By Marc S. Sanders
Sidney Lumet is the director known for shining a light on police corruption. His films were not crime dramas or legal thrillers really. They were an examination in what turns righteous professions within the confines of law and order into something tainted in violations of morality. Night Falls On Manhattan showed what can happen when the politics of New York City could be stained by the policemen who lost their sense of distinguishing right and wrong.
Andy Garcia plays Sean Casey, a newly deputized, very green district attorney and former street cop. His image looks perfect to prosecute a big time drug dealer who wounded his own policeman father, Liam (Ian Holm), and killed two other cops. Richard Dreyfuss does an inspired Alan Dershowitz personality portraying the defense attorney for the dealer, by angling a theory that police corruption is unfairly working against his client. It seems like a very open and shut case for Sean, which occupies the first half of the film.
Afterwards, Sean appears to have a white hot image in the public eye and he is quickly nominated and wins an election as Head District Attorney for the city, following a heart attack from the incumbent and his boss played by Ron Leibman. Conflicts arise though when it is uncovered that perhaps Liam, along with his partner Joey (James Gandolfini), have been taking money under the table as part of a group of dirty cops spread among three precincts.
Sidney Lumet’s films always present topical and complicated real life problems with no expected solutions. These issues of transgressions exceed any kind of quick fixes. He’s shown this time and again with films 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. With his original script here, Lumet gets a little personal. What can you do when a city relies on your image of ethical practice, but your own loving father may be a traitor to the laws he’s vowed to uphold? How can Sean work ethically for his constituents while his father and his longtime partner are possibly betraying sworn policy?
I was always engaged in Night Falls On Manhattan. What is Sean going to do? The dilemma is never patched up with a band aid. It actually feels like it gets worse and worse because it is next to unsolvable. Cops are heroes in this film and a cold blooded killer seems to have been rightfully sentenced? So how can Sean, Liam, Joe and the rest of the cast live with themselves when the end results they wanted all arrive, but came about in all the wrong ways?
This is a terrific assembly of talent. Most especially, credit has to go Ron Liebman as the head DA whose overbearing loud mouth is necessary for the city that never sleeps and the endless amount of police troops and city prosecutors he has to answer for. If New York City had an actual voice that emanates and speaks the endless noise of the Big Apple , it is Ron Liebman. He should have been Oscar nominated. He comes carved out of the concrete of the city landscape.
This is really an unsung picture of Lumet’s that should be seen, much like Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. My one issue is the preachy monologue that Sean delivers at the end of the picture. It comes off like a concluding statement and left me with the impression that the conflict of the story painted these characters into an inescapable corner. So, tack on a speech to bring on the credits. The monologue just didn’t work for me though. It didn’t give me that bookended impact I was hoping for.
Other than that, however, Night Falls On Manhattan is another fine piece of filmmaking rooted in a metropolitan setting that becomes a character all its own. Lumet was a genius about acknowledging his settings. This is another perfect example.