Night Falls on Manhattan

Despite a fresh star in Andy Garcia and some powerful moments, Sidney Lumet's latest police corruption drama walks the same old beat.

Published June 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

night Falls on Manhattan" could be the working title of almost any Sidney Lumet movie, with its hints of gloom and doom in Dirty New York, Lumet's now-rusty crucible of corruption. And, in fact, this movie is a generic vehicle about how rot starts in City Hall, flows into the police force and gives a good moral flaying to anyone who's dumb enough to still believe in justice. The problem -- as anyone who gets home from the movie in time to catch even a portion of "NYPD Blue" can tell you -- is that the genre that Lumet invented has buried him alive.

The story's about -- need you ask? -- how, while trying a drug lord for the killing of three policemen, a fresh-faced assistant district attorney discovers a lode of dirty cops, including, it seems, his father and his father's partner. Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), the Irish cop-turned-assistant-DA hero, gets handed this career-making criminal case by Morgenstern, a district attorney with a political agenda. Casey's policeman father (Ian Holm), riddled with bullets during the botched ambush of the drug lord, becomes an irresistible star witness in his son's big case. (The script, written by Lumet, is based on the novel "Tainted Evidence" by Robert Daley.)

Young Casey wins, of course, but not before we meet Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), a William Kuntsler-type lawyer who steps forward to defend drug lord Jordan Washington, and his second chair Peggy Lindstrom (Lena Olin, who's utterly wasted here as Casey's love interest). Initially, Casey doesn't mind being used as Morgenstern's political puppet, and his loyalty pays off when Morgenstern's bad heart takes him out of the race and Casey becomes the candidate for DA. No sooner is he elected than the case against Washington starts to crumble. Thanks to the discovery of unlawful police involvement, the drug lord may go free.

Pretty simple stuff -- especially for an audience weaned on Lumet's landmark police dramas, "Serpico" and "Prince of the City," and Lumet doesn't get particularly memorable performances out of any of his actors. His Manhattan universe revolves around the Old World ethnic triad of Irish-Jewish-WASP interactions. (The film's notion of a black drug lord, here played by newcomer Sheik Mahmud-Bey, is a musty, museum-quality stereotype.) As dated as it seems, though, the first act of "Night Falls" moves with the power of Lumet's best storytelling. Particularly affecting is a stake-out scene in which Holm and his partner, James Gandolfini, prepare for their hit with an odd mix of enthusiasm (Gandolfini) and vulnerability (Holm). The denlike coziness of their undercover car is violently sliced open by a disheveled snitch who, with no warning, jumps out of the gutter and into the back seat.

Scenes like this -- small dramas that have redeemed Lumet's other boilerplate efforts (I'm thinking of "Q&A" and "Guilty as Sin") from easy dismissal -- can make you forget that Lumet is the same director who tried, in "Stranger Among Us," to plop Melanie Griffith down in a community of Hasidic Jews. Unfortunately, there aren't enough such moments in "Night Falls." What's downright stultifying, however, is that the director isn't reaching beyond the moral complications he turned a cold eye on two, three and even four decades ago. Shocking in the '60s and '70s, the notion of police corruption is now an essential prop of even the most mundane TV cop drama.

That's funny, since shows like "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order" (much less something as effervescent and morally challenging as the short-lived CBS drama "EZ Streets") would never have come about without Lumet's once pioneering filmmaking. But currently, with one foot in the great live TV plays of the 1950s and another pushing the dramatic pedal with '60s idealism, Lumet can't quite propel himself into the promised land. How is it that a man who has survived such innocence-killing events as Watergate, Vietnam and the Rosenberg case can still be moved by the story of an innocent's realization that justice dwells in gray areas?

Lumet is oblivious to the way his own ideas about corruption might seem naive or two-dimensional to moviegoers and TV-watchers today. He should listen to Garcia talk. Casey's multiethnic accent -- explained by giving the character a Hispanic mother -- conjures up the new world orders of Miami and Los Angeles (not to mention Atlanta, Akron and Peoria), where police corruption and societal compromise have not only matched the decibel level of New York's but have overtaken it, spawning multifaceted moral crises that make Lumet's Manhattan seem like Eden.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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