HBO is known for being the home of high-quality hour-long dramas, with the boom in such productions down almost entirely to their game-changer The Sopranos. Against big, beefy, multi-season epics like that, it’s perhaps understandable that its 2016 drama The Night Of isn’t quite so well known – but it really should be.
The Night Of is not strictly a crime drama, certainly not in the same way as The Sopranos, but a serious crime is at the core of the narrative, and it deals intimately with the criminal justice system. If you had to classify it, though, you wouldn’t go far wrong in calling it a work of suspense, not least because it bears more than a few similarities to the works of Alfred ‘The Master Of Suspense’ Hitchcock.
Any halfway decent writing about Hitchcock will probably make note of a Freudianly formative incident in his childhood. The young Alf had committed some childish misdemeanour, so his father sent him down the police station with a note telling them to lock him in a cell for five minutes (this being the days when the police were civilians in uniform, rather than seriously likely to Taser little Alf until he lost control of his bladder).
If you’re familiar with Hitchcock’s work, you probably already know how much the world of cinema owes to that moment. A huge amount of Hitchcock’s filmography involves innocent people being threatened with imprisonment for crimes they didn’t commit – and even more gins up tension over guilty people who could be banged up at any moment.
Having a young man wake up to discover his one-night-stand has been stabbed to death is absolutely the kind of lurid subject Hitchcock would have spun a film out of. Indeed, if you put the synopses of his works in a blender it’s not impossible that’s the story it would create.
Here, Riz Ahmed is Nas, our not-guilty man, creditably playing someone who’s little more than a kid six years after he played the definitely-not-as-young husband and father Omar in the deliciously dark comedy Four Lions. The real strength of his performance, though, is in the transformation. Over an ambiguous period of time in Riker’s Island awaiting trial, he – depressingly – grows to fit the mask, going from an innocent vulnerable to the sort of young man you could easily believe would cut someone to pieces.
John Turturro is solid enough as Nas’s lawyer, but it seems like a misfire to grant so much time to the subplot about his horrible skin condition. Yeah, you read that right. It could have so easily been limited to a bellwether for his work-related stress – instead this screwball gross-out stuff becomes the major B-plot, when there are so many other promising strands to choose from. We see Turturro seeking out folk remedies, going to support groups, and gouging himself with a chopstick, all to the exclusion of anything more interesting.
If anything, it’s a light, comedic side-plot – for a given value of ‘light’ and ‘comedic’. And this, too, is something Hitchcock might have done, and in fact did. In his penultimate film Frenzy, the main plot is of course a man falsely suspected of murder, but there’s a minor story thread about the lead investigator’s wife and her awful cooking. Most of her dishes, in fact, end up bearing some resemblance to the latest victim. Like Turturro’s skin, it’s distasteful and unpleasant to look at. But again, by comparison, it is something of a reprieve from everything else that’s going on. With Turturro as co-lead – and a more established name on the credits besides – did they perhaps feel the need to give him something, anything, beyond just being ‘plucky lawyer’?
Tellingly, Turturro joined the project at the disadvantage of being third choice for the role. Originally, it was to have gone to James Gandolfini (who has a posthumous credit as executive producer), and then Robert de Niro, and a few scars remain from the convoluted transition process. Seeing Turturro exchange threats with other potential culprits seems slightly off, but when you imagine the burlier figure of Gandolfini doing that it suddenly makes a lot more sense. Mercifully, Turturro acquits himself perfectly well when the show takes things courtside.
I first heard of The Night Of many years late through a The Wire fan group, and sure enough those who enjoyed that show are a ready-made audience for this one. There’s a few familiar faces, like Michael Kenneth Williams and Darnell ‘J.D.’ Williams (no relation), and like Dominic West and Idris Elba before him, Riz Ahmed is a Brit putting on a convincing American accent.
More than that, though, like The Wire this features a full-blown institution so intimately that it might as well be a character of its own. A florid way to put it? Not really. Like The Wire, here, while these institutions are made up of people, they are also very much more than the sum of their parts, and we find them pursuing their own ends and goals.
While The Night Of never feels like direct, ham-handed social commentary, given the subject matter it’s hard not to take some criticism of the justice system from it. Key to this is the conga of dehumanisation Nas goes through while merely accused: stripped naked, interrogated, and shipped off to Riker’s Island. At which point things become a typically gritty prison drama while, again, he is merely awaiting trial and has been convicted of no crime.
‘Gritty’ and ‘realistic’ are terms which get tossed around like beanbags for a certain sort of HBO show, but here they’re definitely merited. As would be the term ‘procedural’, which in the media is usually the province of murderer-of-the-week detective dramas, rather than productions like this one which actually follow the procedures of the police and courts.
And while Nas himself has a terrible time of it, it’s not just him – there’s a ripple effect to it. His parents suffer, as their taxicab is seized as evidence the very moment when they suddenly need to hire a lawyer. His community suffers, with wider New York, still far from being over 9/11, being quick to blame all Muslims for the death of a white girl.
These ripple effects percolate throughout. Tiny, throwaway moments in the electric first episode come back to haunt everyone involved, resurfacing to be analysed and dissected in court. When we see a camera’s-eye-view of Nas going through the Midtown Tunnel, you already find yourself imagining that the footage will come up again.
As with The Wire, while there are some eminently hateable figures present, there is no real villain of The Night Of – no, not even the justice system. And not even the various other suspects for the murder at the heart of it all, who are none of them good eggs, but neither are they antagonists in the true sense. Nas’s true enemy is some terrible, terrible luck.
This is a decidedly glass-half-empty view of the world. And, sure enough, New York has never looked so bleak. For much of it we are of course occupying hemmed-in state-run facilities, but even outside the justice system everywhere seems to be in greyscale, or otherwise washed-out islands of artificial light after dark. This, too, gives it all a rather Hitchcockian feel, as many of his greatest works were noirish creations of black-and-white (mostly of necessity, but some, such as Psycho, by choice).
The Night Of never gets more energetic than its first episode, wherein we see how the titular night plays out – and it borders on the farcical. Pretty much everything which can go wrong for Nas does. Here is where it’s at its most Hitchcockian. We, and Nas, end up one small step ahead of the police, knowing at any second they may pounce on him, which puts the whole affair under nigh-unbearable tension. When the other shoe finally drops it is at once tragedy, relief, and punchline.
Uncle Alf’s falsely condemned men (yes, ‘men’, the women were invariably guilty as sin) rarely if ever had their day in court. Most of the time they weren’t even arrested, going on the run instead, and when eventually exonerated it was because the real culprit had been caught or killed.
This was a distinctly more cinematic and less realistic approach than The Night Of – but it must be remembered that Hitch’s main concern was never realism, and he was working in two-hour blocks, rather than the eight hour-long episodes of The Night Of. Film tends towards less open-ended narratives than the bigger, more complex stories HBO is known for, and The Night Of is no exception to that.
The looming suspense of the wider story – will Nas be convicted or not? – cannot quite compare to the immediate, heart-pounding suspense of that first episode, a question of whether he will be caught or not. Can you be caught for something you didn’t do? Well, yes, all too clearly. Wrongful arrests and convictions do take place, this is a matter of public record.
But even Hitch himself probably couldn’t have stretched Nas’s initial limbo state out for any longer. It’s tight as a drum anyway. To string it out any further would quickly become, at best, unnatural. Hitchcock once pithily noted that ‘The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder’ – and the makers of The Night Of, too, know when to call it time.
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