Arrow Video: Night Falls on Manhattan (1996) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Arrow Video

It goes without saying Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest American auteurs of his time since Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer or Norman Jewison in terms of crafting broadly appealing contemporary dramas made with technical precision and a unique all-encompassing gift for directing his actors.  The man behind such legendary screen epics as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Serpico was nominated five times for the Academy Award during his lifetime.  Receiving an honorary Oscar in 2004, the man was a skillful technical craftsman to learn from and respect.  Although some critics felt the maestro was losing his touch near the end of his tenure, as proven by Arrow Video’s forthcoming 2K restored blu-ray of his 1996 crime drama Night Falls on Manhattan, the ‘old slugger’ showed no signs of withering or wearing down with age in one of the director’s most underrated and clandestine productions of his illustrious career.

Based on the novel by former NYPD officer Robert Daley of Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, the film follows New York based fledgling recruit assistant district attorney Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) as he starts out work within the legal system.  Not long into his jumpstarting career, a seismic case drops into his lap involving his father NYPD detective Liam Casey (Ian Holm) and his partner Joey Allegretto (James Gandolfini) regarding the apprehension of infamous local drug dealer Jordan Washinton (Shiek Mahmud-Bey).  A seemingly cut-and-dried homicide case, things get complicated when Washington’s astute defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss) implies his client’s actions were ones of self-defense and that officers were previously involved in dealings with the drug lord.  The case appears to be closed and behind them, but the unwanted skeletons in Liam Casey and Joey Allegretto’s respective closets keep coming and threaten to destroy the carefully constructed house of cards the Casey family tried so hard to mount in the first place through any means necessary.

Loosely inspired by the real-life crime case of drug dealer Larry Davis who shot six cops but was acquitted when celebrity defense attorney William Kunstler proved in a court of law the cops were involved in the drug dealings, Night Falls on Manhattan joins 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon in terms of starting out seemingly straightforward before the unfolding story reveals more unexpected nooks and crannies.  A largely overlooked gem that did not make the same splash with critics as his prior works did with some insisting Lumet was losing his touch, the film is anchored by brilliant impassioned performances from the eclectic cast including but not limited to Lena Olin as a romantic interest to Sean Casey who begins to learn not all is what it seems with the Casey family, Bobby Cannavale in his screen debut and an utterly fantastic Ron Liebman as Morgenstern the crooked District Attorney playing politics over abiding by the law.

Shot exquisitely by Academy Award winning Out of Africa cinematographer David Watkin who also lensed Ken Russell’s The Devils and Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade and given an appropriately somber low-key jazzy score by Fire in the Sky composer Mark Isham, Night Falls on Manhattan looks and sounds beautiful and perfectly captures the interior aura of the courtroom, the squalid alleyways of the New York slums and the increasingly elite living arrangements of Sean Casey.  It goes without saying Andy Garcia, Ian Holm and Richard Dreyfuss attack their roles mightily without ever veering into overacting or chewing the scenery.  Here, their anger and outbursts feel natural rather than telegraphed and by the end of this sordid saga we’re honestly not sure who to root for anymore.

Released to largely critical indifference with some praising it while others lambasted it, Night Falls on Manhattan pulled in a decent $10 million at the box office before fading into Paramount Pictures obscurity.  Not until recently with renewed interest in the director’s oeuvre and a recent licensing deal with Paramount are we starting to see films like Night Falls on Manhattan finally given their due.  Arrow’s set mastered in 2K comes with archival audio commentaries with Sidney Lumet, the cast and crew, archival interviews on the set and an hour-long documentary from 2002 involving Sidney Lumet in a roundtable discussion with Andy Garcia, Ron Liebman, Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger, Christopher Walken and many others.  Seen now, it is perhaps one of the best films of the 1990s that completely came and went without much recognition.  Hopefully with Arrow’s newly restored set, audiences who previously overlooked this taut little gem now have a chance to reassess and reevaluate its obvious place in cinema history as one of the great final films from one of America’s most original auteurs.

--Andrew Kotwicki