ŇOf Course He Knows That.Ó

 

An Ethical Review-Essay

 

by Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

There was a TV series on A&E back in 2001-2002 called 100 Centre Street. It didnŐt last very long. Perhaps it was a casualty of 9/11, but it would probably have died anyway. It had neither the gutsy appeal of NYPD Blue nor the brain candy of CSI. It was about the everyday trials and tribulations of Judge Joe Rifkind and his friends and colleagues at an arraignment court in downtown Manhattan. It was gritty and, at its best, riveting Đ but too heartbreaking for the mass audience.

The show attracted a lot of attention because it was produced by Sidney Lumet, who had been an icon of enlightened filmmaking since directing the classic 12 Angry Men (1957), and later directed such admired films on themes of justice as Serpico (1973) Prince of the City (1981) and Q&A (1990). I saw only a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, partly because I thought that, for all its good intentions in exploring the problems of the criminal justice system, it had gone wrong from the very start.

Rifkind (Alan Arkin) is a former cop, now a liberal judge known for cutting just about any offender a break -- people call him Let Ôem Go Joe. In the first episode, he turns loose a young punk whoŐs been brought in for turnstile jumping. No big deal, right? But this punk turns around and attempts an armed robbery, during which he kills a rookie policewoman – the daughter of RifkindŐs former partner Kevin Sullivan. There's a public uproar; the media have a field day, and there are demonstrations and calls for his impeachment. Did Rifkind act unreasonably in releasing the punk? Maybe, but not necessarily: how could he know a turnstile jumper would turn cop killer? ItŐs a tragic and very moving situation. Lumet, who wrote and directed the episode, didnŐt make a mistake there.

Where he did make a mistake was in a scene where he has Rifkind visit the home of Sullivan (Don Billett), the cop who has just lost his daughter. Rifkind hasn't seen Sullivan in years Đ he has to call his precinct to find out where he's living, But once she shows up at the door, Kevin embraces him warmly. "We're friends, Joe, best friends." And his daughter Megan, cut down her first night on the job? She knew what she was getting into: "Cops die. It happens."

What? This manŐs daughter has just been murdered by the punk Joe Rifkind set free. No way is he going to take that philosophically. It doesnŐt matter how long he and Joe have known each other. It doesn't matter how deep their friendship has been. It doesnŐt matter that Joe couldnŐt have foreseen what was going to happen. Kevin would want to bash his fucking head in; at the very least heŐd scream at Joe Đ which is indeed what his son Mike (Michael Radrock), also a cop, does.

The tragedy is real. The reaction is false, totally false.

Remember the 1988 presidential debate, in which Michael Dukakis was asked how he'd feel about the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered? Dukakis tried to give a reasoned argument for his opposition to the death penalty -- and that may well have cost him the election. What he should have said was that he'd want to kill the son of a bitch, as any man would, but that he couldn't let that sway him on a matter of principle.

Dukakis wanted to appear reasonable. Lumet wanted Kevin Sullivan to appear reasonable. But there are times when it is unreasonable to expect people to be reasonable. Lumet forgot that, and compromised the debut episode of his own series.

Good drama is the stuff of raw emotion, but that raw emotion can be remarkably subtle. Where Lumet erred by suppressing the release of violent emotion, David Lean created an unforgettable scene by keeping that same kind of emotion in check.

Lean's Brief Encounter (1946), based on a Noel Coward play, is the story of Alec (Trevor Howard), a married doctor, and contented housewife Laura (Celia Johnson), who meet by chance one day in a train station tea room. That chance encounter leads to a series of deliberate ones -- their train schedules happen to coincide once a week -- as Alec and Laura fall in love.

Both have children as well as spouses; they can't bear to hurt their families, and yet they can't bear to be apart. And so they meet furtively, at the tea room, at other restaurants, at the cinema. These are gentle, decent people, yet caught in a romantic passion that lights up the screen even though it never -- as it no doubt inevitably would if the film were remade today -- leads to the bedroom.

Lean tells the story as a series of flashbacks, with voiceovers by Laura telling her husband in her imagination what she could never tell him in reality. And thus the first scene is actually the last in their doomed relationship. Alec is leaving for Africa, as much to make a clean break with Laura as out of idealism. They are meeting again where they first met, in the train station tea room. This will be their last chance to see each other, ever.

Only they are interrupted by a gossipy casual acquaintance of Laura, Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), who plops herself down next to the couple -- ruining their final time together with endless trivial chatter.  Alex and Laura are, as I said, gentle, decent people. But in that agonizing moment, we know they'd like to kill Dolly ("I wish you were dead," Laura thinks to herself at the time.).

We'd think the less of them if they actually did so, and yet we'd also think the less of them if they didn't want to. That's part of being human, and in Lean's film, that's part of the drama of being human. We can understand why Alec and Laura act, or don't act as they do, whereas we couldn't understand Kevin in 100 Centre Street.

Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum) a ranch hand in Lewis Milestone's film version of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony (1949) understands that -- understands it better than Fred (Sheppard Strudwick) and Alice (Myrna Loy) Tiflin, parents of the boy Tom (Peter Miles) whose love and loss of a pony is the emotional center of the story.

 The ranch belongs to Tom's maternal grandfather (Louis Calhern), an old geezer who talks obsessively about pioneer days and drives his son-in-law crazy with it. Fred doesn't know anything about ranching, and doesn't think he has any real future in it. Moreover, he resents that his son looks up to Billy Buck, "a real cowboy," more than to him.

When Fred gives Tom a pony to get back into his son's life, the emotional stakes are raised. Tom becomes obsessively devoted to the red pony Galiban, around which he builds all his childish fantasies of being a master of horses like Billy Buck. But the pony is prone to getting loose from the barn, and takes sick after roaming out in a storm.

Billy Buck does his best to save Galiban's life, but he gets loose again, wandering through the rainswept acres. When Tom finds him the next morning, he's already dead and buzzards have begun to feed on the body. As Fred and Billy Buck arrive, they see the boy fighting one of the buzzards with his bare hands. Fred can't understand that; doesn't Tom know it wasn't the buzzards' fault?

"Of course he knows that," Billy Buck upbraids him.

Of course he knows. He knows it wasn't Billy Buck's fault, either, even though he lashes out at him too. He knows he's acting crazy, but sometimes acting crazy is the only way to release pain.

Sidney Lumet didn't allow Kevin Sullivan to go crazy when he should have in 100 Centre Street. David Lean restrained Alec and Laura in Brief Encounter, but we can understand why and sympathize. Milestone and Steinbeck (who wrote the screenplay) let Tom explode in The Red Pony, and again we can understand and sympathize.

In a world that often seems overrun with madness, from child abuse to terrorism, we are so in need of the sweet voice of reason that we forget that sometimes we have the right to be irrational – when we are faced with situations so painfully irrational that we cannot cope with them rationally. And yet we canŐt use such pain as an excuse, we must not exercise that right lightly. One of the things that drama can do is help us understand when we truly have that right – and when we donŐt.

March 5, 2006