In the middle of his fourth decade making movies, Sidney Lumet was certainly one of the elder statesmen of the film industry, commanding almost universal respect from his peers, even if his films ceased to be major events, a status still afforded to many of the younger New Hollywood filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Lumet was somewhere between the both of them: mostly a New York-centered storyteller whose restrained, classical visual style eschewed Scorsese’s maniac flourishes, but a relentless critic of American institutions whose cynicism prevented his work from the kind of everyman crowd-pleasers favored by Spielberg. Lumet was a steady hand behind the camera, guiding his actors to remarkable performances amidst mostly realist, classically told stories that chronicled the societal decay of the second half of the American century, marking time as its great institutions, charged with the safeguarding of the country’s ideals, fell either to ossification or unbridled corruption. In either case, the institutions, the bedrock of the American experiment, failed to serve the country’s people, breaking a sacred, understood compact. Each became rife with self-dealers, careerists and opportunists who succeeded wildly when they figured out how to bend the institution’s embedded organizational instinct for self-preservation to their own will, securing power, remuneration or respect. The systems we built protected those who were willing to play by their rules, and ruthlessly punished anyone who flouted them by expelling them; these apostates, cut loose, contended with the full weight of the system which would be brought to bear on the exiled, with the institution’s vengeance made all the more exacting when visited upon a former servant.
Throughout his work on the justice system, Lumet has told this story more than any other. Though his earliest work in his debut film 12 Angry Men (1957) and his final film on the subject, Find Me Guilty (2006), are wildly different in tone and approach, above all, his films have chronicled the justice system’s many failures: its inflexible environments, its morally flexible actors and its inconsistent outcomes. Most often in Lumet’s work, these three points of intersection conspire, like the rhythmic automation of a pair of lungs taking in and expelling breath, to keep the system running. Change is never likely, even when it does occasionally manifest. The gamut of Lumet’s work offers a panoply of emotions: the cautious optimism of 12 Angry Men gives way to the terror of sadism in The Hill (1965); the moral indignation of Serpico (1973); the desperation of Dog Day Afternoon (1975); the hopeless wasteland of Prince of the City (1981); the impotent rage of Q & A (1990). These are films each consumed by the fury of their moral outrage, animated by passion; they can only come from a director, even at his most jaundiced, who still believes that the system can be reformed. In the elegiac, mournful Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), Lumet seems to have resigned himself to the intractable power of the system once and for all; he offers a downbeat, contemplative drama that feels like a summation of his previous work on the subject, one only followed by a farcical coda some 10 years later.
To some, it might seem like Night Falls on Manhattan plays like a collection of Lumet’s greatest hits, its narrative something of an assembled group of scenes and settings that the director had, by this point, come to know so well. However, to assume that his familiarity with the subject matter finds Lumet less engaged in the material is a mistake. One might expect Lumet to sleepwalk through these courtrooms and district attorney’s offices, or leave his characters as sketches built upon the other lawyers and cops and judges that have populated his films. He does operate at a much slower, quieter register, but doing so only reveals that his youthful outrage has given way to a kind of rueful, morning-after lament. The film’s opening credits set the tone. A black screen is slowly filled by blue streaks of animated paint rolled down from the top of the frame; the picture begins to reveal itself, with the Manhattan skyline marked by its iconic buildings, including the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, to be felled five years hence. Underneath, a jazz dirge, a mournful trumpet wailing its lonely cry. This, Lumet insists, is a funeral.
Lumet himself authored the screenplay and supplied the poetic sunset title, based on the novel Tainted Evidence by Robert Daley, who also provided the non-fiction source material for Prince of the City. Lumet rarely took screenplay credit, but the list of projects on which he did is quite telling: Prince of the City, Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan. More than any of his other films, these three come closest to revealing Lumet’s personal disappointments in the failures of the justice system. In Night Falls on Manhattan, Lumet opens with a familiar scene, knowingly restaging the doorway confrontations between police and criminals that define Serpico, Prince of the City and Q & A. In Serpico, the film’s one honest cop, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is gunned down by drug dealers when his backup, resentful over his testimony against their corruption, refuses to intervene to protect him; in Prince of the City, corrupt cop Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) participates in an apartment raid that leaves drug dealers dead and money missing, a bust that will eventually lead to him turning against his partners as a district attorney’s informant; the opening scene of Q & A shows how far a police officer can fall, as the film’s sadistic cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) guns down an unarmed snitch who can reveal the depths of his corruption. Early in Night Falls on Manhattan, an old Irish cop, Liam Casey (Ian Holm), and his middle-aged partner, Joe Allegretto (James Gandolfini), wait in an unmarked car outside a lonely apartment building in the middle of Harlem. A drug dealer, Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), waits inside, unaware that the police are staking out his place. All seems above board — Casey and Allegretto receive a tip from their heroin-addict informant that Washington is indeed in the apartment, and they decide to take him for themselves before calling in backup because Casey, like many of Lumet’s careerist cops and lawyers, wants the collar for himself. Washington is ready, however, and blasts through the apartment door with a machine gun, riddling the older cop with bullets while Allegretto calls for an ambulance. Washington attempts to make a daring escape through the building’s basement while police and other emergency personnel swarm to the scene, sirens wailing. Lumet stages the scene with his typically skeptical point of view, portraying the ensuing arrival of the officers from several nearby precincts as chaotic and mismanaged. The officers shout over one another, making communication nearly impossible. A squad car rumbles into a vacant lot next to the apartment building and pops its tire on a cinder block, and the frightened officers unload their weapons at the tenement’s roof, with the stray fire catching a cop on a fire escape. Riddled with bullets from friendly fire, he plummets to his death. While the phalanx of police officers surround the building, the clever Washington ambushes two of them in the basement, steals one of the dead officers’ uniforms, and slips out a window. Wearing a black officer’s blouse, badge and patrolman’s cap over track pants and white sneakers, he carries a duffel bag full of cash straight across the empty lot, slips inside an empty police car and drives away. Another officer in a car at the end of the street, blocking off entry to pedestrians, even backs out of the way so Washington can drive past him more easily.
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The chaos of this sequence emphasizes the system’s incompetence; consumed with protecting itself, it allows a criminal to slip away undetected. It also sets the narrative in motion, sending the city’s justice system scrambling to protect itself from what New York’s District Attorney, Morgenstern (Ron Leibman), apoplectically calls “a colossal fuckup.” The opportunistic Morgenstern, sensing an easy path to reelection in the fall, hits upon a novel strategy: run Washington to ground and then bring him to trial, using the wounded officer’s son, Assistant District Attorney Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), to try the case, despite his youth and inexperience. Casey knows he’s being used as a political prop, making him a little smarter than Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) in Q & A, but the allure of a quick path to the top of the D.A.’s office and the desire to prosecute his father’s would-be murderer proves too tempting to resist. Night Falls on Manhattan is further in dialogue with Q & A in Lumet’s reliance on mise‑en‑scène; Morgenstern’s office is nearly identical to the one occupied by Homicide Bureau Chief Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) in the earlier film, complete with the T-shaped desk flanked by two windows and a pair of flags. Unlike the authoritative, reserved Quinn, Morgenstern is volcanic and intense; Quinn often stayed protected behind the desk, using its length to emphasize his prodigious power, but Morgenstern is all over the place, pacing around the room, talking a mile a minute and even expressing real human empathy for Casey while his father lies in the hospital. Quinn was the system personified, complete harmony between himself and the rigid horizontal and vertical lines of the set design of his office, but Morgenstern is merely its servant, a fact underlined when he is later sidelined by a heart attack that takes him out of the race for District Attorney, leaving the seat open for the heroic Casey, who captures the city’s imagination after he secures a conviction for Washington.
Any number of other films might take more time on the conventional moves and spaces of drama, like the pursuit of Washington or the courtroom. However, Lumet’s approach is different. Washington surrenders to an attorney, Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), who agrees to represent him in order to mount a defense based on the exposure of police corruption, stripping away what might have been a more conventional narrative moment where Washington is dramatically apprehended. Likewise, despite Vigoda’s courtroom revelations that members of the NYPD were in league with Washington and likely were eager to assassinate him, as well as Casey’s inexperience as a trial lawyer, the case ends with the jury finding the defendant guilty on all charges after just two hours of deliberation, ending the trial halfway through Night Falls on Manhattan. Unlike many films based on similar narrative circumstances, Lumet moves through these beats rather quickly, showing the system appearing to work as intended. A notorious drug dealer is trapped by police, shoots his way out, but eventually is apprehended, tried, convicted and sentenced. Months of legal wrangling and the machinations of the justice system play out in just over 45 minutes of screen time, with Lumet speeding through events that he has previously used the entirety of a film to examine: the long investigation of corruption in Serpico and Prince of the City, the standoff between police and a criminal in Dog Day Afternoon, the trial of The Verdict (1982), the jury deliberations of 12 Angry Men; in Night Falls on Manhattan, Lumet distills them all down to a brisk, lean series of narrative events.
On some level, this is almost certainly a kind of shorthand, in which Lumet builds on the familiarity he has as a filmmaker with those aspects of the justice system to lend the pacing of Night Falls on Manhattan a kind of authenticity, despite its brevity. Lumet’s intentions are not small, however; the second half of the film begins to unravel the easy, swift justice achieved in the first half, a structural device that he does not use anywhere else in his work. Though Night Falls on Manhattan continues to follow a classical progression, moving towards a kind of resolution, everything that is revealed in the aftermath of the trial calls the accomplishments of the system into question. Casey uses the publicity and Morgenstern’s untimely heart attack to jump into the District Attorney race, and he easily defeats his wooden, uncharismatic rival Eli Harrison (Colm Feore), who offers steady experience and sobriety, but lacks the dramatic, emotional appeal of Casey and his bromides (no matter how sincerely held) about the law. However, once installed in the D.A.’s office, sitting behind the desk formerly occupied by the combustible Morgenstern, Casey cannot shake the case that made his name. The original Washington warrant paperwork is missing, only a Xerox copy in its place; Vigoda’s steamroom warnings to Casey about the prevalence of corruption nag at his conscience, and he can’t help but wonder if his father and Allegretto aren’t somehow involved in the graft that Vigoda’s defense of Washington attempted to expose; above all, the appeal of an internal affairs investigator (Jude Ciccolella) to drill down on police corruption in the precincts that responded to the shootout at Washington becomes impossible to ignore, and forces Casey to lend his office’s credibility to the search for evidence. During menacing interrogation scenes, police officers are brought into a nearly empty office, a threatening reminder of the improvised spaces used to root out police corruption in Prince of the City. The officers sit in lonely chairs, flanked by internal affairs detectives who probe their histories. In wide shots, Casey sits on a couch in the background, shadows cast over his face. He is the powerful man behind the law, just as the ailing Morgenstern warned him he would be upon taking the office. In Night Falls on Manhattan, being District Attorney is about favors, dealing and the transactional use of power to attain imperfect outcomes. Casey, though not as naïve as some of Lumet’s other protagonists, finds these aspects of the job more than a little unsavory.
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As is so often the case in Lumet’s justice system films, Night Falls on Manhattan offers Casey an impossible choice: his career or his integrity. When the internal affairs investigation leads to Allegretto and his own father, Casey is devastated. Gandolfini, who had a bit part in Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us (1992) as a gangster, imbues the narratively essential Allegretto with a kind of contradictory, big-hearted menace; Casey confronts the cop at the waterfront, and Allegretto lies directly to his face, insisting that he is not, and never has been, a dirty cop, and has not taken money. Later, after a peaceful dinner at Liam’s house, Allegretto confesses to taking between 60 and 70 thousand dollars over a four year period, doing so only in the hopes that he can use his personal relationship with both generations of Caseys to earn a sympathetic deal from the D.A.’s office. Casey rebuffs him, unwilling to participate in the horse-trading and favor-exchanging required of him. Though his father claims not to have taken money, he does own up to knowing about the missing original copy of the Washington warrant; he falsified the record, changing the date and signing a judge’s name so that he and Allegretto could continue their stakeout over the weekend when the judge would be unavailable to extend the warrant. Casey took a shortcut which, if revealed, could imperil the entire case against Washington and result in his release. Liam produces the original warrant, which was in his pocket the night he was shot, covered in his own blood. Lumet takes a typically reserved approach to the prevalence of this piece of property, but its metaphorical impact is clear — the price of systemic corruption, whether large like Allegretto’s acceptance of bribes or Liam’s bending the procedural rules, has a terrible cost.
The film’s bifurcated structure — its first half showing the surface-level expression of the justice system as it appears, and the second half revealing how it works underneath — is underlined by its opening and closing scenes, which create circularity. In the first moments of Night Falls on Manhattan, Casey sits in a bullpen training course with a group of other ADAs, listening to a rapid-fire cynical lecture by their instructor, McGovern (Paul Guilfoyle), who introduces himself as “the Assistant to the Assistant Deputy Administrative Assistant to the District Attorney of New York County,” a wonderfully baroque title that underlines Lumet’s often biting sense of humor. McGovern offers a reality check to the recruits, speaking to their disappointment in missing out on more lucrative post-law school work at white shoe law firms and warning them that life as a prosecutor is far from glamorous. He has no patience for idealism: “Don’t give me any crap about law, justice, or the sacredness of your duty, blah, blah, blah.” He prepares them for the ossification of the system’s various players: “You’re gonna fight judges who don’t give a shit, cops in court who only care about how much overtime they can rack up — rapists, gonnifs, teenagers who shot a guy over a pair of sneakers, scam artists, pimps, lunatics who think they should be outside in Central Park trying to diddle seven year old kids. So now we know the truth.” McGovern’s homily establishes the familiar cynical tone of Lumet’s vision of the justice system; when he returns at the end of Night Falls on Manhattan to address a new class of recruits, he says that District Attorney Casey would like to address them, and he steps out of the way. Lumet is restaging the conclusion of Prince of the City, when the compromised Ciello is brought into a police academy class to lecture the new officers. Ciello’s damnation is secured when another officer objects to his presence: “I have nothing to learn from you,” he says, and storms out. Casey’s address to the ADAs is greeted with less hostility. He tells them, “If you’re in it for the hustle, I guarantee you, you’re gonna come across a case that you believe in, and you’re gonna lose it. And it’ll break your heart. And you’ll be damned. And if you’re a saint, well, then I guarantee you, you’re gonna come across a case where you’re gonna have to make a deal, and you’re gonna win it. And that’ll break your heart. And you’ll be damned. So you might as well believe in it from the beginning. It hurts less that way.”
Night Falls on Manhattan feels like the final stage of grief. The optimism of 12 Angry Men, with its defendant saved from the death penalty by the refusal of one man to sentence him to a quick death, feels a lot like Lumet’s denial in retrospect. The anger of Serpico, with Frank lashing out against a system that has gone, in his opinion, far away from its mandate, feels more of a piece with the rest of his work. So too does the deep depression of the sprawling scope of Prince of the City, with its protagonist caught forever in a purgatorial dead space, neither cop nor criminal. The bargaining of Q & A, with Reilly attempting to find some personal salvation even in the aftermath of total devastation, is yet another evolution. In Night Falls on Manhattan, Lumet arrives at acceptance — the system is what it is. He is resigned to his inability to chronicle any meaningful change through his work. When he began, the system was rotten; some 40 years later, it was beset by the same problems. What was left to do but laugh?
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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.