Night Falls on Manhattan

Night Falls on Manhattan is an imperfect but powerful ethical drama — the movie City Hall should have been. We’re in the hands of one of the great New York directors, Sidney Lumet, whose urban dramas (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Q&A, to name a few) are emotionally overheated, sometimes wildly uneven, but never boring. Parts of this movie are flat-out bad — there has to be at least one clinker in every Lumet film — yet I was moved and fascinated throughout.

The hero, assistant district attorney Sean Casey (Andy Garcia), is a typical Lumet protagonist: young, idealistic, not quite prepared for the lion’s den of big-city corruption. Al Pacino could have played Sean 25 years ago (and did, in Serpico); Garcia, who from certain angles could pass as Pacino’s son, gives his usual simmering performance that boils over without warning into eruptions of rage. This movie gives Garcia a lot to erupt over, and sometimes he threatens to lapse into loud Pacino-style overacting; his best moments are his quietest.

One of those good moments takes place in a hospital early on, when Sean is visiting his father (Ian Holm), a cop who was critically wounded while trying to bust a drug dealer. The dealer flees but later surrenders to defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), a bleeding-heart grandstander who makes a big media show of taking the dealer’s case. The head DA (Ron Liebman) assigns Sean as the prosecutor, and we settle in for a protracted, predictable courtroom drama … which we don’t get. A verdict is reached quickly, and the story deepens.

Frankly, Night Falls on Manhattan (a beautiful title with no apparent relevance to the movie) isn’t much on logic. Why would the untested Sean be handed a case involving his own father? And why, on the strength of one case, is Sean promoted to DA after Liebman has a heart attack? You can feel Lumet pulling you over these implausible plot bumps by force, commanding you to look deeper and see the story he really wants to tell: that of a son torn between justice and family. Sean’s father, it seems, isn’t as clean as Sean would like to believe. There’s more to the drug-dealer case than meets the eye.

The same is true of the movie. For every element that doesn’t work — Ian Holm’s erratic New York accent, or the entirely expendable attorney played by Lena Olin (who’s in the movie solely to sleep with Sean and cook eggs for him) — there’s a moment or a performance that hits its target. Dreyfuss is amusing and complex in what amounts to an extended cameo, and Ron Liebman steals the movie as the flamboyant DA, a type-A creature of New York who always seems to be hopping onto tables, the better to launch his nasal tirades into orbit.

I enjoyed Night Falls on Manhattan and didn’t mind giving it the occasional slack. Sidney Lumet doesn’t make well-oiled machines; his films operate more like the human heart, which (as Liebman’s character finds out) doesn’t always work as well as it should. But it beats with authentic New York blood. Messy, overwrought, and technically fuzzy, this cop opera still maintains a strong and passionate pulse.

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