Sidney Lumet’s Newark Pitstop: Find Me Guilty (2006)

To the best of my knowledge, Sidney Lumet only ever shot in Newark once, and not, lamentably enough, for his remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (whose Newark Penn Station scene I wrote about here)–a remake whose omission of Cassavetes from the credits still perturbs me.

Instead, it was for this Vin Diesel mediocrity:

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Now, I really enjoy Sidney Lumet as a filmmaker. I always think of him as the pre-Soderbergh, reined in by a classical Hollywood leash that prevented any wildly idiosyncratic swerves like Schizopolis or Bubble, but still committed to an almost experimental craftsmanship in his willingness, eagerness even, to jump genres. We tend to remember Lumet for his gritty NYC canon, but dude made westerns, musicals, a really good and overlooked British spy thriller (The Deadly Affair, y’all!), a romcom, etc.

Of course, they weren’t all good. His nadir was probably the 1992/93 double-whammy of A Stranger Among Us and the Don Johnson/Rebecca De Mornay dud Guilty as Sin, which answered the question, what would an erotic thriller look like without any discernible eroticism or thrills?

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feel the heat, oh baby

Lumet knew some of these movies stunk, and to his credit, he wasn’t terribly distraught by it. He’d had low points before the 90s (look up his 1968-70 output, if you dare), and he kept a-rollin’, which is part of what I love about him. In his great, plainspoken memoir Making Movies, he recalls watching the rushes of the 1972 James Mason/Beau Bridges boys’ school dud-in-the-making thriller Child’s Play (which really isn’t that bad, for the record):

Whatever I’d seen in the script and throughout the preproduction period simply didn’t exist. Whatever had worked about it as a play remained in the theater. What once appeared scary now seemed totally unthreatening … All I knew is that is was fake, it wasn’t going to work. And I was facing seven more weeks of shooting. And worst of all was the fact that I was the director. So I couldn’t tell anybody. If there was any hope of salvaging a movie out of this mess, everyone needed his [normally ‘sic,’ but actually in this case maybe not?] confidence. I didn’t want to shatter it. There was nothing to do but bite my lip for the next seven weeks and try to make the movie look as professional as possible.

I imagine he felt similarly while shooting Find Me Guilty. It’s not a bad movie, exactly. It gives Vin Diesel a chance to break out of his stoic constipated action guy mode and ham it up a bit as a Jersey gangster on trial, and it’s based on a loopy true story of the longest federal trial in U.S. history, where Jackie DiNorscio fended off federal prosecutor and future SCOTUS asshole Samuel Alito by representing himself (alongside approximately 9000 codefendants, which contributed to the trial’s carnivalesque quality).

The problem is, the whole movie feels like a second-tier TV show, not from the current era of television as a superior art form to film in the U.S., but rather from the old days of cheap sets and quick shoots; it’s like Night Court, but more restrained and less funny. And at 124 minutes, it feels like all 21 months of the trial.

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Still, it’s not as bad as the New York Times declared; it came at the end of Lumet’s long career valley of the 90s, right before his final critical redemption with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and you can kind of feel the paper of record kicking him while he’s down, assigning a fourth-string critic to assert

Unfortunately, the film quickly ducks inside United States District Court in Newark and becomes a claustrophobic and tedious slog through months of courtroom proceedings. Watching it feels a bit like pulling jury duty in Newark or Hackensack.

–on which, I’m not sure why he picked those places (what, jury duty is so fashionable and pleasant in Manhattan, you jerk?), but it does return us, at long last, to Newark—which is where the actual trial ended in 1988 (indeed, much of the evidence for the failed case also came out of an Ironbound mob-front restaurant called the Hole-in-the-Wall, which is such a perfect detail that it’s a shame it’s not in the film).

Alas, this is what basically the entire film looks like:

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It’s set in the Newark courthouse, but actually filmed at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, according to this Instagram post by jerzeymovieman, who worked on the shoot.

Every now and then, but rarely, Lumet cuts to an exterior, so we get fleeting glimpses of Newark from the courthouse (with Essex County College in the background).

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Oh, and here’s Liberty State Park in Jersey City for a single shot, which I only recognize because I’ve been biking there this summer and those damn cobblestone streets are death on pedals…

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Only in the very last scene does Lumet venture outside—which gives it a certain cathartic impact, as we can finally breathe—and woot, there’s Newark, as we look down Market Street from the courthouse toward downtown!

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Ultimately, Find Me Guilty is minor Lumet, minor Newark cinema, and even fairly minor Vin Diesel, who lumbered back into faceless action movies and maybe faked a feud with Dwayne Johnson recently. But it gets some minor props at least for the courthouse verisimilitude (possibly the only time I’ve ever used that term in a non-Teenage Fanclub capacity!). In a different, better world, Lumet might have shot at the Hole-in-the-Wall (which I don’t think exists anymore, though numerous other places in the Ironbound do exist and actually offer real food, at that) too, and given the film some real Newark flavor. I guess I’ll think of it as Lumet throwing Newark a bone after neglecting it in his Gloria.

As a postscript, that same courthouse during protests I’ve attended in 2015 and 2016 (back there in white at the podium is Amina Baraka speaking, powerfully). For the record, #BlackLivesMatter.

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