Judge Daniel MacDonald mistakenly thought this was the lesser-known photo development thriller, Prints of the City.
A cop is turning. Nobody's safe.
Writer/director Sidney Lumet is a living Hollywood legend, responsible for such profound and influential pictures as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. On the surface, Prince of the City seems to resemble some of his other, better known works. Is this a lesser picture from a great filmmaker, or an underappreciated achievement?
Facts of the Case
Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams, Deep Rising) is the young leader of the NYPD's Special Investigation Unit (SIU), a team with an extraordinary arrest record and unfettered autonomy to determine what cases they'll pursue. Unfortunately, the success of the SIU's undercover work is largely thanks to the bending or breaking of laws: this untouchable cadre of "princes of the city" regularly accepts payoffs, metes out its own justice, and supplies drugs for addict informants. The distinction between cop and criminal is often hard to see, but these guys are on top of the world.
A heated argument with his drug-addled brother and some shameful behavior scoring drugs for an informant cause Ciello to question the way he's doing his job. He soon decides to accept a District Attorney's offer to use his undercover connections to expose corruption within law enforcement circles, on the strict agreement that he never has to rat out his partners and will avoid taking down fellow cops whenever possible.
Ciello takes to the job with enthusiasm, laughing off the risks of wearing a wire and daring his subjects to frisk him. But as prosecutions begin on cases using his evidence, his claims that he engaged in only three relatively small corrupt actions during his eleven years as a police officer come under intense scrutiny—and threaten to make Ciello the cause of the entire SIU's demise.
Based on a true story.
Despite what one might assume from its running time, Prince of the City is not an epic. This is the story of one man's decision to redeem himself, and the unforeseen consequences of that choice unfolding over a relatively short period of time. It's jam packed with detail, complex relationships, and the kind of efficient exposition found in a Michael Mann (The Insider) film. But the focus is always on Ciello; he appears in virtually every scene. From examining one man's circle of influence, we are to extrapolate the bigger picture, but that work is left solely to the audience.
Lumet has tackled corruption before—among police officers, lawyers, television producers—but Prince of the City stands out for its moral ambiguity; in none of his pictures has right and wrong been so difficult to determine. Indeed, Lumet himself states in the included featurette that he wasn't sure what he thought about Ciello and his actions during the making of the picture, couldn't decide if the man was a hero or not until after the film was complete. The organic uncertainty inherent in the subject matter puts us squarely in Ciello's shoes, as his conflicts become ours. In a masterful piece of writing and direction, a sequence late in the picture finds a roomful of lawyers detailing the reasons why Ciello should or shouldn't be prosecuted for the numerous criminal actions to which he eventually admitted, with persuasive arguments being made on both sides, juxtaposed with Ciello being grilled by a prosecuting attorney appealing a case made with his evidence. It's like nothing I've ever seen before: the post-movie debate over a character's worth happening as part of the picture, adding an exceptional degree of closure to the proceedings.
Tonally, Prince of the City blends the detailed detective work of The French Connection (and indeed, the real "French connection" case is a factor in this story) with The Godfather's notions of loyalty and family. Much is made of the bond between members of the SIU, and we get to feel the weight of what these men feel for each other, making the necessary betrayals later on that much more significant. This is a picture that's at times exciting, at times meditative, never boring and always engaging.
The story is executed with exacting specificity, Lumet and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Falling Down) carefully choosing a visual scheme that develops through the running time, drawing our subconscious into Ciello's world. But above all, the acting propels Prince of the City, starting with the young Treat Williams. Apparently Al Pacino briefly considered the role of Ciello, which would have made for a much different film—it's hard not to root for Pacino when he's on screen, and that might've undermined our feelings toward the character's actions. But as it happened, Pacino felt the story was too similar to Serpico, and Williams was eventually cast. The range the man shows here is remarkable, theatrically cocky early on, then slowly taking the weight of his actions on his shoulders to become a nearly broken shell. At times he resembles a young Warren Beatty, both deep and shallow at the same time. This is surely Williams' best performance.
There are plenty of other familiar faces popping up in the cast. Law & Order's Jerry Orbach broke out in the key role of fellow detective Gus Levy, along with Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), Lindsay Crouse (All the President's Men), and Lance Henriksen (Aliens) with highlighted hair.
Warner Bros. has done a nice job with this DVD release, wisely spreading the 167-minute feature across two discs with a fairly high bit rate. The video quality looks pretty good for its age, natural colouring and no noticeable edge enhancement. Certain scenes do seem a little soft, though, while dark sequences tend to exhibit grain. Further, I noticed the picture jump as if a few frames were missing near the end of disc one. Audio is in its original mono, with a dynamic range much less than that of modern soundtracks. However, the dialogue is clear with no tearing or distortion—almost too clear at times, as instances of re-recorded dialogue are quite obvious. Further, there is very little music in Prince of the City, so the soundtrack's limitations rarely draw attention to themselves.
Included is an excellent 30-minute featurette directed by famed DVD supplement auteur Laurent Bouzeraeu, containing interviews with Lumet, Williams, Henriksen, Balaban, screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Deathtrap), and the real-life inspiration for Robert Daley's source book, Robert Leuci. It's the only supplement other than the theatrical trailer, but is surprisingly satisfying, with detailed description of the story's development, the rehearsal process, and Lumet's visual motifs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Length is always going to be an issue for certain audiences, and at nearly three hours this may be a challenging picture for some. I like long movies, and found Prince of the City to be a captivating ride with nary an extraneous or draggy part, but I can't speak for everyone.
Not always the first movie to come to mind when audiences think of Sidney Lumet, Prince of the City is one of his most nuanced, complex, and rewarding works. Film fans—especially those who love a good police procedural—should check out this excellent film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Prince of the City: The Real Story
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