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TNR Film Classic: 'Q & A' (1990)

Uncivil wars.



There are fashions in slurs. When I was a schoolboy in New York in the 1920s, just at the end of the great wave of immigration to America, most of the slurs were national. Derogatory terms for Swedes, Irishmen, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, and Greeks, among others, were common; and of course each derogated group used slurs about the others. As time moved, as second and third generations were born, national slurring diminished.

Three other derogations that were current then—national, supranational, and racial—still flourish: Italian, Jewish, and black. To these have been added Hispanic slurs. They existed seventy years ago, but they were not nearly as common as they are today, after the postwar influx of Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans.

This persistence of racism worries Sidney Lumet, who is Jewish and has been married to a black woman. (Their daughter is in his new film.) What bothers him especially is that racism is now so ingrained that people sometimes don’t even know they are thinking and speaking in racist terms. To dramatize this fungoid state of mind, Lumet has made Q & A (Tri-Star).

The milieu is the law—the homicide division of the New York district attorney’s office and the police department. Lumet himself adapted the screenplay from a novel by a Hispanic judge in New York, Edwin Torres. The plot is, in essence, very familiar, but so much has been done on film and in TV in this milieu that hope for novelty is probably forlorn. All depends on how and why the territory is re-entered. With his concern about racism, Lumet makes a pretty good case.

Once again the basic conflict, is between a rogue cop, maniacally homicidal, and honest lawmen (as in Internal Al. fairs, for instance). As usual, the rogue has a long and lauded career, and his challenger—in this case an assistant DA—is a relative newcomer. At the start, the veteran, a detective named Brennan, contrives a setup so that he can conveniently kill a Hispanic drug dealer. A young assistant DA named Reilly is brought in by his office’s homicide chief, named Quinn, to sweep the Brennan matter under the carpet. Quinn reminds the young man that Reilly père was a splendid cop and that they must now work together to restore the days of New York’s Finest.

Obviously the under-the-carpet sweeping isn’t going to work, or there would be no picture. Young Reilly uncovers complications. They wind through a network of drug-dealing Hispanics and Mafia connections, and they include a Jewish shyster and a liberal Jewish DA—with the Irish contingent as the background of it all. Racial matters are tangled further when the Hispanic drug overlord turns up with a girlfriend who once had a passionate love affair with young Reilly, an affair that she broke off when she saw his reaction to the discovery that her father was black. Further tangle: two hit, men, hired by the overlord, are Cuban, Jews. When a Mafia capo hears this, he laughs and says, “What does that mean? No hits on Saturday?”

The very first thing we see in Q & A is a traffic light up close, as we look down on a dark street across which Brennan and another man walk toward a Hispanic social club. That shot, helped by the music of Rubén Blades, establishes the tenor of the film immediately: this will be a cunning use of the usual ingredients of crime stories, dark streets as ominous, the mere facts of the city as threats. Lumet is on track, we feel at once, and so is his longtime collaborator, Andrzej Bartkowiak, the cinematographer. Bartkowiak supports the film throughout with wonderful sheets of varied light—in soul-chilling police offices, gay nightclubs, luxe San Juan hotels.

Another element soon looms even larger. The film glides along tot its first twenty minutes or so, leaning on—even benefiting by—our familiarity with the genre, as we watch how smoothly the motor of the police-lawyer-criminal machine is slipped into gear. Then we realize that something more than the well-oiled mechanism is holding us. The acting. The film is cast with diamond-point accuracy, and Lumet, always especially good when working with good actors, has brought performances from them that have color and dimension beyond those in the fairly conventional roles themselves.

This is even true to some extent of Timothy Hutton as young Reilly. Hutton is no one’s idea of a commanding talent, but Lumet makes the most of his limited force in a role meant to show us how old-time iron will has rusted into mere good intent. Jenny Lumet, the director’s daughter, plays Hutton’s ex-girlfriend in a repressed-hysteric vein recognizable to every acting student, but she does it effectively enough.

The others are so strong that they give us the extra pleasure, beyond what they say and do, of reveling in main-line American realism. Nick Nolte, sporting a mule-skinner’s mustache as Brennan, hulks along like a mad bull, a man who has converted his convictions—about the deterioration of the police and the city—into a rationale for savagery. Armand Assante, as the Hispanic drug king, is superb. Two things have long been clear about Assante: he has outsize talent, and he needs a knowing director. When he doesn’t have one, he splatters. Here, helped by Lumet, he portrays a man whose life is bravura and who stars in the show. It’s a fine piece of histrionics-as-character.

Patrick O’Neal, the chief DA in the case, is so oily that he seems to pour across the screen. Charles Dutton, now on Broadway in The Piano Lesson, plays a detective with a chesty calm that shows he has more resources than the steam-engine ebullience he often delivers on stage. Luiz Guzman, his sidekick, plays his role straight yet also manages to give it the air of a Puerto Rican commedia dell’arte character. Lee Richardson, memorable in a brief appearance as a seasoned reporter in Lumet’s Daniel, here gives wearied, humane richness to a liberal DA.

Lumet’s screenplay is subject to fits of not-quite-fresh dialogue. Also, on some occasions when a bit of vulgarity is in order, he opens the tap, as in a story that Nolte tells near the beginning and in his harassment of a gay hooker. And there is a romantic postlude, after the real ending of the film, that is limp. But most of the screenplay is serviceable. Its best aspect is that not one word is said in it about racism: it just is racist, centrally and tangentially. It begins with a murder based on the idea of an inferior race, and as it untangles, it discloses several other kinds of clannishness. There’s no rosy promise of improvement at the end.

Lumet has a gift for seeing New York, inside and out—particularly when he has Bartkowiak’s camera, as here and in Serpico and Prince of the City. If you want glossy New York, see Woody Allen’s Manhattan. If you want the New York that makes people’s faces look the way they do in the subway, see Lumet.

The news of Garbo’s death had a strange effect on me. When Fredric March or Ingrid Bergman or Henry Fonda died, I felt the loss of a human being who had given me much. But this was not the end of a human being: it was oxymoronic—the death of a myth. A figure who had never been quite real lost her unreal existence. It was as if the newspaper had announced the death of Atalanta or Ariadne.

This article originally ran in the May 21, 1990, issue of the magazine.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.