Film Studies: We don't want justice, we want entertainment - just ask Sidney...

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Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty is sweet and unexpected, and brave enough to open in the week that sees the start of the sixth series of The Sopranos here in the US - a series that has been promised as the last. Much of the surprise is that Lumet will be 82 this June. It was in 1957 that he made his directing debut with 12 Angry Men, set entirely in a New York City jury room.

In the decades since, Lumet has shown great versatility (Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Group, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Equus and Running on Empty). Still, he might admit that trials and police procedure were his meat and drink - as witness Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Q & A, and Night Falls on Manhattan.

Yet now he has shrugged off the robes of gravity and given us a comic courtroom picture, one in which the protagonist, a small-time goodfella named Jackie DiNorscio, elects to defend himself, warning the jury, "I'm not a gangster, I'm a gagster."Based on fact (it all happened in the late Eighties), this is an account of the longest trial ever in New York (21 months), in which a family gathering of small-time crooks were all found "not guilty". This Capra-esque movie would have us believe that the jury returned that warm, forgiving verdict because the prosecution were austere, mean and humourless (the English actor Linus Roache has been cast as the district attorney to underline those qualities); and because the jury, as well as the film's audience, proved suckers for the rowdy "love" among the accused, and because DiNorscio had enough showbiz instinct to dramatise that contrast.

I don't mean to exaggerate the power of Find Me Guilty. It is not in the same class as The Verdict or Dog Day Afternoon. But Mr Lumet has managed to curb the vulgarity of his lead player, Vin Diesel, and draw from him a real performance. It's plain that Lumet could shoot court-room stuff in his sleep and make it compelling. And, in this era of The Sopranos, he has evidently had great fun filling out a large, boisterous cast with Italian-Americans. So the white-haired kingpin with a very nasty streak is played by Alex Rocco, best remembered for his flamboyant Moe Greene in The Godfather. The judge is Ron Silver, one of Lumet's favourites. And DiNorscio's sulky ex-wife is Annabella Sciorra, who has the capacity to be a gorgeous, poker-faced witch whether she's in Law and Order as a detective who talks to herself, or here, as a woman who knows Jackie's every trick, but still can't resist him.

It's a crime film of a rare and winning kind in which we do not doubt that many laws have been broken by "our guys", but we can't help falling for them. Wisely, Lumet doesn't employ a Henry Fonda figure in a white suit to deliver the lugubrious message, "Look, these men, though 99-per-cent certain felons, deserve a fair trial by a sentimental jury." Capra might have spelled out the moral necessity of these rascals being found innocent for the sake of the constitution. Lumet is too old or too amused to bother with righteousness. He elects to adhere to a strategy he's demonstrated before: that showmanship is more valuable than righteousness if you mean to win a court case.

So the mood is gently subversive and anti-authoritarian, and the dynamic surely needs the seething extremism of Roache's prosecutor. The audience watching the film, I suspect, would just as soon see every one of the accused locked up until pension age, rather than have them living in their neighbourhood. But that is at the heart of our ambiguous feelings about the thing we call Cosa Nostra. And it's a puzzle that looms large with the return of The Sopranos. (I won't spoil that for you, but in episode one of the sixth and final series Tony takes a bullet from the least likely enemy in view.)

After two episodes of the new series, I'd say that its creator David Chase is solemnly thinking Big, Dark Thoughts, getting ready for the slaughterhouse of the finale. Not too many of the family, or our hopes, are going to be left to walk away. Of course, Mr Chase has his own mixed feelings: such as, what does he do after The Sopranos, and if the series is a cash cow for him and HBO, why bring it to a close yet? Why not keep the dysfunctional family bumping along?

But there's a moralist and a grand dramatist in Mr Chase, as well as the certainty that The Sopranos is his masterwork. In which case, to echo a great line from The Godfather Part II, uttered by Kay Corleone, "All this must end, Michael!" What that means is not just that the Sopranos must meet justice or savage ends, but that we, the happy surrogate members of this wicked family, must at last own up and turn in our soiled fantasy life.

Maybe. After three Godfather films, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) was left in agony with a dead daughter in his arms. What could be worse, the film tried to ask. But this is a man who had killed a brother already. What could be worse would be losing half an ounce of the respect that his world owes to him. What could be worse in Find Me Guilty is if Jackie DiNorscio's jokes fall flat. They don't.

We love the way a high court has turned into a stand-up comedy club. We know that that old Jersey-Italian style kills on television, but is rather tasteless in real life. And we know that organised crime moved up in the world. It sent its sons to business school. It contributed to charity and the political parties. It paid its taxes and it did nothing more obviously immoral than those big businesses which were encouraged by an administration that loves all corporations. You see, that criminal element came through because it was organised - and America would always prefer a plan to chaos.

That's why Find Me Guilty is so close to our addled morality, in that it knows the interests of justice are best served by an entertaining day in court.