‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ Is a Forgotten ’90s Gem
As I write these words, it’s just about one year to the day to the last time I saw a movie in a crowded theater. (Had I known it would be my last theatrical experience for at least a year, I swear I would have picked a more fulfilling title than Bloodshot.) In pretty much every important way, the subsequent 12 months have sucked. One of the few silver linings of a year not going to the movies (or, y’know, anywhere) has been the rare opportunity to revisit some older films I hadn’t seen in decades — and to watch some I had missed completely for the first time.
I started watching Best Picture winners I’ve never seen. (Out of Africa: Not great!) I ticked off a few ’80s movies that my parents didn’t let me watch because I was too young at the time. (Screw you, Pops! I’m 40 now! If I want to rent The Golden Child, you can’t stop me!) For a while, I was chronicling these retro screenings in a regular column here at ScreenCrush. With the return of new TV and movies, the column faded away. But in between the stuff I have to watch, I’ve continued ticking off the blindspots I want to watch.
This week, for example, ahead of its 25th anniversary, I watched Night Falls on Manhattan from director Sidney Lumet. While the title suggests a florid neo-noir, the movie is actually a far more nuanced look at systemic corruption in New York City. (Night Falls was based on a novel by former New York City Deputy Police Commissioner Robert Daley with the less sensational title Tainted Evidence.) The film was not a hit in 1996. 25 years later, it seems ripe for rediscovery as an unusually complex mainstream film that anticipated a lot of the antiheroic fiction of the next decade.
It stars Andy Garcia as Sean Casey, a rising star in the New York District Attorney’s office. The introductory scene depicts his first day among a new class of A.D.A.s. That segues into a montage of the soul-crushing work of a public servant: Late nights, impossible cases, endless drudgery. Then the scene switches to a pair of cops on a stakeout. These men are detectives Joey Allegretto (James Gandolfini) and Liam Casey (Iam Holm), Sean’s dad. Acting on a tip, they perform a bust on a notorious drug kingpin named Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey). The cops worry someone else might take credit for the arrest, so they wait to call for backup until the last possible second, and break down Washington’s door alone. He hears them coming, and opens fire as they enter his apartment, critically injuring Liam.
When backup arrives in the form of a fleet of patrol cars from three different precincts, Washington kills two more officers and escapes in the ensuing chaos. Liam winds up in the hospital, but survives. The D.A., a blustery man named Morganstern (Ron Liebman), is up for reelection and hits upon an idea to boost his campaign: Assign Sean Casey to prosecute the man who nearly killed his hero cop father.
Morganstern insists that between the ballistics evidence and eyewitness testimony, it’s an open-and-shut case. But Washington’s attorney, Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), makes it more interesting by accusing the police of rampant corruption. He claims the raid on Washington’s home was an assassination attempt between disgruntled business partners. Vigoda presents Washington, who’s still a fugitive at that point, and has him voluntarily surrender to police custody, essentially daring the cops to rough his client up before trial, tacitly proving part of the defense’s case.
Legal thriller fans may think they know where this is all headed: A lengthy series of courtroom scenes that test Sean’s mettle and his loyalties in equal measure. Instead, Washington’s trial is as much of a foregone conclusion as Morganstern claims, and lasts only a few minutes. The rest of the movie is about Sean rising through the ranks of the district attorney’s office, and what happens to his idealism and passion for justice once he does.
Lumet wrote Night Falls on Manhattan’s screenplay himself, using Tainted Evidence as his foundation but also drastically rewriting parts. (The protagonist of the novel, for example, is an established attorney and mother of two, not a young lawyer assigned his first big case.) A lot of the major story beats are based on real-life events. Washington’s daring escape from the police, for example, is based on the case of Larry Davis, who got into a shootout with the cops in the Bronx and managed to flee the scene, leading to a multi-week manhunt before he was captured. At Davis’ trial, his attorney (William Kunstler, the same lawyer played by Mark Rylance in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7) claimed Davis was targeted by police because he knew too much about the department’s illicit schemes.
Kunstler’s defense largely worked; Davis was acquitted of most of the charges stemming from the incident. Vigoda’s doesn’t — Washington goes to prison — but it gnaws at Sean, who begins to suspect that whether or not Washington deserved to be locked up for his own crimes, he may have been telling the truth about the police. That sends him deeper and deeper into an ethical quagmire, as he’s forced to investigate the NYPD and ultimately his own father.
Exposing the ways corrupt institutions force individuals to compromise their own values, while also delivering a character drama full of tension and romance (Sean also begins an morally questionable relationship with a woman in Sam Vigoda’s office played by Lena Olin) means that Night Falls on Manhattan runs a jam-packed 109 minutes. Time passes very quickly in the film; important events like Sean’s rise through the district attorney’s office get compressed into a single scene. Lumet’s ambitions with this story — exploring the murky gray area between what is legal and what is just — were greater than what he could achieve in a feature-length film. Night Falls on Manhattan arguably would have made a better prestige television show.
Of course, prestige television shows barely existed when Night Falls on Manhattan was first released. A few years later, The Wire would take a similar but more in-depth look at how the machines of government, politics, and the legal system grind down even the most worthy public servants. (A few years later, Lumet would also write, direct, and produce his own series, 100 Centre Street.) Whether David Chase saw Night Falls at the time or was simply working from the same pool of New York actors as Lumet, quite a few of the film’s cast members went on to appear in starring roles on The Sopranos. Dominic Chianese (the future Uncle Junior) plays the judge who presides over Washington’s trial, and Frank Vincent and Vincent Pastore both pop up in small roles. Gandolfini already basically looks like Season 1 Tony Soprano, playing a guy who shares a lot of traits with his signature role: Both Tony and Joey are big, burly charmers who can talk you into believing their biggest lies, or scare you to death when their deceit starts to falls apart.
The rest of the Night Falls cast is equally solid, although Ian Holm would not be my first choice to play a palooka-ish NYPD lifer (or Andy Garcia’s dad, for that matter). Regardless, the film’s honest, even-handed look at policing has aged better than many of its ’90s contemporaries and their simplistic view of hero cops who can do no wrong, even as they bend and break the laws they’re bound to uphold.
Lumet apparently weighed several different endings for Night Falls on Manhattan, each concluding on varying notes of cynicism or hope about the future of the characters and the our fragile justice system. (The latter was a subject of eternal interest for Lumet, who made many movies about moral rot within New York’s halls of power including Serpico and Prince of the City, which was based on another Robert Daley book.) The one Lumet settled on was the right one, with Sean Casey returning to that same classroom where he started his career, this time to give a speech to the next class of assistant district attorneys. He warns them about the pitfalls they will encounter, and promises there will be hard days ahead. By going back to the setting of Night Falls on Manhattan’s very first scene, Lumet suggests Sean Casey’s journey from naiveté to pragmatism is a universal one for everyone who pass through that classroom — and life in general. No one gets out without compromises.
Night Falls on Manhattan is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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