Night Falls on Manhattan

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Sidney Lumet

REVIEWED: 06-06-97

With so many good cops and lawyers shows on TV these days, it's difficult for a feature filmmaker to bring a police procedural or courtroom drama to the big screen. The audience is too jaded. The only way to catch their attention is with sensational, exploitative twists (as in last year's hit Primal Fear) or to go with a more subdued, naturalistic approach. In Night Falls on Manhattan, director Sidney Lumet opts for the latter, and it's a wise way to go. His film plays like an especially fine, especially raw episode of Law and Order.

Andy Garcia stars as Sean Casey, an ex-cop-turned-prosecutor who (improbably) gets assigned to a career-making case to put away a notorious Harlem drug dealer. In the wake of the trial, Casey gets swept into the New York district attorney's office, where he takes it upon himself to investigate some of the curious evidence presented in that trial--namely the accusation that three precincts of policemen were on the pusher's payroll. He pursues the corruption wherever it leads, even when it leads dangerously close to his father (Ian Holm), a vice cop in one of the tainted precincts.

Night Falls on Manhattan is ridiculously contrived, awkwardly compact, and hampered by a weak romantic subplot between Casey and a defense attorney, played by Lena Olin. None of that matters. When Garcia and Holm are acting eye-to-eye, or when James Gandolfini (as Holm's slimy partner) or Ron Leibman (as a hilariously hyperactive DA) are chewing the edges of the scenery, the film recalls the simple pleasures that charismatic performers in a weighty story can provide.

Copping it Andy Garcia as District Attorney Sean Casey in Night Falls on Manhattan
Besides, this is Lumet's specialty--the New York morality play. He rushes through the clunkier plot points to get to the meat in Robert Daley's novel (which Lumet adapted for the screen). The director focuses on the most fascinating facet of Casey's predicament--his growing understanding that although there must be zero tolerance for police corruption, an attorney has to rely on political favors that lead him into ethical gray areas.

Lumet tells the story plainly, with a few interesting dissolves and angles to let us know it's art. Mostly, he lets the actors roam around long scenes full of subtle passion and casual vulgarity--two things the television medium cannot provide. Before the summer gets overrun with overwrought, oppressive "event" movies, take a moment to appreciate the qualities of a thought-provoking film with memorable characters. It may be basic, but sometimes the basic styles are the most elegant.

--Noel Murray

Other Films by Sidney Lumet
Critical Care

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