Taken as a quartet, these films shift from lauding the exposure of police corruption to struggling futilely against its pervasiveness. In Serpico and to a lesser extent Prince of the City, the toils and moral anguish of one officer ultimately negate the department’s corruption and graft. By Q&A and Night Falls, the rot has set in so deep that the protagonists can only strive to minimize harm, knowing their resistance will damage themselves, the people they care about, and the institutions they serve.
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The hand of a plainclothes cop jostles the bulge at the front of a transvestite’s pants. A second-generation officer-turned-DA heads to a clandestine meeting with his father’s partner. An undercover officer stows his sidearm in the trunk of his car so that, if caught, he won’t have the means to blow his brains out. Another officer lies strapped to a crash trolley, a bullet wound through his cheek.
Like Hawks and Wilder before him, Sidney Lumet produced a diverse and varied filmography that transcends categorization. In his book Making Movies, the director mentions he has “been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all [his] work.” Even if we acknowledge that much of Lumet’s best work was accomplished within the crime genre, films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Verdict (1982), and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) have very little to do with each other, visually, stylistically, or thematically. This is to Lumet’s credit as a craftsman: “No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life,” he writes. “I don’t have one.”
And yet again and again throughout his career, Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption, most notably in Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), Q&A (1990), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1996). Taken as a quartet, these films shift from lauding the exposure of police corruption to struggling futilely against its pervasiveness. In Serpico and to a lesser extent Prince of the City, the toils and moral anguish of one officer ultimately negate the department’s corruption and graft. By Q&A and Night Falls, the rot has set in so deep that the protagonists can only strive to minimize harm, knowing their resistance will damage themselves, the people they care about, and the institutions they serve. Lumet’s police departments do not suffer idealists.
To state that these four films lie at the thematic heart of Lumet’s canon is borne out by his close involvement with the development of the stories. Lumet wrote the screenplays for Q&A and Night Falls, and co-wrote the script for Prince with Jay Presson Allen. In Lumet’s words, “I was particularly close to the stories and felt I knew the ‘sound’ of the characters as well as anyone.” An examination of this quartet demonstrates how each film interrogates (no pun intended) the moral conclusions of the films preceding it.
Serpico is the story of an officer who, faced with widespread police corruption, attempts to distance himself from the department’s traditions while upholding its spirit. Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) undergoes astonishing physical changes throughout the film, yet aside from a well-earned cynicism, the bullet-scarred bohemian of the film’s later reels is morally indistinguishable from the uniformed rookie of the beginning. His evolution is aesthetic. He is Camus’s Rebel, fighting systemic crime without succumbing to a revolutionary fury that would precipitate crimes of its own. Serpico blends into the world of corruption and moral decay without becoming a part of it, and is eventually rewarded by a departmental purge.
While both films are based on true events, taken strictly as stories, Prince of the City reimagines Serpico in a world of grays rather than stark contrasts. Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is motivated by guilt and redemption rather than moral outrage. After pummeling an addict to procure drugs for a jonesing informant, Ciello watches the informant beat his girlfriend. Shamed by the violence his actions have brought about, and realizing his entire career is based off such well-intentioned misdeeds, Ciello agrees to turn informant himself – but only if he and the members of the Special Investigations squad he heads are exempted from prosecution. Ciello’s wife (Lindsay Crouse) tells him that informing is a slippery slope, that eventually the unit members will turn on each other. This is exactly what happens.
Ciello faces the same tests of endurance that Serpico does, the same uphill battle against an apathetic and compromised bureaucracy. Yet Ciello’s path is clouded by his own complicity. When his deal is struck, he admits to two illegal acts, yet the audience has witnessed him commit half a dozen. Ciello believes himself to be one of the good guys, yet the more he risks himself, the more the crimes of his past threaten to submerge him. He fears his own response to being caught wearing a wire and proceeds unarmed into assignations to avoid the temptation to kill himself. Whereas Serpico is of such solid character that his values don’t change even as he morphs from a crew-cutted beat cop to a ballet-obsessed flower child, Ciello has ever but slenderly known himself. The best he can hope for is to escape prosecution for his undisclosed crimes and have the convictions his testimony secured upheld.
In the opening scene of Q&A, Detective Mike Brennan shoots to death a young Hispanic man outside a nightclub, plants a pistol on the corpse, and bullies the witnesses into supporting his version of events. Brennan as played by Nick Nolte is one of the great cinematic monsters of police corruption, James Cromwell’s Dudley Smith or Sterling Hayden’s Captain McCluskey twenty years younger and brimming with sexual repression and pathological venom. Brennan is a serial sex murderer, so repulsed by his own attraction to the gender subversion of transvestites and homosexuals that he strangles them. Yet Brennan is also a calculating organized crime enforcer, in bed (figuratively) with a powerful police chief as well as gangsters and racketeers. Brennan is the negative image of Frank Serpico: celebrated and protected by his colleagues, yet at his core, not just rotten but carcinogenic. Brennan explodes in his final scenes, leading to a shootout inside the detective offices, literally turning his workstation into a battleground. While his sexual compulsions seem to suggest that, like Ciello, Brennan has little in the way of self-knowledge, his absolute acceptance of his criminal nature suggests that part of him knew he would eventually turn on his own.
Prosecutor Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) attempts to ensnare the crooked higher-ups above and beyond Brennan, but meets with failure. The film ends with Reilly’s mentor predicting that the crooked Homicide chief who sicced Brennan on the cartel (and brought the inexperienced Reilly in to close down the investigation) will likely succeed in his bid for elected office. Political careers are built on such monumental outrages, Lumet seems to say. It is all Reilly can do to contain and defuse Brennan: Brennan’s superiors are beyond Reilly’s grasp.
Reilly’s attempts to reconnect with his old flame Nancy, a biracial girl (Jenny Lumet) now seeing a drug dealer (Armand Assante), adds a racial dimension to the film’s moral equation. Nancy left Reilly after registering his look of shock, and perhaps disgust, upon discovering her father was black. As Roger Ebert asks in his Q&A review, “Is it always there, the movie wonders – that instinctive racial discrimination that seems to be absorbed when we’re young, and has to be unlearned as part of the process of growing up and growing better?” While Reilly attempts to convince Nancy that his reaction wasn’t indicative of racism, she remains with Assante’s slick and dangerous drug kingpin, Bobby Texador, undermining Reilly’s claims to the moral high ground. Brennan further alleges that Reilly’s father was a corrupt cop – it’s in Reilly’s blood.
While bringing down a monster like Brennan is unquestionably noble, there will be no glory, since the corruption cannot be contained. Reilly is caught up in the unending struggle for justice that Cornel West iterates in Examined Life, the struggle of “trying to keep alive a very fragile democratic experiment in the face of structures of domination, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power, state power, all those concentrated forms of power that are not accountable to people who are affected by it.” Reilly, unlike Serpico and to a much greater extent than Ciello, realizes that he is part of these structures, that to maintain the power to stop monsters like Brennan he must let others escape. If he is to remain a functional part of the justice system, Reilly will have to do so in awareness of his own compromised position, in a world where the criminal you can’t prosecute has a chance to rise to the highest elected office in the land, and career criminals like Texador can be viable rivals for the woman you love.
Night Falls retreads ground covered in Q&A. Once again a second-generation officer-turned-deputy DA investigates a shooting and uncovers more than he bargained for. Andy Garcia’s Sean Casey is similar to Hutton’s Reilly, yet there is no counter-force to Casey’s optimistic pursuit of the truth, no creature like Mike Brennan. Instead, Casey’s investigation takes him into his father’s precinct, uncovering rampant police corruption that led to Liam Casey (Ian Holm) being shot by drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), who was marked for death by the police for failure to match his competitor’s bribes. After Washington’s prosecution, Casey is elected DA. The central questions of the film then become whether or not Casey’s father is corrupt, and if so, what Casey will do about it. The answer to the first question is both yes and no: while Liam Casey was not on Washington’s payroll, he forged the date on the arrest warrant. We also see him trade an informant drugs for information. Before Sean decides, a judge retroactively signs and dates the warrant, absolving Liam. Sean sacrifices his credibility for his father, a move he refused to make for his father’s partner (James Gandolfini) that led to the partner’s suicide. The film seems to flirt with the idea that enforcing the law entails breaking it. The system will turn a blind eye only so long as you don’t fail or get caught. The justice system of Night Falls is a network of exploiters, and the film concludes with Casey cautioning a class of young deputy assistant DAs about joining their ranks.
Whether monsters like Brennan or saints like Serpico, Lumet’s cop characters negotiate a morass of moral compromise and systemic corruption, where you’re likely to be punished for risking your neck or dragged further into the swamp by your good intentions, where extrication is impossible and the best you can hope for is to keep your head above ground and your conscience relatively clean. Ciello, Brennan, and the elder Casey see no problem in exchanging drugs for information: it’s the economy of the streets. Ciello, Reilly, and Casey the younger are brought low by their very eagerness to discover a way out of corruption, while still doing right by their families, genetic or circumstantial. From Serpico to Night Falls we witness a thematic evolution: corruption is no longer outside the self and able to be defeated by honesty and courage. In the later films the characters who seem outside of corruption eventually find themselves at its center. Given Lumet’s range as a director, that he returned to these themes time after time is significant: with each cop film Lumet seems to be rewriting the last, widening the shadow of corruption, until night falls on the whole damned city.