An oft overlooked cop film is the transitional “Night Falls on Manhattan”. This film is a tale of police corruption and redemption in a New York City that is on the move to a better place. The film was released in 1996 and seems to be a take on the corruption in the NYPD, most recently the “Dirty 30” scandal of 1994, and follows the narrative of the Larry Davis shooting in 1986.
The film opens with an introduction to the District Attorney’s Office, where new ADA and former cop Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) is being lectured on the inner workings of the criminal justice system. The film then transitions to the initial action scene, which is thrilling, if a bit overdone. It portrays the attempted arrest of the homicidal Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey) by two detectives, Liam Casey (Ian Holm), who is ADA Sean Casey’s Father, and Joey Allegretto (James Gandolfini). Washington opens fire through the door causing life threatening injuries to Det Casey. As a chaotic police response ensues, Washington is able to escape, killing two more cops in the process. The incident is a bit exaggerated, but it does show the absolute chaos that ensues when a cop is shot.
Washington eventually turns himself in with the help of his attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss). District Attorney Morgenstern (Ron Liebman), who is a clear stand in for Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau (the last genuine prosecutor that has filled that storied position), appoints rookie ADA Casey to try the case due to his father being the victim (and of course some politics).
Through some twists and turns, serious police corruption in several precincts is uncovered by ADA Casey. The weaknesses and tough decisions of the main characters are on display for much of the rest of the film, giving it some real drama.
To us the larger takeaway from this film is the changing nature of New York City and the NYPD. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there were some very serious police corruption cases that came to light. The 75’s Michael Dowd, The Buddy Boys of the 77 Pct, the 73’s Morgue Boys, and the Dirty 30 were headline news in recent years. The Mollen Commission had outlined the current state of corruption and how it was committed by small groups of dirty cops. However, by 1995 the city was showing clear signs of a turnaround. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton had personally gone to the 30th Precinct to suspend cops and show that corruption would not be fought in dark corners to avoid a scandal. It was being tackled forcefully and in plain view. Corruption would not be tolerated in the NYPD. Crime was on its way to historic lows, and the criminal justice system was becoming more professional and efficient. These themes are shown in this movie from the dark beginning to a more redemptive end.
The film was written by former NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Robert Daley. It was based on his novel Tainted Evidence. There are some clear signs that the author knows the NYPD from the feel of the movie and the correct terminology. Acclaimed director Sidney Lumet does a great job and skillfully gets many things correct while eliciting a great performance from Andy Garcia. Daley and Lumet also teamed up for Prince of the City (a prior Weekend Buff recommendation).
The film can seem a bit exaggerated at times but is a hard-hitting police drama. Some good performances and the chaotic feel of early 90’s New York make it a film worth watching. It is a reminder that we don’t want to get back to those days even if they gave the city a gritty edge that seems to have disappeared.
You can find Night Falls on Manhattan on Amazon Prime and Paramount+. You can also buy it on Apple’s ITunes or Google Play.