A Stranger Among Us

Another fine director, Sidney Lumet, hits the shoals in this cop-out-of-water story set in New York's Hasidic Jewish community. The cop in question is Emily Eden (Melanie Griffith), a trigger-happy maverick assigned to investigate the case of a missing diamond dealer. But when the young jeweler is found murdered, with nearly a million in diamonds missing, Eden goes undercover as a Jew to catch the killer.

Casting the babyvoiced Griffith as a hard case is a major miscalculation. But the script, by Robert J. Avrech (Body Double), is an even greater burden. Lumet's no-bull New York sensibility clashes repeatedly with Avrech's romance-novel mawkishness. No sooner does Eden lengthen her skirts and lower her heels than she's falling for Ariel (Eric Thal), the handsome son of the grand rebbe (Lee Richardson) and a future rebbe himself. Sex is against the rules for Ariel, so naturally Eden rises to the challenge. Never mind that Nick (Jamey Sheridan), Eden's wounded cop boyfriend, wants to marry her. "You've got chutxpah," she tells him, showing off her new-found Yiddish. Nick doesn't know the word. This from two Big Apple cops! Don't they watch television?

The whodunit angle is similarly lame. Eden knows it's an inside job, so it's just a matter of choosing from the rebbe, Ariel, Ariel's sister Leah (Mia Sara) and Mara (Tracy Pollan), the dead man's fiancTe. If you can't pick the culprit in five minutes, you really don't watch television.

Lumet fares best when he just lets Andrzej Bartkowiak's camera take in the rituals of Hasidic life. It's a rich background for a movie, as shown by David Mamet's Homicide. But whereas Mamet probed spirituality, Avrech merely uses it for atmosphere. Chutzpah, indeed.

From The Archives Issue 287: March 22, 1979