The justice system films of director Sidney Lumet share a unified, if evolving vision of an institution hopelessly rendered corrupt by a collection of factors: ossified hierarchies possessed by securing their own power through the preservation of the status quo; an incentive structure that rewards bad actors who obey the system’s dictates, no matter how perverse; absolute intolerance for any deviation from business as usual, and the certainty of harsh punishment for such defiance; and, almost uniformly, an edifice built, maintained and then rotted through by the decisions of men. Lumet’s work has brought some of the most compelling male figures in the history of cinema to the screen in his justice system films: Henry Fonda’s righteous steward of reasonable doubt in 12 Angry Men (1957); Al Pacino’s last honest cop in Serpico (1973) and bank robber at the end of the line in Dog Day Afternoon (1975); Treat Williams’s hopelessly fallen officer on the take become turncoat in Prince of the City (1981); Paul Newman’s noble failure of a low-rent attorney in The Verdict (1982); Nick Nolte’s volatile, racist, sadistic, sexually repressed maniac homicide detective in Q & A (1990). Men, moving through a system gone irretrievably bad — they cannot hope to save it. Many cannot summon the strength to save even themselves, rendered spiritually and morally impotent by years of self-administered subordination to the law.
In 1992, Lumet followed his parade of broken male justice system servants with a close look at a woman in the same position. In A Stranger Among Us, Detective Emily Eden (Melanie Griffith), bearing a name freighted with religious import, goes undercover in an orthodox Jewish community in New York City in an effort to catch a killer. Though on familiar ground thematically, Lumet’s use of a female protagonist offers a fresh opportunity to reconsider the assumptions that governed his earlier films that focus on the justice system. Eden is, like many of Lumet’s male cops, tough and serious: in the opening scene, she and her partner Nick (Jamey Sheridan) are about to step into a nightclub to do surveillance on a suspect when he is stabbed by a fleeing perpetrator. Without missing a beat, Eden turns and shoots the suspect cold through the back, dropping him with a single shot. She whirls around to the suspect’s accomplice and asks, “You want it?,” signaling her clear intent to fire if pushed. Apparently, Eden has a history of using her service weapon in the line of duty, an indication that, as her captain suspects, she has something to prove. Many of Lumet’s male police officers move through the justice system on the strength of their bravado in the line of duty. Serpico’s unconventional reliance on street clothes allows him to blend in amongst the Bohemian New Yorkers he busts for drugs, making him a comfortable eccentric amidst his fellow officers, who nonetheless regard him askance for his unwillingness to accept bribes. He is an outsider, made a stranger by his refusal to turn policework into a money-making enterprise. In Prince of the City, Williams’s Danny Ciello wears a wire for months, deep undercover with all manner of corrupt police officers and menacing characters; he gets by through his ability to talk his way through confrontations, a skill he likewise uses to massage the expectations of the prosecutors he is working with as an informant, downplaying his own criminal past and that of his partners. Ciello ends up a stranger amongst his fellow officers, forever labeled a stool pigeon for turning against cops, some of whom were carted off to jail and some of whom ended up dead at the end of their own service weapons. Lumet’s men are systemic insiders rendered outsiders after they decide, out of necessity, to go against the institutional grain.
More by Brian Brems: Modern Malick
In order to successfully regain acceptance inside the justice system, Eden has to become a different kind of insider in A Stranger Among Us, ingratiating herself completely inside the orthodox Jewish community despite having long abandoned any religious faith of her own. Like the young man seeking the truth about his parents’ radicalism in Daniel (1983), Eden first runs away from her identity before seeing it as the path to her self-actualization. When Eden first arrives in the neighborhood that will become the site of her investigation of a missing persons’ case, she seems as though she might as well have landed on the moon; Lumet shoots her walk down the street, surrounded by Jewish-owned businesses, lined with the faithful in their distinct dress, in a series of close-ups of Eden, cut together with shots of the Yiddish written on the storefronts and newspapers. She has entered another world, one deeply embedded inside the city she thought she understood. As ever, Lumet is sensitive to the ways in which space affects his characters in A Stranger Among Us. Eden looks small beneath the towering signage, even though few of the buildings are more than two stories tall; Lumet uses wide shots inside the synagogue where Eden begins her investigation, reinforcing her uncertain position inside this unfamiliar space.
In a male-dominated world like the New York Police Department, Eden has had to subordinate her traditionally rendered femininity in certain ways, presumably in order to be taken seriously as a police officer both by her colleagues and the perpetrators she confronts on the street. Her history of drawing and using her gun reveals a quick trigger perhaps motivated by a need to overcompensate. However, Eden’s rough demeanor and easy familiarity with profanity makes her “one of the boys” down at the station in A Stranger Among Us. When she visits a Rebbe (Lee Richardson) to do the initial questioning about the disappearance of a member of the community, her brazen use of language makes the elder man uncomfortable. The set of traditionally masculine characteristics that Eden has adopted — performing maleness in order to match her fellow officers’ gravitas, which help her survive in the police department — now alienate the people she needs to be forthcoming if she is going to solve the crime. Lumet is also interested, however, in the ways that Eden’s entrance into the Jewish community forces her to once again compromise her femininity; wearing a skirt, she must drape a scarf over her exposed legs for reasons of modesty, and her conversation with Ariel (Eric Thal), a leading member of the community, must be attended by a third person for similar reasons. In the police department, Emily’s femininity is a threat to her; in the Jewish community represented in A Stranger Among Us, it is a threat to others.
More by Brian Brems: The Man Who Laughs: Richard Widmark’s Early Noirs
Eden is comfortable changing her identity; the next time she returns to the community, this time to review the financial records of a local diamond wholesaler where the missing man works, she is wearing jeans and a jacket that covers her shoulders, a subtle but meaningful accommodation to the community’s rules. Ironically, Eden’s dress has made her look more traditionally masculine, a further adjustment in the direction of the demands placed on her by the police department. After the missing man is discovered dead, it becomes increasingly clear that the best way for Eden to find out who murdered him is to immerse herself in the community directly; the killer is most likely a member of the insular group.
Ariel becomes Eden’s closest contact throughout A Stranger Among Us; he was the murdered man’s best friend, and feels a strong sense of responsibility to help the detective bring the killer to justice. He moves beyond his initial discomfort with Eden and comes to believe strongly in her powers as a police officer. Their relationship extends a consistent preoccupation for Lumet in the justice system films, which is the inconsistent application of authority. Ariel is governed by the list of rules laid out for him by his faith, to which he must adhere if he is to remain close to God. Eden is a rebellious member of the NYPD, made in Serpico’s image as something of an eccentric, but driven by her own sense of moral justice that makes her an outcast among her fellow officers and a thorn in the side of her superiors. In A Stranger Among Us, Eden’s entrance into the Jewish community as a member, living in disguise, comes with yet another transformation — her wardrobe matches the other Jewish women she immerses herself with, and she dyes and styles her hair differently to more convincingly sell the illusion that she belongs. In order to become the most effective police officer she can, Eden must subsume her identity into the dictates of an entirely different community. She must learn its customs and rules and obey them to a remarkable degree — she must adopt this new way of life with the zeal of a convert. Eden has chosen, albeit temporarily, a new life that looks remarkably different from her own. As she bonds with one of the other women, Leah (Mia Sara), her curious mentor asks why she became a police officer. Eden acknowledges the influence of family: “My old man was a cop,” she says. Just as Leah and the other Jews are born into their identities, carrying on traditions animated by values and beliefs, Eden does the same as a member of law enforcement. When Leah suggests that her job is something like a preordained fate, Eden balks: “I do what I want to when I want to. I am an independent woman.” Like many of Lumet’s male justice system protagonists, Eden operates under the illusion of individual choice, but she is caught inside a system that perpetuates itself through the instantiation of predetermined outcomes. Lumet’s men rage against the machine, but only on rare occasions, when the director is feeling slightly optimistic, do they ever fight it to a draw. Nearly always, the machine’s entrenched power is too overwhelming; his small men are no match for it. Eden moves through the world believing she has individual agency, but it is a profound misapprehension.
Eden has no doubt adopted such a strong definition of self in the face of the patriarchal authority that dominates the police department. In one key scene, she steps into a conference room where a group of officers are going over duty roster assignments, and at first, they don’t even recognize her in the new, undercover disguise. When they realize who it is, one of the cops, Levine (John Pankow), says “you still got a great ass, Eden,” a typical example of garden variety sexual harassment that Eden has almost certainly had to parry since she joined the force, no matter the degree to which she has subordinated her femininity to the masculine codes of a patriarchal organization. She ignores the comment and sits down. Levine, who is Jewish, is assigned to join her on the case as her partner. As a female member of the police force in A Stranger Among Us, Eden has to listen to Levine and the other officers have inappropriate discussions about sex while she is in the room. Levine makes reference to what he’s heard about orthodox Jewish people and sex, saying, “They’re so uptight about sex they gotta make a hole in a sheet and then — shtupp away!” The other men at the table all laugh. Lumet, always aware of and on the side of the sympathetic outsider, cuts to a shot from Emily’s rough vantage point, excluded from the conversation at the table by her femininity, standing at the door and ready to leave; the men look in her direction, their laughter subsiding into a hushed pause. They have become aware of Eden’s feminine difference in this moment. Though Eden’s place among the Jews is tenuous, scenes like this one reveal that the security she may feel with her fellow officers, in the institution she supposedly was born into, is fleeting as well. She is caught between two identities, neither of which fit ideally — a woman in the patriarchal, often sexist police force that has forced her to compromise her femininity in order to keep pace, and a police officer investigating the residents of a Jewish community who will almost certainly never regard her with anything other than skepticism.
More by Brian Brems: The Absent Presence in ‘Klute’
As in Lumet’s other justice system films, space is determinative in A Stranger Among Us, an expression of the institutional rules. While Eden is living in the Rebbe’s house, she must obey the kosher rules, and nearly makes a critical mistake when she goes to put a carton of milk in the refrigerator, but Leah stops her — the meat and dairy must be kept separate. Leah makes an accommodation for her, writing “MEAT” and “DAIRY” on placards and affixing them to the refrigerators as a reminder. Lumet’s courtrooms, police stations and justice department offices are nearly always man-made edifices, constructed to instill an authoritative reminder of the unassailability of the power structure. The Jews Emily lives with use custom and tradition to express the inviolability of their faith, but it can manifest even in hand written placards in English, noted reminders that serve to help an outsider adhere to their beliefs. In Emily’s father’s home, similar markers of Irish Catholic police identity adorn the walls, including a framed picture of John F. Kennedy, given a near-religious position of prominence on the wall. The police authority of his working life, a set of beliefs as powerful to Irish cops as the orthodoxy of the film’s Jews, is a constant reminder to obey. When a vulnerable Eden asks her father what he would do if she died, he responds like a good cop: “make sure you got a departmental funeral.” Even in death, Eden’s father would ensure that her identity as a police officer is secure.
Throughout Lumet’s films focusing on the justice system, the institution is almost always portrayed as an oppressive force that either crushes the individual who rebels or consumes the obedient participant through reward, promotion or protection. A Stranger Among Us differs from those other films in that it offers an alternative in the Jewish community that Eden joins. It is tempting to see the Jewish community as depicted in the film as a corollary to Lumet’s justice system; it is likewise governed by strict rules of order and demands obedience to rules. Like the justice system, it is nearly hermetically sealed, skeptical of outsiders at best and hostile to them at worst. As a chronicler of the justice system in a dozen or more films, Lumet is intimately concerned with the ways in which it represses individual thought and fails to live up to its supposedly defining principles. As a Jewish filmmaker, A Stranger Among Us sees him confronting his own religious heritage more directly than in any film since 1964’s The Pawnbroker, a remarkably dark examination of the post-traumatic stress experienced by a New York City businessman who survived the Nazi concentration camps. In that film, Lumet is concerned with the individual legacy of the pawnbroker’s (Rod Steiger) Judaism, especially as it made him a target for extermination. In A Stranger Among Us, he is more focused on the restrictive rules and order of Judaism as an institution. Ariel is caught in a cycle of careerism — he must marry within the Jewish faith, a woman selected by the Rebbe, if he wants to take over as the community’s spiritual leader. Despite the fact that he has clearly fallen in love with Eden he plans to obey the faith’s rules. Ariel is no different from Lumet’s innumerable careerist prosecutors and police officers, putting his professional ambitions above his personal desires.
More by Brian Brems: Leopards in Winter: ‘The Irishman’ and the Banquet Sequence
In every case, Lumet is skeptical of institutions; in his most prominent non-justice system films, like Network (1975), a lacerating satire about the destructive power of television, or Fail-Safe (1964), in which the nuclear arsenal of the United States is triggered by a mechanical failure and unstoppable because the military and civilian authorities are powerless, or his final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), where the family dissolves when two brothers conspire to rob their own father, the individual hardly stands a chance against the domineering power of the oppressive structures they build and then perpetuate, even when they crush them. Lumet’s jaundiced view of the justice system would continue in a return to the courtroom after a 15-year hiatus; his players may have changed, but the game remains the same.
Follow “12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice” HERE.
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.