Sidney Lumet has had enough ups and downs in his long, prolific career that it's never safe to count him out ... even after two disappointing films in a row, A Stranger Among Us (1992) and Guilty as Sin (1993). Even the greatest directors can falter in their seventies, so it's pleasant to report that with Night Falls on Manhattan, Lumet is largely back in form.
Night Falls is another examination of familiar Lumet turf -- the world of New York's cops, criminals and district attorneys -- previously examined in Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981) and Q&A (1990). So identified is Lumet with gritty New York drama that one has to pause to remember that 1982's The Verdict was set in Boston and that the director's filmography also includes comedies (Just Tell Me What You Want, Bye Bye Braverman), tricky thrillers (Murder on the Orient Express, Deathtrap) and even a musical (The Wiz).
Night Falls on Manhattan stars Andy Garcia as Sean Casey, an ex-cop who, upon passing the bar, goes to work for the district attorney's office. When Sean's father, veteran officer Liam Casey (Ian Holm), is seriously wounded by major drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), who kills a couple of other cops in his escape, D.A. "Morgy" Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) sees the chance for a big public relations ploy. About to be politically challenged in an election, Morgenstern decides to go for headlines by assigning the green, untested Sean to prosecute this important case.
To complicate matters, Washington turns himself in, aided by flashy defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), who is the one lawyer in town shameless enough to come up with a really good defense for his client, an admitted scumbag. And to complicate matters even further, the moment the trial is over, Sean gets romantically involved with Vigoda's assistant, Peggy Lindstrom (Lena Olin).
We expect the film to be about the trial, but Lumet surprises us by wrapping that up before the halfway point. While the issues in the court case are strong enough to carry the film, the central conflicts don't emerge until afterward, when Sean -- who has become, through a reasonably believable series of events, the new D.A. -- begins to realize the moral rot on both sides of the law.
Even in his lesser films, Lumet can be counted on to get first-rate, often great performances from his actors. The players here are excellent throughout; it's no fault of Garcia's that he's upstaged by some of the supporting cast, who have flashier roles. Dreyfuss puts his dimples to good use as the grandstanding Vigoda. The actor claims to have based his characterization on the late William Kunstler, but his physical resemblance to Alan Dershowitz is hard to overlook.
Leibman fares even better. In his early career, Leibman was riveting in a broad range of stage material, from Moliere to Beckett. But on film he has been used largely in irritating, whiny parts. (Indeed, even more than James Woods, Leibman was born to play Roy Cohn.) Unfortunately, he's so good in unlikable parts that it's hard to remember he can do anything else. It's lucky for Al Pacino that he was cast early on in brooding, sexy roles; if he had started out as the braying assholes of Scent of a Woman and Heat, he'd be in the same fix. In Night Falls, Leibman's Morgenstern displays some of that abrasive quality, but the actor is able to make us ultimately like Morgy; his loudness doesn't stop a certain degree of charm from coming through.
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As satisfying as much of the film is, there are a few missteps, large and small, that may require indulgence on the part of viewers. The small things are trivial irritants: Why in god's name does Lumet cast a Garcia doppelganger in a small role? Very early in the movie, we meet the amusingly named Schmuelie the Stoolie, who sets the action in motion; shot almost entirely in shadows, actor Anthony Allesandro looks and sounds so much like Garcia that we spend the rest of the movie expecting some Witness for the Prosecution surprise unveiling.
More serious is the strange, lopsided dramatic structure. At his best -- in, say, 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon -- Lumet's integration of issues, action and drama is seamless. In those films, as in much of his work, his strong, veteran screenwriters shape the material; it's rarely possible to assess, looking from the outside, just how much a director has contributed to a screenplay. But it must be noted that here -- as in Q&A, the only other film on which Lumet has taken a solo writing credit -- the issues and the action don't peak together: There is an unsettling sense of anticlimax while Lumet is wrapping things up.
Still, even if Lumet doesn't approach the heights of his best work here, this is his best movie since the strange, underrated Family Business (1989), in which the director managed to use bizarre casting -- Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick as grandfather, father and son -- to his advantage. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to present those three as a family -- and the skill to make us believe it -- deserves the indulgence of his failures.
Night Falls on Manhattan.
Directed by Sidney Lumet.
With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, Richard Dreyfuss and Lena Olin.