In a prolific and diverse career, some of Sidney Lumet’s best films dealt with police corruption. It was a theme that the filmmaker was drawn to as far back as the 1970s with Serpico (1973) and would revisit regularly in the 1980s with Prince of the City (1981) and the 1990s with Q & A (1990). It was towards the end of the latter decade that he made Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), an adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Tainted Evidence about a newly elected district attorney’s attempt to battle corruption within the New York Police Department. The film wasn’t given a particularly wide release and performed modestly at the box office with mixed reviews. Perhaps it was felt that Lumet’s film was nothing more than an expensive, feature-length episode of Law and Order, which is unfortunately because it delves into the personal and professional dilemmas of its characters in a much deeper way than that television show.
The film starts off by shedding light on the little-shown process of how someone becomes an assistant district attorney by following Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) as he pays his dues by working all kinds of cases in big and small court rooms with long hours that take their toll on his personal life – all in a wonderfully economic montage that is vintage Lumet as he succinctly gives us the information we need to know about the job.
When a heavily armed drug dealer (an imposing Shiek Mahmud-Bey) kills two cops, seriously wounds a police detective (Ian Holm), and escapes in a cop car, the fiery district attorney Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) takes a personal interest in Sean as his father was the detective that was critically wounded and wants Sean to prosecute the drug dealer. The scene where Morgenstern pitches the case to Sean is a joy to watch as veteran character actor Ron Leibman works the room with his larger than life character.
Morgenstern tells Sean that it’s a simple case and he’ll have the jury’s sympathy because of his father. After Sean leaves, the understandably upset senior A.D.A. Elihu Harrison (Colm Feore) tears into his boss for choosing the younger man over him and tells him the real reason he picked Sean over him – it’s all about politics because he knows that when he’s up for re-election he’ll be going up against Harrison. The scene provides fascinating insight into backroom politics – something that Lumet excels at doing. The D.A. is a shrewd man and knows that by giving the case to Sean he’s going to be personally motivated to do everything he can to put the drug dealer away.
In an intriguing twist, flashy defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss) agrees to take on the drug dealer’s case under the auspices that it was self-defense as the police where trying to murder him. To make matters worse, Morgenstern bungles the arrest of the drug dealer and it plays out embarrassingly in front of the press on T.V. The court case plays out as you would expect, but the film really gets interesting when it explores what happens afterwards.
For fans of courtroom dramas, Night Falls on Manhattan is pure cinematic catnip as we get to see Andy Garcia and Richard Dreyfuss go at it as they each try to appeal to the jury with every skill at their disposal. These kinds of films give actors the opportunity to show off their chops as they often have intense exchanges with fellow actors playing witnesses they question while also delivering lengthy speeches.
Andy Garcia is excellent as an up-and-coming assistant district attorney that he wisely doesn’t play as naïve or earnest but rather inexperienced. Fortunately, he’s a quick learner and climbs up the ladder, finding all kinds of corruption along the way to becoming district attorney. Sean sincerely believes in law and order and that no one is above the law – cops or crooks. Naturally, this is put to the test over the course of the film. It’s great to see Garcia mixing it up with veteran actors like Ian Holm and Ron Leibman in scenes that bring out the best in all involved.
Richard Dreyfuss delivers an outstanding performance as a former 1960s radical cum slick defense lawyer who has an incredible scene with Garcia where Vigoda cuts through the posturing on display in the courtroom and reveals that he took the no-win case of the drug dealer in the hopes of uncovering police corruption and redeem the death of his 15-year-old daughter who overdosed. It’s an emotionally charged scene where Dreyfuss brilliantly underplays his character’s touching vulnerability.
Leibman is also a notable standout in the cast as the blustery D.A. but over the course of the film he loses that bluster and confides in Sean, giving him sage advice about what he’s in store for: “Everybody’s gonna want a piece of you now that you’re elected.” His young protégé asks him if he’s going to have make one big deal to which his mentor replies, “Hundred little deals, a thousand. Deal after deal after deal after deal.” It’s a riveting scene as the former D.A. tells Sean how it is and Leibman nails it, losing none of the intensity of his earlier scenes even though he’s become something of a tragic figure.
Night Falls on Manhattan examines why cops go on the take and it is not as simple as they want to make money. It often runs deeper than that and this is one of the hallmarks of Lumet’s police corruption films. He is fascinated with how the justice system works and examines its inner workings in a way that few other filmmakers have done. He presents the justice system as a complex mechanism with many working parts. His films dramatize what happens when one of these parts malfunctions. It is never easy to fix. All of his films don’t offer easy answers because real life is like that. The protagonists in these films have to make tough choices that have serious ramifications and then they have to live with them.
Sidney Lumet was coming off back-to-back commercial misfires with A Stranger Among Us (1992) Guilty as Sin (1993) and Night Falls on Manhattan was seen as the director returning to familiar turf. The film was inspired by the infamous 1986 shoot-out between the police and big-time drug dealer Larry Davis who killed several cops in a bust gone wrong. It was based partly on the Robert Daley novel Tainted Evidence, although, according to Lumet, only the beginning of the film up to the trial came from the book, the rest was original. The filmmaker was drawn to the idea that the film’s protagonist “doesn’t pursue anything, it pursues him. And slowly the world that he’s living keeps closing in, and closing in with a complexity he never thought possible.”
Night Falls on Manhattan received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Night Falls on Manhattan is absorbing precisely because we cannot guess who is telling the truth, or what morality some of the characters possess.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “The great thing about Lumet is that he is not cynical but instead finds an amusing irony in exploring the art of the possible, in discovering that point at which decent people in positions of power and responsibility can be capable of working together privately, of looking the other way if necessary, for the greater good of all concerned.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The plot is such a warhorse that Lumet…feels he has to explain why he’s filming it in a letter to the press: ‘Why am I back at the same old stand: cops, corruption, culpability? Because the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s getting worse.’”
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Lumet’s screenplay does a good job of articulating the disillusioning realities of careerism and crime. And he has an ear, as ever, for the disparate voices of the city. But Night Falls on Manhattan is also oddly listless. It doesn’t often live up to the doomy eloquence of its title.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “That said, what must be added is that, disappointingly, Night Falls on Manhattan doesn’t quite add up. Dreyfuss is great, Holm is great, Mahmud-Bey is great, Leibman is great, but Garcia is so mopey and conflicted he becomes ultimately tiresome.”
Night Falls on Manhattan ends as it began – with a new crop of fresh-faced assistant district attorneys only this time Sean talks to them and it’s his turn to impart sage advice as he tells them:
“You’re going to spend most of your time in the grey areas. But out there that’s where you’re going to come face to face with who you really are and that’s a frightening thing to ask of you. And it might take a lifetime to figure out.”
Sean is a different man then who we met at the beginning of the film. He still believes in the law but its tempered by what he’s experienced. It may have shaken his resolve but it hasn’t broken it. Not yet.
Callahan, Maureen. “A Streetwise Legend Sticks to His Guns.” New York Magazine. May 26, 1997.
Simon, Alex and Terry Keefe. “Remembering Sidney Lumet.” Hollywood Interview. April 1, 2015.