Night Falls on Manhattan

(Sidney Lumet, USA, 1997)


Night Falls on Manhattan begins in a very brisk, assured way.

We see a group of green young cadet lawyers attending their first briefing session as lowly attachments to the District Attorney's office. This scene is suddenly whisked away from us, and the words of the first scene seem to connect instantly to the words in a different briefing session, hours, days, maybe weeks later.

The jumps in narrative time then become even greater and more abrupt: we see one of the rookie lawyers (Andy Garcia) as he is grilling a client, then defending in court. The scenes or vignettes pile up, flying over great expanses of time without the conventional filmic marks of time passing, or the declamatory music or fancy editing that would usually announce this as a synoptic montage sequence.

This opening segment of Night Falls on Manhattan reminds film buffs that Sidney Lumet, as well as being a premier craftsman of American narrative filmmaking, also had a stake, back in the 1960s, in a new American art cinema. It also tells us that Lumet knows exactly what he's doing – and what to avoid – when he wants to make an distinctive, serious cop-crime-courtroom thriller.

He's skipping over time and barrelling through these spaces and places in a matter-of-fact, unshowy way, because he knows that these "typical" scenes have been staged a million times before. He doesn't want to be making an episode of NYPD Blue, or a Ridley Scott movie, or a swaggering, hardboiled pulp crime fiction.

Lumet has his eye firmly on the ball from the very start, and his subject is the same set of themes he has explored in earlier films like The Verdict (1982), Prince of the City (1981) and Q&A (1990). He's interested in the slow, steely process of corruption, in the problems of making clean moral choices in a dirty, compromised world. He's fascinated by the way people who have done bad things ultimately crack and confess, or go under, or commit themselves to a path of even greater evil.

Lumet is an unusual filmmaker – and he wouldn't necessarily approve of some of my comments about his work here. Although I can easily group several of his films around the themes I've just mentioned, and his way of treating or delivering them, I also have to admit, a little uncomfortably, that he has made many more films, in a variety of styles, which don't fit this bill at all. Some of them are awful films, and others (like the classic Dog Day Afternoon [1975] or Prince of the City, which I think is his greatest work) are exceptionally fine and important movies.

Critics, as a rule, like their favoured directors to be consistent, with a signature style and sensibility that you can recognise, developing from one film to the next: in other words, it's the rule of the film director as auteur, as a personally expressive artist-author, even if he or she happens to be working within the fiercely industrial and commercial world of popular moviemaking.

Lumet tends to laugh at all that, somewhat derisively, which is disconcerting for hard-core auteurist critics like me – romantic critics, who desperately want to believe in some kind of personal voice speaking through cinema, no matter what the interference or static. In his interesting, chatty book Making Movies, Lumet takes a practical, no-nonsense attitude to the serendipitous ways that movies, and movie careers, are formed. A shot is framed the way it is because the cameraperson had to avoid an ugly modern building just behind the action. A project gets up just because it's there, because some producer wants to adapt a bestseller, or a play, or is trying to cash in on a short-lived popular trend.

Lumet presents himself as a professional, as the man who will strive to do any kind of project well, to realise it within its own terms. This professionalism is probably one reason why he has had such a prolific, productive career. And if he gets asked to work on one particular type of film a number of times, then maybe that's simply because he's done that kind of thing well before – that he's the right man for the job with a proven box office record, not an artist fencing off and cultivating his own turf, like a painter before the canvas or a writer starting out on a blank page with a subject entirely of their own choosing. He says in his book: "I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life [because] I don't have one."

So, Lumet does like to mock the auteurist attempt to corral his diverse movies around a single, personal, artistic centre. He writes in Making Movies: "The whole process of moviemaking is magical, so magical, in fact, that it often serves as sufficient justification for one to go to work. Just making the movie is enough." But Lumet does concede one tiny millimetre to the auteurists among us. He says that, whatever project a director chooses, he or she had better try hard to find some personal connection with it, some resonance that excites them and keeps them excited while on that job. "Personalizing the movie is very important," he says, and he adds: "Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has to come out of my subconscious."

So, in Lumet's method, directors have to ask themselves every time, on every new film, "What is the movie about?" – they have to hold on to their own story, their own take on it, no matter what anyone else, at any stage of the project, may think or say. (In many ways, this is the subject of Olivier Assayas' film about moviemaking, Irma Vep [1996]).

Lumet has also scripted Night Falls in Manhattan, and I believe this extra level of personal connection accounts for the boldness and assurance of the opening scenes. Night follows the deep pattern of Lumet's other dramas about the fragility of our law and order systems.

The story traces the swift rise to prominence and power of Sean (Andy Garcia). When his cop father (Ian Holm) is severely wounded in a stake out – shot by a vicious drug dealer – Sean finds himself suddenly catapulted by a wily DA into the prosecution seat of this career-making case. During the trial, Sean matches wits with the defence lawyer Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), and at first it seems like an open-and-shut case. Vigoda, however, shifts the direction of the proceedings by intimating a network of police corruption spanning three New York divisions. That's only the start of a complex series of twists, revaluations and complications affecting every aspect of Sean's life, from the political to the personal.

Its a measure of the cleverness of this film that, whenever you are tempted to think it has settled into some neat generic groove – a police procedural film, or a grandstanding courtroom drama, or a modern moral fable of good vs. evil – it swerves off somewhere else, to a new plateau. Lumet has always been an interesting director in the way he relates to, and exploits genre. On the one hand, he's not afraid of good old generic ploys like type-casting: heavies always look like heavies in a Lumet law-and-order drama – bald and grim and thick set – and the good folks are angelic-looking, like Andy Garcia.

On the other hand, Lumet plays many sly and very telling games with the rules of the crime and courtroom genres. The initial DA whom Sean eventually replaces is played by Ron Leibman, and begins as a grouchy, barking, pill-popping Jewish-New Yorker caricature, of the worst kind. But Lumet takes hold of that type and, with Leibman, shapes a character portrait that is distinctive and finally very touching, a portrait that shows this man's defences, his strategies and his games, as well as his loudly announced principles and gut emotions.

We come to see that this character functions in a kind of public theatre all the time – a theatre defined by his sometimes loyal, sometimes treacherous co-workers, by the various government departments above and below him, and by the hungry hunters of the mass media. One of Lumet's recurring themes or interests in this kind of story is precisely this intense theatricality of the public world, where everyone puts on some kind of cagey performance. Think of the media circus that develops around the bank robbery and stake out in Dog Day Afternoon; or another Lumet film The Anderson Tapes (1971), where the whole life of a city is being endlessly monitored and secretly recorded.

This theatre of daily life is always, in Lumet's dramas, a circuit of power. Lumet has a grasp on power relations and power networks that illuminates, for me, the essence of Michel Foucault's writings on history and society. Both Lumet and Foucault see power in society as a scattered, microscopic activity – micro-power, Foucault calls it – where most players, at whatever link in the chain they occupy, may find they can make some move, play some game, that momentarily affects the balance of the whole system. Some of Lumet's angels start out wanting to find, affirm, and broadcast the hidden truth about the rotten way the world works. They then find themselves drawn into an incredible, tearing rondo of compromises and deals, lies that may have to be told, troublesome details that may have to stay covered up. If Night Falls in Manhattan traces any kind of journey or arc, it's the journey of the central Andy Garcia character towards this kind of damned, but workable, wisdom.

The most unpredictable thing of all in this whole circuit of power is the human element. One of the other great Sidney Lumet themes is a very familiar theme in daily life if not often in movies: the theme of stress. His characters seem to swell up with stress from the effort of so much scheming, lying, dealing and watching their backs. They perspire, they shake, their clothes seem to tighten about their bodies, stifling them. They get to the point where a door opening or a phone ringing sends them into panic-spasms. Atomised into stressed-out organisms, they sometimes take the only apparent exit from the game, blowing their brains out in a car or a motel room somewhere.

It's this pervasive and palpable stress-factor that gives Lumet's law-and-order dramas – moral melodramas, he calls them – their apocalyptic air. (Let's not forget that he made one of the greatest nuclear apocalypse movies of the nervous '60s, Fail-Safe [1964]). But Night Falls in Manhattan tries to reach a conclusion that's a little more positive. In order to do so, it has to progressively clean up some of its intrigues as it goes along – particularly all the suspicions of imminent treachery that attach themselves to Andy Garcia's partner (Lena Olin).

The thing about these explorations of micro-power is that they have an irresistible effect of contagion, of escalation: we keep expecting more and more revelations of rottenness, right down to the smallest intimate detail. When this apocalypse isn't delivered, we can feel a little cheated, a bit let down, as if the movie has switched abruptly into feel-good, Pollyanna mode. So perhaps there's something unconvincing in this latest moral melodrama from Lumet – it doesn't quite have that all-the-way punch of Prince of the City, which it resembles in many of its moves. But with Lumet at his best, this difficult attempt at salvaging an optimism, at snatching some hope from the jaws of pervasive social despair, comes across as a serious, earnest, and even poignant political dream.

MORE Lumet: Close to Eden, Guilty as Sin, Power, 12 Angry Men, The Morning After

© Adrian Martin September 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search