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Strip Search

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ken Leung in "Strip Search."
left: Sidney Lumet; right: Tom Fontana

Tom Fontana hosts a “lost” Sidney Lumet film as part of Buffalo International Film Festival

Many people count themselves as fans of the films of Sidney Lumet, who died earlier this year at the age of 86. His career spanned 56 years, from television work starting in 1951 through the excellent Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007. Along the way, he made such classic films as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, Fail Safe, and The Pawnbroker.You would have to be a most dedicated fan of Lumet to have seen his 2004 Strip Search, though Buffalonians were more likely than most viewers to have tuned in for its premiere on HBO: It was written by native son Tom Fontana, creator of television dramas like St. Elsewhere, Homicide, and Oz.

And if you didn’t see it that night, you may not have had a chance since. Subsequent screenings of it on HBO were cancelled; it has never been released to DVD. Even for its one showing, HBO reportedly required that it be cut from 120 minutes to 56 minutes.

Strip Search intercuts two parallel sequences of graduate students being interrogated as part of terrorism investigations. The first is an Arab being questioned by an FBI agent (Glenn Close) in Manhattan. The second is an American woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) detained in China. Much of the dialogue is identical for both scenes, in which it the investigators are clearly out to break down the resistance of subjects whose relation to terrorism may only be tenuous.

What scenes were cut from the film and why is unknown. They can’t have been minor, given that they contained the entire performances for the work of such well-known actors as Ellen Barkin, Justin Bartha, Rashida Jones, Estelle Parsons, and Oliver Platt. Why it wasn’t re-shown is easier to guess: Two nights after the first showing, CBS aired the Abu Ghraib photographs of prisoner abuse.

I haven’t seen Strip Search. The description above was compiled from minimal information available on the internet. You can learn a lot more about the film and its fate this Friday evening when it will be shown (reportedly in a 96-minute version) at Buff State’s Rockwell Hall as a pre-opening gala for the Buffalo International Film Festival. Tom Fontana will be there to introduce the film and, presumably, uncover its history. (And if you want to talk to him up close, there are still some tickets left for a pre-screening dinner reception with him; enquire at

Although BIFF doesn’t officially begin until Friday, October 14, there will be two other “pre-opening” events this week, both at The Screening Room. Tuesday brings an encore presentation of Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, the documentary about the architect whose work includes Buffalo’s Guaranty Building. Thursday sees the world premiere of Kumpania, a performance documentary on Flamenco dancing, complete with a live demonstration and tapas after the screening.

Tickets for all BIFF events are available online at For more information about the festival, which runs through October 23, go to

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