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'Manhattan': A Dark Take on the Apple of Lumet's Eye

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 16, 1997

Every great artist has his Yoknapatawpha County and Sidney Lumet's is Manhattan. He sees it almost in Faulknerian terms: a 250-square-mile plot of bottom land soaked to the substrata in woe, blood, sweat, guilt and ancient enmities that will keep it mushy until the last ding-dong of doom.

Unfortunately, he ain't working from a novel by William Faulkner, he's working from one by Robert Daley.

That's the problem with Lumet's new and nearly good film, "Night Falls on Manhattan." You feel the artist's seriousness of purpose, his passion to know and see and get it right. But it all flounders in a tub with the conventions of potboilers -- fictionalized history, sudden wacko plot twists, the radical compression of time, the heavy, oafish hand of coincidence, and characters so wispy they could still be notes on an outline ("Bring in girl here" seems to be the sole justification for Lena Olin's presence in this film).

It's become an affliction of his work. He made the great New York cop movie "Serpico"; he made another great New York movie, "Dog Day Afternoon." He made "Prince of the City." All three were based on reality; but lately he's been using pulpy novels to gain access to the forbidden zone of municipal Realpolitik that so fascinates him -- "Q & A" was derived from a thriller by a New York judge -- and the potboiling conventions continue to undercut the seriousness of his work.

Moreover, he's moved philosophically. Gone, possibly forgotten, is the passionate liberal's belief in the goodness of the people and the genius of the system that undergirded "12 Angry Men." Beneath all the twists, "Night Falls on Manhattan" is fundamentally an older gentleman's plea to let his generation's wisdom and judgment prevail. It's really a movie not in favor of, but against, strict justice: It says, unapologetically, that sometimes, for the greater good, it's better if we let the people who know best bend the rules just a bit. And it chronicles a case in which the rules are bent to ensure a lengthy prison sentence for a flamboyantly violent drug dealer.

Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey) is everybody's secret nightmare. He packs a fleet of automatic weapons, he has an attitude the size of the USS Iowa, and conceives of murder as a normal business practice. You wouldn't just cross the street when you saw him coming. Jack, you'd cross the state!

So when a snitch brings the word that he's camped out in an apartment, two of New York's finest go up the stairs to bring him down. Alas, the warrant has slightly expired, so they've fudged one. Shots are fired; a cop is hit. Other cops get there quickly and three more go down, fatally. Jordan, as smart as he is mean and quick, gets out and turns himself over to a well-known liberal lawyer with really big hair. That's Richard Dreyfuss eating the scenery and drinking the East River in the William Kunstleresque part.

The trial seems to begin the morning after the shooting, but it's only Lumet compressing 18 months into a single setup. For the prosecution we have Sean Casey (played by the not-so-Irish Andy Garcia); he's ranged against Dreyfuss's Sam Vigoda. Casey is a first-year assistant's assistant but he gets the big case because he's young, he's photogenic and his father, a legendary cop played by Ian Holm, was the hero detective who went through the apartment door and caught a chestful of lead for the effort.

Danger: Major Plot Twist on the Horizon!

Only after Casey wins both the trial and then, when the flashy incumbent (Ron Leibman) suffers a near-fatal heart attack, the election for district attorney himself -- elapsed screen time: 43.8 seconds -- does he realize that not only was the original warrant phony but that a larger conspiracy was in place and that possibly his father was involved.

That dilemma is the film's dramatic fulcrum: What's an honest man to do if he's got a swank job in downtown Gomorrah and gets invited to the right parties?

Garcia's Casey broods a lot, gnashes his teeth, digs deeper, tries to find a moral way out of the quandary. But it's a quandary that some people just won't identify with. Why not, in Al Pacino's memorably New York phraseology in "Donnie Brasco," just fuhgedaboudit?

The answer is simple: If he forgets about it, there isn't a movie, much less a fairly gripping two-hour one.

I'll take Lumet's Manhattan. His isn't that half-mile of jazzy skyline and crenelated bridges that the world knows from Cole Porter songs and Woody Allen movies; it's not the city of possibility, but the city of impossibility, its moral complications so dense as to be nearly impenetrable, its governance almost beyond human comprehension. He loves the dark little rooms where policy is set, the dealing and the backslapping that make things happen, the clashing interests of old Hibernians and newer Hispanics, fiery blacks, frosty WASPs, the Nooyawk of squalid, skunky daily reality. He's Martin Scorsese without all the damned flourishes.

And when he is evoking that Gotham with effortless ease, "Night Falls on Manhattan" is truly fabulous: the swift-as-falling-water opening that sets up the practical, as opposed to idealistic, nature of the justice system, the sense of urban culture at the municipal level, the tone of incessant squabbling that marks every single transaction.

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. And Olin is in the pic as a liberal conscience and little else. Like all placards, she'd be better if she were constructed of actual cardboard, instead of that troublesome stuff called flesh. Hers just gets in the way.

Night Falls on Manhattan is rated R for violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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