Prince of the City, with each featuring a central character caught between personal and professional duties. In each film, Lumet presents a world of moral compromise in which the individual cannot function as a righteous actor when trapped within an unjust political and social structure. Reilly is most like Serpico (Al Pacino), but an exaggeration of the officer’s faith in the system; Serpico quickly learned that the system may be beyond saving, but believed in his own ability to operate morally within it, until circumstances made clear to him that those tensions were unresolvable. Serpico comes to realize that the only way he can do his job effectively is to purge the system of its corruption, and begins a quixotic effort to testify against the perpetrators within the police department. Reilly’s belief in the system extends to idolatry of Quinn and admiration of Brennan, both of whom he assigns paternal qualities that substitute for his own departed father. Reilly sees Quinn as representative of his own political aspirations and is grateful for the bureau chief’s interest in his career; in Brennan, Reilly sees a tough-as-nails cop who has survived the streets where his own father could not. Lumet’s Serpico, aloof and detached as embodied by Pacino, would never have expressed such naivety. Q & A’s Reilly is clean-cut and well-heeled, a product of the law school classroom, not the streets. As played by Hutton, Reilly wears the look of someone whose belief in the system is so confident that he not only imagines himself surviving within it, but thriving it. He would love nothing more than to sit in Quinn’s chair when he vacates it to run for governor. 

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Q & A Movie Film

Q & A also exaggerates the central character of Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) from Prince of the City, distorting his everyday corruption into the megalomaniacal fascism of Brennan. Ciello’s fall from grace is a morality tale about the perils of choosing the moral path after it is too late; his decision to inform on his fellow police officers by exposing their corruption yields information for the prosecutors he works for, but eventually, they ask him to inform on his own partners. He has little choice but to cooperate, hemmed in by the revelation of evidence of his own complicity in a corrupt system. Lumet’s purgatorial final scene leaves Ciello to stew in his own damnation, a hollowed-out soul sifting through the wreckage of his personal and professional lives. While Ciello was a slick operator who tricked himself into believing he wasn’t a bad cop for as long as he could, Brennan builds no such illusions. A thick black mustache covers his upper lip, a helmet of slicked black hair sits atop his head. He is a devil, equally charming and diabolical with a brutally violent, sadistic streak that masks deep insecurity about his own sexuality. Brennan delivers street justice that makes him indistinguishable from the criminals he is attempting to bring down; even worse, he does it from behind a badge, serving as the department’s ubermensch — Brennan is seen by his fellow officers as the paragon of civic virtue. His method is, for many police officers in the film, the only method. Of Brennan, Quinn will say: “Mike Brennan is the personification of the finest. The toughest, most dedicated police officer it has been my pleasure to know. He gets rough sometimes. If he takes shortcuts, it never hurts in court. I know because this office has tried all his cases, and never lost one, never been reversed on appeal.”  

Lumet carefully constructs a full-on assault on the justice system; throughout Q & A, the violence that protects the corruption become quotidian. The film begins on a close-up of a stoplight glowing red. It flashes to green — all is permitted. It tilts down to the street below, glistening with rain. Brennan stalks out of the shadows, his hand clamped around another man’s neck, walking him across the street and over to the stairs leading down to a basement apartment. To capture the actors’ cross, Lumet’s camera tilts back up, the green glow of the stoplight lingering ominously in the top left portion of the frame. Throughout his work on the justice system, Lumet has continuously used the mise-en-scène and cinematic space to express the ubiquity of its power. In Q & A, that power extends to the streets where Brennan makes his own rules. However, at this moment in the film, before any substantial narrative action, Brennan is not yet established as the brutal monster that the rest of Q & A will reveal him to be. He is just another cop on the streets of New York, lurking in the shadows in order to bring a perpetrator to justice. The film is barely a minute old when Brennan destroys any image of himself as noble, executing an unarmed man who exits the basement apartment with a surprise gunshot between the eyes, splattering the man’s blood and brains on the graffiti-tagged wall behind him, then planting a gun near the dead man’s body. Lumet has deftly reintegrated one of the most famous moments in Serpico, but this time, placed the spectators on the side of the assassins. Serpico is famously shot in the face by drug dealers, left alone by his fellow police officers resentful over his cooperation with the commission investigating departmental corruption. Q & A also begins with a sudden gunshot, this time fired from the officer’s gun; it will later be revealed as yet another act of violence done in the name of preserving the status quo, orders carried out by Quinn, with Brennan the instrument of swift, certain injustice. It is an intense, confrontational opening scene that goes further even than Serpico; the opening moments of that film ask spectators to imagine the shooting that critically wounds Pacino’s hero, only showing the act itself much later in the film when the story’s flashback structure catches up to the present. If the slow revelation of the depths of the department’s corruption drive Serpico, then Q & A offers a more jaded view; when the film begins, the police department is already demonstrated to be hopelessly corrupt. When Reilly arrives at the D.A.’s office, summoned by Quinn out of bed in the middle of the night, his naïve acceptance of the responsibility to nominally, but not seriously, investigate Brennan’s shooting seems contemptible. Reilly is a fool for believing at all.

In Q & A, Lumet’s opening credits sequence also evoke the opening of Serpico, which take place in the backseat of a police cruiser as the near-fatally shot Serpico clings to life. There are differences, however: while Serpico’s credits play out against the wailing of a police siren, Lumet instead uses soaring music, “The Hit,” sung by musician and actor Ruben Blades, which opens and closes Q & A. The song powerfully aligns one of the film’s narrational tools (the musical theme) with Latino voices; a number of the criminals and one of the most ambivalent police officers, Valentin (Luis Guzman), are Puerto Rican, and they are among the first to expose Brennan’s corruption and violence for what it is. Lumet’s credits sequence also references Serpico in its repeated shots of Reilly sitting in the backseat of the police cruiser as it bombs down New York City’s streets in the early morning, racing him to the homicide bureau office so that he can participate in the cover-up. In Serpico, the detective’s fellow officers tried to have him killed through their refusal to intervene in a potentially violent situation, and nearly succeeded. In Q & A, Reilly is yet another sacrificial lamb, brought in to make the cover-up of Brennan’s execution of his victim look official. The justice system in Serpico punishes the apostate by trying to facilitate his death and thereby purge him from it; in Q & A, the justice system controls would-be idealist by helping his career and bringing him inside. 

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Q & A Movie Film

Lumet’s evolution shows a more sophisticated understanding of how the justice system works to perpetuate its own power, deepening over the number of films he made on the subject. His use of physical space to underline the centralized institutional control is on full display in Q & A’s crucial first scenes, where Lumet establishes a key setting: the homicide bureau office where Quinn leads and Brennan serves. The credits and Blades’s theme song conclude as Reilly knocks on Quinn’s office door, eager and nervous, anxious to prove himself worthy of Quinn’s faith in him. As is the case in many of Lumet’s justice system films, the vertical and horizontal lines of the space reinforce the rigidity and stability of the institution, but also expresses its authoritarian inclinations. After Reilly enters, Quinn is first shown in wide shot seated at his desk, the light of the room casting a subtle reflection in the lacquered conference table that extends towards the camera in an aggressive diagonal, lengthening the impression of Quinn’s power like a tactile wooden shadow. It is the rare wide shot that actually makes its human subject seem larger, in contrast to the tendency of most filmmakers to look up admiringly (even if intending an ironic effect) at the person in the frame. Lumet works counterintuitively, allowing the space itself to extend Quinn’s reach through line and placement of objects in the shot. Like many powerful figures in Serpico and Prince of the City, in addition to his other justice system films, Quinn’s reflection doubles his impact, illustrating the depth of his control. The windows behind Quinn extend out of frame, seemingly sitting atop his shoulders like giant, latticed wings. A prominently displayed American flag hangs in the corner of the room, but is given equal balance in the other side of the frame by Quinn’s beige trenchcoat, a symbol of his belief in his own power. The frame is not quite symmetrical in the style associated with Wes Anderson, but its clear balance depicts a world built on order, tradition and certainty; the execution of the unarmed man in the film’s opening moments, however, undermines each of those instantiated qualities by rendering them absurd. A justice system built on reckless abuse of power and perpetuation of corruption is a far cry from the principles it supposedly espouses.

Reilly, by contrast, is shot in medium close-up when he sits at the end of Quinn’s conference table. He looks off frame right to match eyelines with the bureau chief, but the overall impression makes him seem much smaller than Quinn, who remains at a distance in the reverse shot, a reprisal of the wide. Reilly is closer to the camera, sitting with his back to it, and is physically larger, but the effect diminishes him; though both are at the same floor level, Quinn appears through forced perspective to be sitting higher, as though on a throne while the admiring young assistant district attorney looks up at the man who he knows could help his career. When Quinn finally stands, he commands the movement of the camera itself, as it tracks to the left to follow his movements when he crosses in front of his desk and moves towards the still-seated Reilly. A high angle from Quinn’s rough vantage point looks down at Reilly, diminishing him once again. Throughout the scene, Al listens intently, his every gesture deferent and respectful of the older, more powerful man. 

Reilly will likewise be diminished by the sheer psychopathic charisma of Brennan, who stands outside in the hallway regaling his fellow officers with war stories from his time on the streets of New York. Lumet applies the same counterintuitive approach to his second introduction of Brennan, shooting from a distance and watching Brennan’s full body in wide shot as he holds court, breaking up the other officers with laughter. As Brennan, Nolte uses every bit of his six foot frame to loom over the other men, all of whom are sitting or leaning while the domineering detective has total freedom of movement within the space. In the act of telling his story, a typical shaggy-dog yarn that betrays his casual approach to police brutality, he has total range of motion, stepping into the other officers’ spaces and sticking his finger in their faces. Partway through the story, Reilly enters in the background, lurking quietly against the wall, as if repelled by the power of Brennan’s orbit. Nolte’s gruff voice fills the echoing hallway, as he theatrically recounts the story complete with vocal impressions, shouts and sound effects, animating Brennan with the embellishment of detail that boldly announces the ease with which he will lie. All of this emphasis on Brennan as storyteller helps establish the subsequent scene back in Quinn’s office, when Reilly will take the lead in running the investigative Q & A that gives the film its title. All the vertical and horizontal lines that were present in the previous conversation between Reilly and Quinn take on an additional dimension, their artificial instantiation of control more overtly contrasted with the outright lies Brennan offers when he gives his account of the shooting.

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Q & A Movie Film

During the questioning, Lumet emphasizes Reilly’s credulity through staging of the actors and his control of cutting. While the other police officers sit comfortably in chairs, Reilly stands upright, holding a notepad. Quinn, tellingly, lounges on a leather couch behind him, secure in the knowledge that Reilly will not meaningfully challenge the status quo that he represents. On the other side of the room, Brennan is similarly unperturbed, leaning back in a wooden chair, his enormous body taking up every inch of the available space. As Reilly’s softball questions clear the way for Brennan to deliver his account of the shooting, the stability of Lumet’s framing and the ordered mise-en-scène create an ironic effect. The audience knows that every word coming out of Brennan’s mouth is a lie; the opening scene, which showed Brennan brutally and shockingly execute the unarmed man and plant the weapon leaves an indelible impression that hangs over the entire interrogation. The scene is shaped by Quinn’s instructions to Reilly: “If it’s not in the Q & A, it did not happen.” Inside this room, where the police and lawyers come together to decide what they want the truth to be, they also enact the justice system’s unjust mandates. Wide shots of the entire group laughing after a humorous exchange initiated by the elderly stenographer make all of the system’s players complicit in its corruption — they all agree to strike it from the record, demonstrating their comfort with altering reality. Reilly, through his naiveté and eagerness to prove himself, is blind to the obvious holes in Brennan’s story. Brennan is a liar enabled by the system which uses him as an enforcer, whose violent sadism has found a protective home, where it can be channeled into the perpetuation of power. Quinn is a laconic puppet master, so comfortable in his certainty that the system will uphold itself that he can lie back and listen to the Q & A play out without his overt intervention. At this point, Lumet’s Q & A is barely 15 minutes old. Already, he has returned to well-worn territory and established a master’s control over cinematic space, using it to deepen his long-running critique of the inhumanity of the justice system.

The rest of Q & A plays out in compelling scenes like this one, each taking its cues from the baseline of sophisticated mise-en-scène and thematic richness that Lumet establishes in the first 15 minutes. This is one of the advantages of an ongoing cinematic dialogue on this subject; by this point in his career, Lumet understands intuitively what his criticisms of the justice system are, and can easily reanimate them. The thrill of a film like Q & A comes in watching how Lumet finds new ways to level his criticisms, harnessing the cynicism that has propelled his work and suffusing each frame with deep, corrupting rot. The film’s final act, as is frequent in Lumet’s justice films, frustrates the main character, Reilly, whose quest to bring Quinn and Brennan down runs into a brick wall. Brennan is gunned down in the police station after his crimes are revealed, but Quinn’s power insulates him from prosecution. Though Brennan is Q & A’s most brutal villain, he is little more than muscle; Quinn is the real criminal, and Reilly is unable to do anything about his transgressions. Sinking into a leather couch in the District Attorney’s office, Reilly is told by his superiors that the case against Quinn will almost certainly evaporate, despite Reilly’s dogged investigation and his personal promise to the bureau chief that he would hold him to account. The systemic corruption is too vast for one man to dismantle. In Q & A, the justice system is no longer merely infested, but built entirely on a foundation of corruption. Reilly, in a dramatic gesture that almost certainly echoes Lumet’s own impotent frustration, goes ballistic. He picks up a metal side table and smashes every window in the office, sending secretaries fleeing in terror, glass shattering to the carpeted floors below. He collapses, spent. The depths of his despair render every previous action meaningless; all of it, his sacrifice of his career, his investigation of Brennan and Quinn, the lives lost during the course of the case, have been for nothing. Reilly, as one of Lumet’s angry men, railing against the system, has gone as far as he can go. Two years later, the director would see if a woman might have better luck.   

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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.