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The main story covers a time period of approximately twenty-four hours. In a prologue, Clive Owen as "Dalton Russell," appears in close-up, directly addressing the camera before a black background. As he explains that a cell is not necessarily a prison, he is briefly shown reading and exercising within a cramped cell-like area, and as he admits to executing a "perfect" bank robbery, the black background changes to reveal a cement block wall moving toward him from behind. Stating that he never repeats himself and warning to listen carefully to his words, Russell raises the question of how he accomplished the robbery by paraphrasing William Shakespeare: "And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub."
The opening credits then commence over images of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The first image is of a van parked beside the famous Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, which the Los Angeles Times review suggested is a clue to the "wild ride" the filmmakers had in store for the audience. Other shots of street scenes and highways appear through the windows of the moving van, as the driver heads toward the bank, picking up members of the gang along the way.
Throughout the film there are brief flashbacks, flash forwards and fantasy sequences that interrupt the main storyline and disorient the audience, stylistically emulating the disorientation that the hostages and police feel during the robbery. For example, the bank robbery is frequently intercut with short scenes of the hostages in post-crisis interrogations with Denzel Washington as "Detective Keith Frazier" and Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Detective Bill Mitchell." At one point, as "Captain John Darius" (Willem Dafoe) and his men are discussing ways to storm the bank building, several of the ideas the men suggest are dramatized as brief fantasy sequences. One of these shows Russell being shot to death inside the vault in a flurry of bullets that scatters stacks of currency. Throughout the film misleading clues are presented to the audience, such as recurring shots of the robbers digging a hole, presumably for an escape or hiding place, but which is later revealed to be a temporary latrine for Russell's use while in hiding.
Late in the film, Russell again speaks to the camera from the cell-like room, repeating much of his dialogue from the first scene. In a reversal of the prologue, as he speaks, the cement wall moves back and reverts to the black background. Through a brief montage narrated by Russell, the audience learns that his accomplices built the cell for him behind a false wall in the storage room. Russell's voice continues as he admits that his motivation was money, but that "respect is the ultimate currency." At various times in the film, to indicate turmoil in a character, Lee affects a variant of the camera trick used as Russell speaks in the cell. Using Frazier and, at another point, "Arthur Case" (Christopher Plummer), as the subjects, Lee maintains a steady, close-up image of the actor, while the background moves rapidly behind him. As described by the March 2006 Entertainment Weekly review, the technique, which has become known as Lee's signature shot, makes the actor appear "to float while the world zooms behind him."
End credits begin with a shot of a clapper board marking the commencement of a scene by Washington. A brief montage of the individual actors is then presented, with their names superimposed, followed by the complete cast of characters and production crew. A list of acknowledgments and "special thanks" follows. The last few frames contain the logo of Lee's company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which includes the phrases "Ya dig," "Sho nuff" and "By any means necessary."
Inside Man was the first produced script by former lawyer Russell Gewirtz. As noted in August 2003 Daily Variety and March 2006 Los Angeles Times news items, Daniel M. Rosenberg, who is credited onscreen as executive producer, is a friend of Gewirtz and spent a year assisting in the script's development. According to August 2002 Variety and Daily Variety news items, producer Brian Grazer, joint owner with director Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment, co-purchased the script of Inside Man with Universal Pictures. Lee states in his DVD commentary that Howard left the project after he was approached by Russell Crowe to direct Cinderella Man (2005). A June 2003 Hollywood Reporter news item, which named Universal executives Scott Stuber and Donna Langley as overseeing the project, reported that writer-director Menno Meyjes was, at that time, in negotiations to direct the film.
In a March 2006 Los Angeles Times article, Grazer related that he had been interested in working with Lee since the director's 1989 picture Do the Right Thing, and was discussing a different project with him, when Lee, who had acquired and read the script independently, asked to film it. The article quoted Grazer as saying that the deal was sealed just after Lee told him, "Brian, I promise you'll have a good time on this."
Although Inside Man is one of the rare Lee-directed films that he neither wrote nor co-wrote, in a March 2006 Los Angeles Times article, Gewirtz stated that a few changes were made by Lee to his original script. Although an April 2005 Hollywood Reporter news item gave Meyjes credit for co-writing the screenplay, the extent of Meyjes' contribution to the completed film has not been determined. In his DVD commentary, Lee stated that writer-director Terry George added the Nazi and diamond ring elements to the script.
Inside Man began production on June 27, 2005 and, according to an American Cinematographer article, shot for forty-three days. The film marked the fourth in which Lee directed Washington. According to Lee's DVD commentary, when he offered Washington his choice of roles, the actor turned down Russell because the character appears masked throughout most of the film. According to production notes, British actor Owen also had qualms about appearing disguised in sunglasses and mask, and so the script was revised to include sequences in which his character's face could be shown. The actors prepared for the film by screening several New York-based heist films, according to the production notes. Washington, Dafoe and the British-born Ejiofor worked with consultants from the New York Police Department and with other New York policemen, especially those who had been involved in hostage situations.
A June 2005 Daily Variety news item, which named Kristin Lowe as one of the Universal executives overseeing the project, reported that the studio and Lee would shoot the film at the Steiner Studios, located at Brooklyn's historic Navy Yard, and make use of a new tax incentive package that New York City and state offered to encourage local film production. Although sequences set in the Manhattan Trust Bank's basement were shot at Steiner, according to Lee's DVD commentary, the lobby scenes were shot at a former bank building at the corner of Exchange and Hanover Place within sight of Wall Street.
According to production notes and Lee's DVD commentary, telephone conversations between Russell and Frazier were shot using two cameras simultaneously filming the actors performing on two different sets of the soundstage, a technique Lee had used in previous films. The DVD commentary also mentioned that the final confrontation Frazier has with White and the mayor was added after principal production, in order to make it more clear to the audience that Frazier intended to continue investigating the provenance of the ring.
According to the same source, other location sites used were the former Immigration Building in Battery Park for a vestibule outside the mayor's office and Case's office, and the Four Seasons Hotel. Within the film there are many shots of New York landmarks, among them the historic Trinity Church and a 9/11 mural commemorating the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Local New York television reporters portrayed the reporters in the film, and the dialogue contains numerous references to New York City and its slang, as well as references to the New York Knicks basketball team, of which Lee is a well-known and devoted fan. In the March 2006 Los Angeles Times article, screenwriter Gewirtz applauded Lee's enhancement of the New York ambience in the final film.
Also in the story are many homages to older films, particularly previous police and hostage dramas. In his audio commentary, Lee related that leaving vague exactly what was contained in the document bearing the Nazi symbol was a tribute to director Alfred Hitchcock's celebrated plot device, the "MacGuffin." Early in Inside Man there is a mention of the 1975 Sidney Lumet picture Dog Day Afternoon, which also centered on a bank heist and hostage situation and is, according to production notes for Inside Man, one of Lee's favorite films. Actress Marcia Jean Kurtz, who portrayed a hostage named "Miriam" in the earlier film, portrays the hostage Miriam Douglas in Inside Man. Lionel Pina, who portrayed a pizza delivery man in Dog Day Afternoon, appears in Inside Man as one of the policemen who delivers the pizzas to the bank's door.
Among other works mentioned is another Lumet film, Serpico (1973), and the popular 1970s television series Kojak. The trumpet theme by Jerry Goldsmith from the 1970 Twentieth Century-Fox release Patton (see below) is played on the soundtrack when the police enter the bank building, and "Sal's Famous Pizzeria," the name appearing on the pizza boxes delivered to the bank robbers, was the fictional pizza parlor in Lee's 1989 Universal film Do the Right Thing.
Many reviews noted that Inside Man was a departure from Lee's previous works, in that it is his "most mainstream studio venture" (Variety) and the "least overtly personal" of his films (New York Times). However, as noted in a March 2006 Los Angeles Times article, Inside Man still offers Lee's "pointed observations about ethnicity and society." For example, when the Sikh hostage, "Vikram Walia" (Waris Ahluwalia), is released in order to present Russell's demands, the police gunmen mistake him for an Arab, confiscate his turban and treat him with hostility. Later, when Walia is being interviewed by Frazier and complains about his treatment, not only by police, but people in general, Frazier blithely responds, "I bet you can get a cab."
The soundtrack for Inside Man continues Lee's vision of diversity. The unexpected sound of A. R. Rahman's "Chaiyya Chaiyya," which originally appeared in the 1998 Mani Ratnam Indian film Dil Se.., is played over the opening credits in a version re-orchestrated by Terence Blanchard. When the song is reprised during the end credits, it is remixed with Panjabi MC's added rap lyrics about people of different backgrounds coming together in order to survive.
Inside Man was selected as one of AFI's Movies of the Year;
Grazer and Washington were nominated, respectively, for a Black Movie Award for Outstanding Motion Picture and Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role and Lee won the Black Movie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Directing. According to news items, Lee is planning an unnamed sequel to Inside Man, but as of January 2007 has yet to announce if the story will feature the same actors or characters.