Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
A finely crafted faux-antique, Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan is a cops-and-lawyers drama in which everything fits neatly. Even the script’s nugget of moral ambiguity comes tied up in a prim bow.
The dawdling opening credits set the mood: Slowly, they etch a skyline of the sort that signified Manhattan back before every American city from Miami to Seattle got its own skyscrapers. In those days, there were 6 million stories in the naked city. In this movie, however, only about a dozen people seem to live in Manhattan, and they all soon know each other.
Lumet’s script is adapted from a novel, Tainted Evidence, by Robert Daley, who also wrote the book that inspired a much better Lumet film, 1981’s Prince of the City. The action begins when New York plainclothes cop Liam Casey (Ian Holm, at 65 clearly past retirement age) and his partner close in on “the biggest dope dealer in the city” (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), who has the all-purpose NBA name of Jordan Washington. The bust falls apart, two cops are killed, and Liam is severely wounded.
Hard-charging, high-profile Manhattan D.A. Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) sees an opportunity. He assigns a brand new assistant D.A., a former cop, to prosecute the case: Liam Casey’s son Sean (Andy Garcia). (Considering that his father is one of the principal witnesses, of course, Sean wouldn’t even be allowed on the jury for the case in a real courtroom.) When Washington turns himself in, he’s accompanied by lawyer Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss), “the last of the ’60s radicals,” loosely patterned on William Kunstler. Vigoda has a controversial defense strategy: Washington fired in self-defense, because the cops were corrupt ones who had come not to arrest the dealer but to assassinate him.
Although it allows for bravura performances by Garcia and Dreyfuss, this improbable trial is not the center of the film. It’s soon over, so Sean can slip into bed with one of Vigoda’s assistant attorneys, Peggy Lindstrom (Lena Olin, the beautiful Swedish actress with the ugly Hollywood career). Then Morgenstern has a heart attack, and the inexperienced Sean easily wins election to take his place. Everything’s peachy, except that Sean keeps getting intimations that Vigoda’s defense strategy was valid. Washington was paying off cops, it seems, and even Sean’s father may not be untainted. Eventually, Sean finds a document that’s of intense interest to his dadand to his lover as well.
This development is supposed to be messy, just as the mocking exchanges between Morgenstern and his WASPy deputy (who actually razzes his boss as “my Hebraic friend”) are supposed to bristle with the unassimilated hostility of multiethnic New York. In fact, though, the plot is excessively tidy, and the film’s ethnic rainbowJews, Irishmen, and one black drug dealeris little more than monochromatic. Unlike the New York of Prince of the City, this film is set in a place with little real conflict: When Sean despairs of being the moral exemplar he so wants to be, he’s cheered by the words of his new pal, Vigoda.
Though Mark Isham wouldn’t have been ripping off Philip Glass on the soundtrack 16 years ago, Night Falls on Manhattan is otherwise musty. That doesn’t mean the film is without its hammy pleasures: Sean’s courtroom questioning of Washington is entertaining, if utterly pat. Indeed, despite Lumet’s insistence on authentic New York locations, the film is more compelling on the courtroom sets than in the streets. Brisk, theatrical, and contrived, Night Falls on Manhattan has less in common with Prince of the City or Serpico than with Lumet’s one-set debut, 12 Angry Men, which turns 40 this year.
1997 also marks the 30th anniversary of The Graduate, which means the film was originally released inwell, the math is easy enough. But somehow it doesn’t quite add up.
Nearly everyone knows the plot of the film, which was adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from Charles Webb’s novel. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home to Los Angeles after a brilliant tenure at an unnamed (but presumably prestigious) Eastern university. Suddenly aimless, he briefly resists and then encourages an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner. At the insistence of his parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson), Benjamin glumly arranges a date with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). He tries to appall her by taking her to a strip club, only to decide that he loves her. Over Mrs. Robinson’s drastic objections, Benjamin sets out to marry Elaine. When the Robinsons arrange a hasty match with a bland, blond med student, Benjamin busts up the wedding.
The other thing that nearly everyone knows about the film is that it features Simon and Garfunkel songs, principally “The Sounds of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair,” which director Mike Nichols repeats almost as often as Wong Kar-Wai reprises “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. (Only a fragment of “Mrs. Robinson” is heard; though forever connected with the film, the song wasn’t finished until after the movie was released.) Where a youth-culture film set in 1967 California might have been expected to showcase Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, and Jefferson Airplane, The Graduate instead depends on the prim harmonies of two New York intellectual-folkies.
Neither the revolution nor the generation gap are really the point of The Graduate, which could have been set five or even 10 years earlier. Only one scene reflects the spirit of ’67: A Berkeley landlord (Norman Fell, anticipating his role in Three’s Company) asks Benjamin if he’s an “outside agitator.” Tellingly, Nichols and Henry hoped to cast Doris Day and Ronald Reagan (who was soon to have his say about Berkeley’s agitators) as Benjamin’s parents. That would have rooted the film even more firmly in the banal, conformist ’50s. (Not that upscale Southern California has changed so much, at least in satirical films; the sterility and impersonality of the Braddocks’ affluent neighborhood parallels the pocket-mansion subdivision in 1995’s Safe.)
A New York stage director without any screen credits when he first undertook the project, Nichols considered The Graduate a comment on the “Los Angelesization” of America. That’s clear in some of the more farcical sequences, such as the one where Benjamin drives frantically from Los Angeles to Berkeley, asks where Elaine’s wedding is, learns it’s in Santa Barbara, and turns around and heads south again. This is the New York critique of California freeway culture, rendered as slapstick.
Nichols was looking for a “surfboard”a sun-bleached Jan & Dean typeto play Benjamin. Hoffman didn’t look the part, although he actually is a Los Angeles native. He was more convincing portraying something he wasn’t: an adolescent. The actor was 30 when he played the sweaty, stammering Benjamin, forever embodying the bewildered 20-year-old confronted by an incomprehensibly earnest grown-up who counsels, “One word: plastics.”
Today, The Graduate looks admirably efficient, crisply directed, and reasonably witty. Contemporary films about adolescent anomie are seldom so fast-moving or entertaining. No wonder it was the second-highest grossing film of the ’60s (following The Sound of Music). A hipper, artier film wouldn’t have reached such a broad audience, and would probably have dated much more awkwardly. The peekaboo edits of the naked Mrs. Robinson seem coy now, but Nichols is only indirectly responsible for the film’s most embarrassing ’60s artifact: the lyric to “The Sounds of Silence.” (In the midst of the current lounge-music revival, though, it is charming to see a movie that uses this insipid tinkling as a signifier of bourgeois-American spiritual death.)
There is one other thing. Like a lot of male correspondents’ front-line reports from the ’60s sexual revolution, The Graduate is baldly misogynistic. Benjamin is not merely the prototype for the unmacho anti-hero of ’70s American cinema; he’s also a Hollywood incarnation of the henpecked unfortunate well known to New Yorker readers at the time. Much like the meek hero of a Thurber cartoon, Benjamin must choose between the predatory Mrs. Robinson and the pretty, vacant Elaine: When Benjamin delivers his famous “you’re trying to seduce me” line, he’s framed by Mrs. Robinson’s snarelike legs; after he makes his fateful choice and runs off with Elaine, the two sit nervously side by side, without a thing to say to each other. Nichols may have intended to satirize all his characters, but the depiction of the naive, trapped, easily manipulated Benjamin seems entirely self-justifying.CP