I’ve enjoyed many of director Sidney Lumet’s films over the years, so I looked forward to reading Maura Spiegel’s “Sidney Lumet: A Life” (St. Martin’s).
The biography covers the late director’s early life in New York City’s Lower East Side as the son of Polish immigrants, his life as a child star in the Yiddish theater and his later youthful performances on Broadway. The book also covers Lumet’s time as an innovative television director during TV’s early years. Ms. Spiegel utilized Lumet’s unfinished memoir and performed interviews with his family members, friends and show business professionals to capture the life of an interesting man and filmmaker.
Lumet directed some truly fine films in his lengthy career, from “12 Angry Men” to “Network,” but as a crime aficionado, I was particularly interested in Lumet’s four great cop films: “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “Q&A,” and “Night Falls in Manhattan.”
The cop film quartet covered corrupt cops in New York City, and although I felt the films gave the unfair impression that all New York cops were corrupt, I enjoyed the gritty and otherwise realistic films, two of which — “Serpico” and “Prince of the City” — were based on true stories.
Certainly, there were and are corrupt cops, just as there are corrupt lawyers, accountants, doctors and politicians, but the films’ dramatic focus was on the bad apples. Having covered the cops for many years and spent time on the street with patrol officers, detectives and narcotic officers, and having interviewed the two former cops who were the subjects of “Serpico” and “Prince of the City,” I felt that Lumet captured the cops’ dark sense of humor, their pride and struggles, as well as their vulnerabilities.
Based on Peter Maas’ 1973 true-crime book about Frank Serpico, an incorruptible NYPD undercover plainclothes officer who testified against corrupt cops, Lumet’s outstanding 1973 film “Serpico” starred Al Pacino. Frank Serpico told me that friends told him that Al Pacino “was more me than me,” but he thought Al Pacino overacted at times. “Serpico” earned Al Pacino his first Oscar nomination for best actor.
Returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, Lumet directed “Prince of the City” in 1981. Based on Robert Daley’s true-crime book about former NYPD detective Robert Leuci, who came forward and admitted to taking bribes. He worked undercover against corrupt lawyers and judges, and to his regret, his fellow narcotic officers in the elite Special Investigative Unit.
Lumet cast a relatively unknown actor, Treat Williams, as Robert Leuci, called Danny Ciello in the film. Treat Williams was outstanding as the conflicted and emotional detective. Like Lumet’s “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” captured perfectly the dark and depressing but fascinating life of the cops on the street.
I interviewed Robert Leuci in 2009 and he told me that “Prince of the City” was a good film, but not exactly an uplifting film. “I went into the police department because I very much wanted to be a cop. I found myself within a short period of time behaving in ways that were much like the people I was investigating. It made me sick and it started to make me crazy. The people I cared most about were the other cops I worked with, and most of them were great guys, but they were crooks.”
Lumet directed “Q&A” in 1990. The film was based on Edwin Torres’ 1977 novel about the investigation of a corrupt cop. Mr. Torres, a former assistant DA and later a judge, also wrote “Carlito’s Way.” In Lumet’s “Q&A,” Nick Nolte gave a manic but convincing performance as the corrupt cop. The cops and prosecutors in the film are so bad that, ironically, the most honorable character in the film is a major drug dealer portrayed well by Armand Assante.
In 1996, Lumet directed “Night Falls on Manhattan,” which, like his earlier films, explored corrupt cops and others in the judicial system. Based on Robert Daley’s novel, Andy Garcia offers a fine performance as an assistant DA and the late James Gandolfini is just terrific as a crooked cop.
Lumet also directed other crime films I love, including three that starred Sean Connery, one of my favorite actors. In 1971, he directed “The Anderson Tapes” with Sean Connery as a high-end burglar, and in 1973 he directed “The Offense,” with Sean Connery as a troubled British detective. He directed Mr. Connery again in “Family Business” in 1989. The film, a dark comedy, was based on Vincent Patrick’s novel.
Sidney Lumet died in 2011. He was 86.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.