Night Falls on Manhattan
directed by Sidney Lumet
Paramount Pictures, 1997

Police surround a New York apartment building where a cop's been shot while attempting to arrest drug kingpin Jordan Washington. As he flees, Washington takes out two more cops and causes the death of a third.

His prosecution would seem to be an open-and-shut case. But the further it gets opened, the harder it is to shut.

Sidney Lumet's career as a director goes back almost as far as corruption in the NYPD, or seems to. By the time he'd made Serpico in 1973, Lumet was already a veteran of 20 films, many of them focusing on justice issues (Twelve Angry Men) or the Big Apple (The Pawnbroker) or both.

So what went wrong in Night Falls on Manhattan, a 1997 opus starring Andy Garcia and Richard Dreyfuss and featuring more old hands than you'll find on most fishing trawlers?

Night Falls is really two films.

The first chronicles the sudden rise of assistant district attorney Sean Casey (Garcia) through his adept handling of a politically charged case complicated only by the shrewd maneuverings of go-for-the-jugular defense lawyer Sam Vigoda (Dreyfuss).

The second chronicles the near undoing of that same prosecutor when questions raised about Washington's case force an investigation of the principals -- up to and including the prosecutor's own father (Ian Holm).

All that has the making of much drama -- too much, perhaps.

The first half of the film rushes Casey to fame. The second half rushes to bring him down. The overall effect is that of a Reader's Digest condensed version of an otherwise promising tale.

Along the way there are some powerful scenes: Casey getting Washington (Shiek Mahumed-Bey) to go "postal" on the witness stand, the chief investigator turning the precinct cops against each other one by one until one finally turns rat, and Casey's father's partner taking the quick way out when the investigation reaches into his corner of the squad room.

Lumet also manages some interesting vignettes: Vigoda ordering his client to strip for the press so they can photograph him before the police get their eager hands on him; Casey and Vigoda meeting in the steam bath to discuss their real agendas.

But every time he appears to be on the verge of adding something original to the genre, Lumet falls back on the all-too tried and true: Casey falls in love with Vigoda's assistant (Lena Olin); Casey makes his father swear his innocence on his dead wife's grave; Vigoda proves that under it all, he's still the '60s radical he used to be -- well, sort of, anyway.

Night Falls on Manhattan has an interesting premise, an engaging cast, a fascinating powdery look and no shortage of themes. Yet something is missing.

Perhaps Lumet needed an Al Pacino at the center of his film to give it the degree of intensity it never achieved; perhaps Garcia would have achieved that intensity with some original dialogue and a little more time for hand-wringing. Or perhaps it's just time for Lumet to leave corruption in the NYPD to a fresher set of eyes and ears.

They've both been at it for a long time.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



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