In Prince of the City (1981; dir. Sidney Lumet), everything about drug enforcement is crooked—and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. At 167 minutes, the movie posits a dark truth: without dirty, compromised police, judges, and lawyers, nothing turns. Dopers and pushers don’t get supplied, and the men who pinch them can’t uphold the law. Everyone is in it for themselves. The junkies want to get high, and the cops want to wet their beaks, advancing their careers by criminalizing offenders.
Tough stuff, and (you might think, given Lumet’s pedigree [cf. his other New York police thrillers, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Q&A]) the basis for something raw, exciting, and ‘real.’
Sadly, though, the movie only starts and ends strong. Couched in a long midsection is an agonizing amount of detail, an exhausting series of developments that I suppose Lumet had wanted to serve as a kind of trial of endurance akin to what the protagonist, cop-turned-informant Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), suffers.
Ciello is true-blue, a guy who loves being a detective. The kid brother of the fraternal Special Investigative Unit (SIU) in NYPD’s Narcotics Division, he gets off on the thrill of the chase, of nabbing bad guys. So-called “princes of the city,” the SIU is an elite squad. With no set hours or streets they have to beat, they essentially freelance, and the drug money they find they, in whole or in part, confiscate amongst themselves. An ends-justify-the-means self-reward for the dangerous and punishing work they do, keeping their zonked informants juiced at all hours, planting evidence, and straight-up lying on the stand. After a crisis of conscience, Ciello finds himself drawn, then admitting his own conduct, to a sympathetic D.A. investigating corrupt cops. Ciello keeps biting, agreeing to go undercover, just so long as his friends in the SIU aren’t booked. The floodgates open. Soon, teams of ambitious lawyers get to nibbling, and (over the course of 16 hellish months) Ciello finds himself a nerve-wracked pariah at the center of an internal investigation that seeps into the lives of each of his partners in the SIU. What’s on the menu for them? Death, betrayal, and disgrace. Like that. Not only does Ciello hurt most the ones he loves (a happenstance which lands him in the federal witness protection program), he doesn’t know who or what to believe anymore.
And it’s a topsy-turvy, urban wilderness out there. Mob guys look out for him, pushers and hangers-on cut deals to save their own necks (shitting on the good will Ciello might’ve had with them), fellow officers target him, and some of the legal eagles he’d first turned to in his misguided play for absolution try to prosecute him. Through this vast gritty jungle, rats turning on rats, Ciello becomes an oh-so vexed creature of torment. This cannot, and does not, end well.
As I said, tough stuff; and Lumet deserves kudos for the way he marshals a large rotating cast and the many (unsurprising) turns of the plot. I kept track without squinting to concentrate. The mood of the piece is sustained, too. A creeping gloom punctuates the film, and certain moments (especially the rainy sequence where Ciello lights out in the middle of the night to make sure his informant gets a fix) are taut. Lumet isn’t flashy. He trades every whiff of pyrotechnical jujitsu that might have tempted him for what is a non-fussy style. Those viewers who expect (let alone want) a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, grand slam of tense action set pieces and cokey energy should steer clear. This is not that sort of movie. Lumet is more interested in how unrousing this all is; in the idea of what happens when a decent but flawed public servant tries to do the right thing, how he sees his life and career freefall as the bureaucratic noose around him slowly tightens. All because of the politics of the culture in which he makes his bread.
Prince of the City is an unrelieved downer. Should I find fault with it, I’d point to just how freaking serious it is. We need more scenes of Ciello enjoying his job, of him palling around with the other detectives. Of them lording over their domain and the perks this trade brings. Lumet sets this up, but he’s out so quick it’s a cheat. Well, a cheat it is, because the picture drags, even sags, in its second hour when the bureaucratic whirlwind hits Ciello. We can do without the extraneous detail surrounding the ins and outs of how Ciello becomes a mere pawn in the D.A. game. By then, we know his goose is cooked. Yet Lumet doesn’t spend as much time as he should homing in on the relationships Ciello has with his colleagues. They don’t convince as a merry band of mooks with badges, close beyond compare. Lumet and co-scenarist Jay Presson Allen (of Cabaret fame) skirt these fraternal ties, the nexus of Ciello’s tragedy. They’re more taken with how much of a cog he is; how hypocritical (and yes, self-knowingly hypocritical) these public servants are—what the cost of ethics is. For a movie this dark and fraught, with its heart in the right place, a gaping hole exists where its dramatic heart beats.
And Ciello remains problematic. He’s an intriguing hero, a regular Joe who loves his job and believes in its cause and the band of guys with whom he teams. He wants to protect his family, yet he takes part in corruption. On paper, he should be a compelling character. Likeability as a character virtue is overrated, anyway; but then it hit me. I don’t much care for Ciello because of Ciello (in my view, it doesn’t add up that he should be so trusting), but chiefly because of Treat Williams.
That’s the key issue. Williams is in nearly every scene. He’s wired for action, handsome and brooding; and overall, he does fine work. But Lumet indulges William’s tendency to chew the scenery. Call it bravura acting all you want—here’s a performance where, depending on the scene, you may not be sure whether the fact that we recognize Williams ACTS (sinking his teeth into certain lines and moments with all he’s got) is to be confused with the overheated, nervy vibe Ciello leaves behind him like a greasy stink. Still, at his worst, Williams’ approach is mannered—over-doing, in a sense, the emotional crisis from which his character spins. I found it a touch too ornate, so tortured that it borders on parody. It clashes with Lumet’s pseudo-docu-realistic schemata. (Unless, of course, Lumet intentionally toned other elements to give Williams more breathing room as a would-be Oscar nominee and Star of the first rank. I over-analyze.)
Thank God, then, Lumet treats us to a great supporting cast. All of them—but Jerry Orbach (as the no-nonsense Gus Levy, one of Ciello’s closest friends and comrades) in particular—give this New York tragedy a shot in the arm. Standouts that help jog the picture along include Lindsay Crouse as Ciello’s long-suffering wife, Bob Balaban as a federal prosecutor, and Michael Tolkan as a cutthroat D.A. who wants to crucify Ciello.
In a good year for cinema, Prince of the City did not fare well at the box office, and only the screenplay (adapted from Robert Daly’s 1979 book-length expose of the Bob Leuci case) got an Oscar nod. It’s an above-average film that has what should have been a star-making turn from its (overreaching) lead actor. Yet, even though it’s a sweeping indictment of a system fueled by greed and corruption, it’s a slog. Despite the moral complexity it earnestly and admirably tries to unpack (i.e., what it means for this man to do this job, and the toll it takes on his conscience and the lives of the people around him when he tries to come clean), it doesn’t much entertain.
Special features on the Warner Archive Blu-ray include the film’s theatrical trailer and a featurette that discusses both the film and the real-life story that inspired it.