Wednesday, September 30, 2015


(August 1981, U.S.)

First impressions are everything, especially when you're just fourteen years-old and don't fully understand everything! That's how old I was when I first saw the movie poster for PRINCE OF THE CITY in the New York Times. The tagline, as you can see for yourself, reads - "A cop is turning. Nobody's safe" with the back end of a policeman overlooking the entire city of New York at night. Honestly, I thought the movie was about some maniac killer cop during a time when New York City was still a violent, scum-filled shithole (really, what did I know??)! Years later, when it was on TV and I managed to sneak a peak at bits and pieces of it, I not only realized that my initial take on the film was wrong, but I also had a small sense of the dramatic take on cops who broke the law and the good cops who chose to speak out about it. Mind you, I hadn't even seen SERPICO, Sidney Lumet's other great film of police corruption yet, so it was this film and Treat Williams' performance that gave me my first taste of the subject. And what a performance it is! I'd only seen him twice prior in the film version of HAIR and Steven Spielberg's 1941 (both in 1979); light roles, to say the least. As the character of Daniel Ciello, it's based on real-life NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci and Williams approaches it with such an intensity that's impossible to ignore.

In this film, Danny has been involved in some questionable police practices over the eleven year course of his detective career, including handing out drugs to addicts who have served as informants for him. He's approached by internal affairs and federal prosecutors to participate in an investigation of police corruption. In exchange for him potentially being let off the hook of his past deeds, Danny is instructed to expose the inner workings of illegal police activity and corruption throughout the department. Danny agrees with only one real hardcore condition - he will not ever turn against his partners under any circumstances, and throughout most of the film, it would appear that he may just actually stick to that conviction. But as he becomes increasingly nervous, fearful and paranoid, he soon learns that he cannot trust anyone and must then decide whose side of things he's really on, and who he'll have to take down in order to stay there...even his partners. In fact, it's the issue with his partners that manages to become a central theme and outcome of the film because as he continually reiterates his vow never to turn them in, it becomes almost inevitable that that's exactly what he'll end up doing when the pressure becomes too much for him to handle.

Sidney Lumet, despite a wide range of stories that included NETWORK (1976), DEATHTRAP (1982) and even a movie musical of THE WIZ, has never been a stranger to the streets of New York. Like SERPICO (1973) and DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), he approaches the streets with emphasis on its toughness, its grittiness, its corruption, its sophistication, its beauty, its ugliness and the diversity of its many ethnic neighborhoods that include its art and especially its crime. And very often with the theme of the streets also comes the theme of family and its relationship to people's actions in a city that demands one's ability to survive. The cops and their partners in PRINCE OF THE CITY, good or bad, are family. As Danny puts it himself, "I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners!" And like so many families, there is loyalty and their is betrayal. Like the mafia, family and oath are intertwined in the world of cops. When one of them finally decides to turn on the others, it's then the dominoes will fall where they may. When they do fall, tragedy very often strikes those we may have come to care about. Some will end up in jail. Some will commit suicide. If all this sounds like something you may have seen on any number of LAW & ORDER spin-offs, you're about several decades too late to consider any of it really original. Sidney Lumet knew how to bring this sort of drama to the big screen in his own fashion...and it was the best way!

Like many films of this sort, the subject of the story's authenticity is unavoidable. While many cops may have criticized the film for painting too heroic a portrait of a cop who turned on his fellow officers, others like the Drug Enforcement agency (DEA) considered the film authentic enough to even display it during their training program. It's the sort of police drama that isn't made for the big screen too much anymore, in lieu of more violent fare. Perhaps the genre died when Sidney Lumet did. If so, then it went with the master of the tale.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Detective Stern: "What did you say your name was?"
Danny Ciello: "Ciello."
Stern: "Are you the Detective Ciello?"
Danny: "I'm Detective Ciello."
Stern: "I don't think I have anything to learn from you."

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