Q & A

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine.  Maybe it’s because I simply get caught up in good crime dramas and legal thrillers, like Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, and The Verdict.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the genuineness of Lumet’s technique.  The man’s career seems to follow a documentarian theme throughout New York City’s boroughs, politics, courtrooms and especially the various precincts of its police force.  Corruption is the angle that Lumet looks for, and Q & A from 1990 is another such example.

The title refers to the routine transcript that a district attorney will ask a witness following an incident.  So, after the first two minutes of the picture have concluded with New York cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a Hispanic at point blank range, execution style, outside a seedy nightclub, a fresh-faced D.A. named Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is recruited in the middle of the night to collect Mike’s statement on the incident and wrap it up quickly, as his supervisor Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) strongly urges.

Mike is a celebrated cop with tall tales to share of how he strong arms suspects.  Everyone seems to like his relaxed way of tossing around racist vulgarities in his anecdotes.  No demographic is left out with how he speaks.  In fact, the name calling is shared among the whole precinct in a very casual way.  The two detectives assigned to the shooting that Mike was involved in, Sam “Chappie” Chapman and Luis Valentin (Charles S Dutton, Luis Guzman), seem to take it in stride as well.  They guffaw with the rest of the crowd when Mike describes how he roughs up street hoods who don’t cooperate. 

Al was once a cop as well, and his father before him was a “hero cop” to the boys in blue too.  He’s more than willing to let this incident go the quick routine, but then he soon realizes how corrupt Mike is and how much of a stronghold he has on the precinct and the various walks of life within the city from the Italian mob, to the Hispanic drug runners, to the transvestite hookers and the Jewish lawyers.  They all fall under his thumb.  Nolte’s stature and bombastic voice tell you that Mike carries a large thumb no matter how blatant his crookedness may appear. 

“Chappie” may be regarded by Mike as the “whitest n—er” he knows, but he’d never even think of turning his colleague in.  That’ll be the day he quits.  He proudly announces he’s blue first and black second. Luis, the Hispanic partner regarded as a “n—er with straight hair, is scared to move forward.  He’s got kids.  Kevin Quinn needs this to just move on.  The shooting of a lowlife Hispanic is not worth risking his advancement in politics.  Al is challenged and turns to his Jewish mentor, Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomfield) for guidance, who can help him get this pushed up the ranks and nab Mike for his atrocities, while circumventing the racist and antisemitic nature of Deputy District Attorney Quinn. 

It gets more complicated for Al, as his ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter) is now attached to an important witness to the crime.  Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Hispanic drug dealer who can not only pin Mike for the crime but also incriminate others within the system.  He’s just not so willing to sing.  Al is in a difficult quagmire that circles back to pension left for his mother per his father’s prior service.  He’s also wracked with how to handle Nancy.  They broke up simply because his reaction upon learning that her father was a black man did not go so well.  Even Al, born of virtue, is corrupt of prejudice.  Perhaps Lumet’s screenplay suggests the message that intrinsically we are all at least a little too stereotypical or partial for our own good.  It comes with our sensibilities and maybe it’s a mindset we best unlearn.  The most obvious challenge for Al is that he is subjected to intimidation from his boss Quinn, and especially Mike.  You don’t want Nick Nolte in your face.  That’s for sure.

I can’t lie.  Having watched the film for the first time, I was only looking at the plot and story development of Q & A.  I wasn’t seeing the bigoted culture sewn in among the masses.  Afterwards, I watched Siskel & Ebert on You Tube and they focused on the racist themes and casual name calling among the characters.  It never occurred to me while I was in the moment of watching the movie.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Maybe I’ve grown as comfortable with racist name calling as these characters have.  I don’t talk this way.  I may laugh at Cards Against Humanity or Family Guy.  For these cops to talk among themselves, casually using prejudiced connotations for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Homosexuals, Transvestites, Jews and Italians within the melting pot of New York City with such nonchalance is more telling of Q & A, than the corruption that unfolds over the course of the picture.  Understanding what Siskel and Ebert found within the script granted me much more appreciation for Lumet’s film, because the twists of the plot and the overpopulation of characters was becoming too convoluted for me.

The strengths of the movie come from the cast performances, especially Nolte and Assante.  Nolte has played many roles where he’s the brute.  Here though, he’s downright despicable with his slicked back hair, tall stature, his thick “I’m your buddy” mustache, and his Irish Catholic character background that announces his superiority to all others.  Armand Assante is an unusual kind of drug kingpin.  He plays Bobby Texador with much self-awareness knowing he can be killed not only for what he knows about this particular shooting but other inside information he can share as well.  He’s a guy who will rise above any threat though.  This guy might be a criminal, but he hardly needs an attorney to negotiate on his behalf.

The trio of Nolte, Assante and Hutton works because each of the men are so different from one another.  These guys wouldn’t work well on a baseball team together.  They wouldn’t even socialize at parties.  Lumet writes these characters so far apart from each other, that loyalty can’t exist between any of them.

A lot of the characteristics of the film are consistent with many other achievements within Lumet’s repertoire like Night Falls On Manhattan and Serpico.  Those are better films.  When plot details reveal themselves in Q & A, I found myself rewinding to the beginning of a few scenes to fully comprehend what was just said. After a while, I gave up interest in the twists.

There was a choice of musical style that left me unsure as well.   Ruben Blades conducted the score for the film and a pop/rock song follows the prologue over the opening credits.  It later resurfaces as things are coming to a head near the end of the film.  Especially for the seedy and unglamourous approach that I love in Sidney Lumet’s films, I wasn’t enthusiastic on this style to heighten the dramatic crescendos.   It felt a little too Miami Vice, when I believe Lumet was aiming for his audience to get mad at the corruption that overtakes a system grounded in law and order. 

Q & A is a must see for fans of Sidney Lumet.  I’m glad I finally saw it.  It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while and I could not find it anywhere on any platform or medium.  (At the time of this writing, it’s available for free on Hulu.)  It’s definitely raw in its character creatures of a New York City from the 1990s, and it’s honest how the rite of passage to be a cop is to roll with the punches of racially lampooning your ethnicity.  It’s the only way to survive among the masses.  Fortunately, the cast plows through with that ugly nature to deliver something authentic.  When the film dives into its conspiracies for the sake of the plot, however, it’s a little too muddied for me to appreciate.  Watch the film for the characterizations.  Heck, watch it for the plot developments because if you can make out everything that’s happening and why, I’d love for you to explain it to me.

SERPICO

By Marc S. Sanders

In the 1970’s Al Pacino had a slew of Oscar nominated roles.  One of those revered performances was as Frank Serpico, the righteous cop working with a corrupt New York City police department, in Sidney Lumet’s gritty Serpico.  The wardrobes and appearances of New York and its five boroughs seem unfamiliar nearly 50 years later, but the film can still maintain interest for a viewer because it’s astonishing how valid and true all the facts remain.  Cops were happily taking handouts, while the politicians and commissioners took no issue with looking the other way.  Whether it was disregarding a deli owner’s double-parking offenses for a free sandwich, or skimming some payouts from drug and prostitution rings, Serpico’s morals were always facing an insurmountable conflict.

Lumet’s film starts off with an interesting observation.  Word gets out that Frank has been shot and is being rushed in an ambulance, and one police officer asks the other, if a cop did it (not who did it).  If you never knew anything about this guy’s life or what he experienced, you know in just a small economy of words that Frank Serpico has become everyone’s enemy; not just to the hoods, pimps and drug pushers, but to those who are supposed to be his allies and support.

Long before Al Pacino inherited his gruff smoker’s voice that bellows like an angry lion with too much phlegm, he had the ear piercing outbursts with the same intensity to frighten his co-stars.  His character is seemingly the one true blue cop in the entire squad who doesn’t befriend the local hoods.  Serpico never accepts a bribe or hides a report.  It’s a frustrating ordeal and Pacino goes to the limits with big outbursts while pacing back and forth and showing terrible fear and panic in his eyes.  Lumet’s camera is quick enough to capture every tick that Pacino exudes.  It’s not Al Pacino performing within the frame of the camera.  It’s actually Sidney Lumet’s lens adjusting to how wild Pacino goes physically with his volume and body language.  

Frank Serpico was a lone wolf.  As the story progresses, the other cops find it hard to believe that he will not accept being part of the gang that is on the take. They grow concerned.  Can they trust Frank to keep his mouth shut and let things be?  No, they can’t count on Frank to toss a blind eye.  He is persistent on getting this story out to the proper authorities.  Naturally, it’s hard for these corrupt individuals to share a locker room or ride in the same car with him as a passenger.  Frank’s limit though is that he is reluctant to testify.  Get the investigation going and have the authorities uncover it for themselves, and then do something about it.  That’s all.  If he testifies, then his life is truly in danger as this all becomes official in a court of law.

Serpico is a good film because of Pacino and because of the concept of the story.  It’s more compelling because arguably in the United States’ most well-known city, corruption actually abounds.  Dirty cops in New York City?  Why, that’s unheard of! It was sadly all true and justice was not being executed fairly.  

However, Serpico is not Lumet’s best film, nor Pacino’s.  Often it meanders.  There’s not a lot of action.  There’s quite a number of scenes where Pacino’s screaming paranoia takes over.  It grows tired, honestly.  Moreover, it gets repetitive.  Many of Pacino’s outbursts feel like I just saw a scene like that, five minutes earlier.  

What keeps me going through the film is the fact that one authority after another refuses to take this problem head on.  The captains, the commissioner, the prosecutors and even the mayor of New York City never allow any chance of pursuing the wrongdoing that’s occurring.  After all, if you prosecute everyone involved, who is going to be left and how would that make an elected official look in the eyes of his constituents?

There are subplots focusing on the relationship between Frank and a couple of his girlfriends played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe.  I found these connections to exist as additional outlets for Pacino’s outbursts.  I didn’t terribly mind this material.  The acting is fine, but what did I gain from moments?  I read that the actual Frank Serpico had four relationships during his time as a New York City cop.  From a story perspective however, condensed into a film, I didn’t gain any new insight.

Serpico is worth watching.  I just wouldn’t put this on the top of my Lumet or Pacino priorities for must see viewing.  Still, it’s a true story that I’m satisfied was told.  In 1974, Hollywood was taking risks to show the ugly side behind a uniform or face of nobility.  This is where I consider film medium to be a necessary conduit of information and awareness for us.  On that level, Serpico serves as an important treatment.

NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN

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.

THE VERDICT

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.

RUNNING ON EMPTY

By Marc S. Sanders

Director Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film, Running On Empty, depicts Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti as former radicals against the Vietnam War. They have been running from the authorities for 15 years after bombing a Napalm laboratory as part of their cause. They have two sons, one of them played by River Phoenix with a chance to attend Juilliard. His opportunity does not seem likely however as it would mean he could never see his family again, and his family is reluctant to set him free.

In a film about criminals, this is a story lacking in crime or violence. Lumet’s film is a narrative of a family and how they live by constantly changing their identities, backgrounds, and residences. It’s not a life for an innocent child, especially one with a promising future.

Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his conflicted role. He’s quiet, but he’s torn and he’s accepting of what fate brings him. Sadly, he prevents himself from making his own destiny. A bright element comes in the form of fellow student Lorna, played beautifully by Martha Plimpton. This is her best role as Phoenix’ girlfriend who falls in love with him and shows him pure happiness. She’s the fulcrum that introduces him to what possibilities are available, but he’ll have to sacrifice his current life for a better one, and his parents will have to accept his decision.

There’s no easy wrap up in screenwriter Naomi Foner’s Oscar nominated script. A painful outcome is inevitable. Yet, that’s what makes this a great drama. The conflict is too great for an easy resolution.

What a terrible shame that 5 years after this film, at age 23, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Imagine what he would evolve into as an actor. Here in this role, as well as films like The Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and even as a young Indiana Jones, he was more than just a child actor or a teen magazine cover. He performed with a mystery to his characters where he would never reveal every dimension that his parts possessed. In a film like Running On Empty you almost wish his real life fate never came true.

DOG DAY AFTERNOON

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet uses his best strengths in this ridiculous Brooklyn bank robbery that is actually based on fact.

Here, Al Pacino and his cohort, John Cazale, play inadvertent stupidity without compromise. If two of the three stooges went on to do drama, this would be the material they’d use.

A simple bank robbery with little to no planning spirals out of control and into sheer pandemonium. Nothing goes right even when Pacino’s dimwit character, Sonny, is deluded enough to believe all is going in his favor. He immediately earns the support of the encroaching Brooklyn community only to lose them when he shows his true homosexual nature. Then he’s blindsided as to what happened. Layered in drenching sweat, Lumet wisely takes advantage of Pacino’s best up close facial expressions. Utter delirium!!!!!

Once again, Lumet’s camera moves while his best actors remain naturally in place. Al Pacino does his thing and trusts his director will find his shots. As the cop initially in charge, Charles Durning does as well. Pacino and Durning especially have great scenes together in the middle of a heavily populated New York Street as the robber shines off the cop, and the cop does his best to obtain some measure of control. It’s a scream fest for the ages. “Attica! Attica!” Pacino and Durning’s best career performances were always the ones where it looked like neither of them were ever acting. Dog Day Afternoon is one those better examples.

Frank Pierson’s jagged script of wild turns makes every person whose an extra like the pizza delivery man, for instance, caught up in the hysteria. The pizza kid shouts out to the crowd “I’m a star!!!” It’s great reason to applaud Sidney Lumet’s control over a crew and the entire company of extras he’s employed. This film is a rare example where all of the extras (seemingly the entire Brooklyn population) are as integral as the leads. The setting is the main antagonist from the media all the way to the observers who can’t look away and can only cheer, yet mock as well. Brooklyn, New York is a great character here.

Most fascinating about Dog Day Afternoon is that it is all based on fact from the media circus to dumb bank robbers with a need to steal in order to fund a lover’s sex change operation. It’s ridiculous. It’s funny. It’s frighteningly stressful and it’s all true.

This was released following the first two Godfather films and confirms the enormous range Al Pacino possesses with his performance talents. Hyperactive and dumb here as gay bank robber, Sonny; quietly contained, evil as Michael Corleone. His range was through the roof in the 70s before absorbing his loud, crackling, smokers voice. It was when the script outshined Pacino and before the current age of writing being catered to its bankable star.

Lumet also allows great moments for the hostages who become undone to the point of regretfully using foul language, to actually befriending their captors. He’s a director who efficiently leaves no stone untouched.

Chris Sarandon as Leon, Sonny’s male gay spouse is great here too. He’s full of melodrama, panic, worry, and a New York maternal despair. Another great scene is a phone exchange between Pacino and Sarandon. It might appear funny at first, especially in the 70s when homosexuality was lampooned often with the other F-word, but anyone who appreciates the filmmaking of Lumet will quickly contain their snickering when they realize a gay man is equal flesh, bone and feelings like anyone else.

Dog Day Afternoon is very telling of an out of the closet social media future. The story will always get grabbed regardless of danger or sensitivity. People will get swept up in the hoopla (a teller hostage quickly boasts her brief fame on television “Girls, I was on TV!”), police will overextend their privilege, helicopters will swarm, the criminals will demand their moment in the spotlight, and the public will serve as jury per the majority.

It’s a vicious cycle but considering it is a 1975 masterpiece, it’s all disturbingly valid and sensationally true.

NETWORK

By Marc S. Sanders

Without question, what would become the absolute most prophetic film ever made is Sidney Lumet’s biting, satirical masterpiece called Network with its script from Paddy Chayefsky. 

Network works on all cylinders because it was released following a shedding of maybe the last of pure American innocence.  The country had finally pulled out of a losing war in Vietnam.  Our President Nixon was shamed out of office.  Happy housewife programs like The Donna Reed Show and Leave It To Beaver were behind us.  The outright, prejudiced Archie Bunker was who Americans were tuning in to each week.  There was even an incident of a newscaster, named Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself dead on live television.  Looking back, today in 2022, it all seems inevitable that we would arrive at where we are now; where we are always seeking some semblance of showmanship and we’ll get our own brand of infamy no matter how desperate we become.

Chayefsky’s script focuses on the fictional network of UBS in present day, 1976.  Well known newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on air that the following week will be his last broadcast as the network has opted to let him go due to poor ratings.  So, he entices his viewers to tune in when he will kill himself live on the air.  It’s a hilarious scene actually due to the ignorance of everyone else in the studio.  The director is flirting with his assistant. Another crew member is eating a sandwich.  No one is even paying attention to the centerpiece they have on the air.  Howard Beale has been taken for a granted as a has been for so long, it really doesn’t matter what he has to say as long as he’s reading the cue cards.  Who’d ever announce on live television in front of millions of viewers that he was intending to kill himself?

Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the news division, takes his friend into hiding from the media frenzy suddenly created.  Yet, the next night and after much convincing, Beale is permitted to go on the air again, and make a statement to undo whatever outlandish damage this has all become.  Instead, he decries that life is bull shit.  Max, fed up with the corporate tugs of war already, opts to leave him on and ironically a new opportunity presents itself.  Beale’s moment of insanity and his gradual mental breakdown might be real, but man, this could also pull the UBS news division out its ratings slump and bring it ahead of CBS, NBC and ABC. 

The young and energetic Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in the entertainment division, works her way into the news division and takes over its programming from Max.  She convinces the corporate honchos like Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to use Beale as a ratings appeal.  The entire company eventually understands what Diana foresees could actually work when a rain-soaked Beale storms on to the studio set urging his viewers to shout out their windows that they are “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Now, the evening news consists of sections featuring Howard’s ranting and ramblings, as well as Sybil The Soothsayer and other such nonsense, most notably a new program from an actual terrorist group known as The Ecumenical Liberation Army. 

From there, the detritus of what UBS commits to for lead ratings night after night only validates that television is not about morals and objectivity in the industry of news reporting.  A slight telling moment has Beale come to Max with an old black and white photograph of them posing with the likes of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite.  They reflect joyfully on the memories, but now they are just memories. These kinds of men of the airwaves no longer exist. Beale is now a jester to the masses who tune in for his mad man speeches labeled as “news.” 

Long before the buffoonery of out of touch Presidential Candidates and over opinionated newscasters who lacked any merit or research to uphold their viewpoints, Chayefsky and Lumet were nervy enough to actually believe moviegoers would buy this satire. 

No matter the medium, satire is maybe the riskiest category of entertainment.  Someone is going to be pissed off and offended.  Others won’t believe this could ever be possible.  In elementary school, I remember reading a short story that proposed cutting down on overpopulation by having people eat their young.  You know what?  After much discussion with fellow classmates at the time, the idea had some logic to it.  Recently, Adam McKay wrote and directed a film called Don’t Look Up that presented a what if scenario to the inevitable end of the world by means of an incoming comet crashing down into Earth.  Unlike Network, some of the elements in that film didn’t work for me.  So, satire is a crap shoot.

Had I seen Network when it was first released, I wonder what I would have thought.  Would I have bought all of its absurdity?  I believe I saw it before reality television became such a novelty and ever since that first time watching, I truly accepted the logic that comes across the decision makers at the UBS network.  Corporate functionality, no matter the industry, relies on monies.  Nothing else matters.  UBS quickly learns that image can be spared.  Money is what keeps everyone happy and afloat.  If the performance of the company falters, changes need to be made; no matter how desperate those actions may appear to be. 

So, Howard Beale becomes a sensation for the UBS network and he is at least besting or tying with top rated shows like All In The Family and Little House On The Prairie.  Yet, Howard is also a mentally ill raving lunatic who needs treatment.  What happens when he declares something to the public that is detrimental to the corporate future of UBS, its top one percent, and its shareholders.  You can’t censor a lunatic with reason.  Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the all-powerful, emperor like CEO, delivers a commanding scene that is one for the ages in response.  He truly deserved his sole career Oscar nomination here…all for one scene perfectly staged in a dimly lit board room with his giant stature poised behind rows of green banker lamps.  He turns Beale into his own prophesized pawn.  Now, that may satisfy the man at the top of the pyramid, but at the end of the day, what about the ratings?????

Chayefsky’s script is one of the greatest ever written.  Not only are the satirical ideas so clearly drawn, but the dialogue is biting with truth in its sarcasm and wit.  When Diana suggests giving The Ecumenical Liberation Army its own weekly program depicting real life footage of their massacres and kidnappings across the country, a staffer retorts “What do you wanna call it?  The Mao Tse Tung Hour?”  When Beale asks the god like image of Arthur Jensen “Why me?”, the response is simply “Because you’re on television, Dummy!”

Maybe we thought the limit of influence stopped with television.  The script for Network felt sure of that.  Yet, we’ve graduated from the simplicity of television and we’ve entered the age of the internet.  Suicides and violence, pornography, slander, opinions and viewpoints can all easily be conjured up by the devices we use to access the internet and we can slant our own news stories in our own way.  News is no longer reported with an objective, omnipotent narration.  It’s dramatized.  I may be a resident in Florida but if someone captures a live on-going police car chase happening on the freeways of Los Angeles, it’s brought to my attention for the thrill of the story.  From a news perspective how is a car chase on the other side of the country relevant to me?  I don’t know the drivers or what motivated them.  I don’t live there.  So, it’s not going to affect my commute home.  Yet, my local news station finds it imperative to show it to me.  No matter the heights of insanity a subject may be, if it’s watchable with a ratings potential, I can rely on my local journalists to bring it to me fast and immediate with zoom in close ups and hi definition.  They’ll even replay it for me in slow motion a hundred times, just to stretch the story until the commercial break.

Network also explores the corporate obsession America entered into by the mid-70s.  Chayefsky uses the Diana Christensen character as a departure from the wholesome Donna Reed image.  Women are working in the offices now.  They are beautiful, smart, strong and assured.  Yet, have they also lost their humanity?  Has this happened to only women?  Diana uses her edge to sleep with her mentor, Max, a much older married man of 26 years.  The aging Max surrenders to his libido but is it worth it?  Diana is too quick in bed and while she’s love making, she’s orgasming to the latest ratings poll from her wunderkind, Howard Beale.  Chayefsky demonstrates how maddening corporate America has become by sucking any emotion of love, loss, happiness and sadness that people are heretically born with.  It’s as if a cancer has killed whatever natural stimuli people were gifted with, and he’s not wrong.  People don’t work 9 to 5 jobs any more.  They work 12 to 12.  When they are not working, they are enhancing their “social status” by means of social media. 

Network is one of the greatest films ever made.  Lumet and Chayefsky put everything on display in its no holds barred honesty.  Still, the performances must be recognized.  This film has one of the greatest casts ever assembled.  Dunaway is magnificent as the young woman with the drive to turn the television industry on its ear.  She deserved her Oscar.  Robert Duvall never received enough credit as the unforgiving corporate lackey resting just under the top while making sure profit is provided before anything else.  William Holden was already in his golden years of film acting by this time.  With Beatrice Straight, playing his wife (in her brief but Oscar winning role), they represent an honorable profession and household that is now long gone.  His character is fired twice within the first hour of the film by the modern corporate mentality, and then he’s resigned to write a tired book about his journalistic accomplishments because there is simply nothing left to do.  He’s a dinosaur in the modern age of television and business.  Peter Finch was the first to win a posthumous Oscar for his turn as Howard Beale.  If this character were real and was televised as the film demonstrates, I can’t deny that I would buy into his raving rhetoric.  I’d have no idea what he’s talking about.  I wouldn’t care, but I would tune in later in the week when John Belushi would mimic him on Saturday Night Live.

With each viewing of Network, you find something new to relate with every time.  The reason is that it stays consistent with the evolution of our planetary function.  Even in this age of Covid where stories are never consistent yet always hyped for dramatic impact, there is something to nod at and understand from the messages of Network.  It could be a world war, a new president, an assassination, a school shooting, a police chase, a riot or a pandemic.  Network had already considered the response to any topic that’s ever been the top story. 

Network is one of the most important films ever made.

12 ANGRY MEN

By Marc S. Sanders

This film lives up to its reputation.

This was the great Sidney Lumet’s first theatrical film, and for a project limited mostly to only a claustrophobic and hot room, it boasts a lot of talent; Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, EG Marshall.

For a black and white picture Lumet and his crew are effective at showing tiny details like sweat on brows and shirt stains, a broken ceiling fan, and the mental exhaustion of limited breathing space as twelve citizens debate over the guilt or innocence of a young man on trial for killing his father by stabbing. Lumet’s camera (just like when I watched The Verdict) is constantly traveling, even if it’s in a tiny confined space. He zooms in when he needs to and he changes angles to get the most of 12 different perspectives. Lumet keeps it interesting by changing up his use of lens. As the afternoon proceeds into early evening, the camera navigates more closely to the table they sit at. The men are uncomfortable, frustrated with each other, more impatient and more concerned with their consciences about sending a man to death. The actors do well with translating these factors, but Lumet sends the message home.

What I found most interesting is the different variations of how each juror eventually comes to changing his mind. Almost all of them arrive at that point in a new or different way. Credit goes to screenwriter Reginald Rose for that. Additional credit for the different variations of how the jurors repeatedly cast a vote; raising hands, notes, anonymously, not anonymously and so on. Rose changes it up each time to keep the viewers’ attention.

Rose’s script will only tell you so much. The attorneys don’t appear in the film, deliberations are done, we only get a close up of the defendant but there’s not enough material for a viewer to cast judgment. The film opens with the judge giving a boring routine instruction as to how the jury should proceed. He might as well be telling them how to complete an SAT exam.

Yet what we are treated to are the faults and overcomings of the human spirit. Ed Begley is a juror who gives a brilliant monologue that stereotypes the defendant’s ethnic background, though we never know what race or ethnicity he is. As he continues to rant, every other juror steps away from the table. Begley seems to get more ashamed of his thought process as he carries on, but he doesn’t stop until he’s ordered to by another juror. Amazing!!! In 1957, when Jim Crow and McCarthyism were on the horizon or rampant, this film was not having it. It’s the best scene in the film.

Henry Fonda is great as the one who only asks for sensibility. He adds weight to the case they are deliberating over that the others are sadly failing to recognize. A man’s life is in their hands.

I’d argue that the facts of the case and evidence presented carry very little complexity to what a real murder trial might offer. I’d also argue that what serves as a fulcrum to sway each vote is maybe a little too convenient (presuming the time it takes for one witness to walk or whether a witness wore glasses), but that doesn’t matter. What’s most important is whether each of these men can live up to the demand of recognizing reasonable doubt; the necessary requirement for a trial by jury. In that sense, 12 Angry Men succeeds.