Published May 1, 1997
Night Falls on Manhattan is that rare thing, a film that is bursting with talent—written and directed by Sidney Lumet it features fine performances from Andy Garcia, Ian Holm and James Gandolfini and even such cinematic palookas as Richard Dreyfuss and Lena Olin are punching above their weight—which is, nevertheless, a complete failure. It is hard to say exactly why this is. Somehow the protagonist, a young assistant D.A. called Sean Casey (Mr Garcia) remains too shallow and uninteresting a character, and his meteoric rise to become D.A. for New York City almost overnight only makes him seem shallower and less interesting. It’s not Mr. Garcia’s fault; the part just hasn’t been written well.
And his shallowness seems to communicate itself to the other characters. We have no sense of any of them as persons—not even Casey’s father, Liam (Mr Holm), an aging cop who is gunned down by (who else?) a drug “kingpin.” In this role, Shiek Mahmud-Bey seems positively to revel in the character’s one-dimensionality. Dramatically, too, the film is a failure. The fine actor Colm Feore plays an ivy league WASP assistant to the salty old Jewish D.A., called simply Morgenstern (Ron Liebman), and there is set up between him and his up-from-the-streets boss an ethnic and political rivalry which is then simply left hanging. There is nothing for him to do but look nasty, like the kingpin, and he doesn’t even get to do very much of that.
Likewise, Casey’s romantic interest, Peggy Lindstrom (Miss Olin) is meant to involve both the crossing of social boundaries and a conflict of loyalties, but little or nothing is made out of these themes either. At several points in the picture references are made to New York’s tribal loyalties. “My people have a saying. . .” says Morgenstern. And the worst thing about the very bad kingpin is that “he kills his own people.” Where are these people? Not only the blacks but the Irish and the Jews and the Italians never quite make it onto the stage, except as they are presumably represented by the kingpin, the Caseys, Morgenstern, and Joey Allegretto (Mr Gandolfini), the older Casey’s partner, respectively. We have quite as much a sense of the Swedes, represented by Miss Olin, as we do any of these ethnic identities.
Even more bizarre, the main plot is powered by action that takes place almost completely off-stage. An investigative team is called in to ferret out the truth behind allegations of police corruption by the kingpin’s defense attorney (Mr Dreyfuss) and succeeds brilliantly, but we never get to know any of the investigators (even as much as we know the other characters) or see them in action. All we are left with is two or three unrevealing interrogation scenes and the reactions of the two Caseys and Joey as the net closes on the bad guys.
It’s too bad, since there are some forceful statements by Morgenstern in pursuit of the kingpin ( “I don’t want any goddamn civil liberties subtleties about this. We’re going to get this cop killing bastard and let the ACLU ask questions later” ) which promise some real dramatic conflict, but it never happens. Everybody (except, of course, the kingpin) is too nice. Even Mr Dreyfuss’s character, Sam Vigoda, the lefty defense attorney, when he finds that there is evidence that could get the kingpin’s conviction overturned says he won’t use it. “Why should I let that animal back on the street?” Similarly, Peggy finds dynamite evidence to advance her own career at the younger Casey’s expense, but she can’t bring herself to do it. I don’t mind Lumet’s wrapping up a sombre drama like this with a happy ending, but this is more like a happy-talk ending, in which all the hard questions are just casually niced away.