Sidney Lumet: New York Director
Hollywood films have always been filled with rogue cops who, given the temptations of the job, effortlessly shifted over to the side of the criminals they had taken an oath to pursue and punish. Of course, these “bent” cops don’t exist merely on celluloid, but inhabit police departments throughout this country. And in their cupidity and disloyalty, they betray their fellow officers, their departments, and the public they are supposed to protect.
Over the years the NYC Police Department has endured many major scandals, but in the last decade or so it has been relatively free of corruption. Recently, however, the New York newspapers have carried a number of stories about two retired city detectives (one the co-author of a book titled Mafia Cop) who were accused of acting as hit men for the mob, being involved with drug distribution and money laundering, and supplying Mafia bosses with the names of informants.
For more than a decade authorities suspected the two men of Mafia involvement but were unable to file charges against them. The indictment was finally brought by the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, Roslynn R. Mauskopf, who spoke with revulsion about the two detectives as men who “betrayed their badges, and used their guns and their shields to facilitate murder. We never forget that.”
This outsized police scandal made me think of the eighty year old, quintessential New York director, Sidney Lumet, who this year was given an honorary Oscar, the high point of as dreary and pedestrian an Academy Award ceremony as I’ve ever seen. Lumet is one film artist who richly deserved his Oscar - rarely the norm on a night where sentiment and lavish promotional campaigns, not talent, are often the basis for being handed a statue. And the passionate homage to Lumet’s career Al Pacino delivered when introducing him, was one of the humdrum evening’s few moving moments.
Lumet, a consummate professional and an artist with a strong moral perspective, has directed a wide variety of films - from Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Network (1976), to literary adaptations of Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1963) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1969). But arguably, much of his best work can be found in his films about the culture and corruption of New York City’s police department.
Films like Serpico (1973) and his unsung masterpiece, Prince of the City (1981) were both adapted from real life events, and Lumet set the films on the city’s grittiest streets where the cops, as if it were part of their job description, are either on the take or steal from the drug dealers who they arrest.
In Serpico, Al Pacino plays a cop who transforms himself from an innocent, idealistic police recruit into a volatile, bearded, undercover hippie detective. In the process he arouses the distrust and anger of his fellow cops when he won't accept bribes (“who can trust a cop that don’t take money?”), a courageous act that leads to his ostracism. Pushed to his breaking point, Serpico soon agrees to cooperate with the Knapp Commission, which has set out to rid the NYPD of its graft. But the film does not end on a triumphant note - its final image is of Serpico, sitting with his sheepdog, a broken loner.
Prince of the City is a more aesthetically and intellectually dense film, where there are no real heroes or villains - just a morally ambiguous, unravelling protagonist, Danny Ciello, who seeks penance for his corrupt and brutal behaviour on the job. Danny wants to purge himself of his sins without betraying his partners. But that becomes impossible, and he ends up ratting out his fellow cops, an outrage to the ties built on their sense of unity and loyalty to each other. As his wife says, ”nobody loves you but your partners and me.”
In Prince of the City every character is morally compromised, and the cops can be men who want to do good and rid the streets of drug dealers, and, simultaneously, be utterly corrupt. And the federal prosecutors, who are trying to clean up the police force, can be cold and driven men - willing to callously use people to achieve their ends.
Lumet believes in the legal system, but feels it must be constantly questioned so that honesty is preserved. In examining the conscience of his protagonists, he shows how difficult it is for virtue to win out in a volatile, morally treacherous world.
So Lumet’s police and criminals are always more complex than the ones populating most Hollywood films or featuring in the bare details of a newspaper story. What’s disturbing, but also predictable, is that Hollywood had to wait until Lumet’s career was almost at its end to finally reward him for the power and intricacy of his best films.