Prince of the City
1981Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Jerry Orbach, Treat Williams
ou guys love [to nail] cops. Cops are easy,” grins Detective Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) to a federal attorney who’s beginning a probe of the New York Police Department’s Special Investigating Unit, a cadre of “superstar” cops who make their own hours, pick their cases and are shown deference in court and by their colleagues. Operating in a 4-man team in SIU’s narcotics division, Ciello is wary that the full M.O. of their operations—stealing drug money, routinely committing perjury, giving heroin to junkie stool pigeons—will be uncovered…yet he keeps initiating meetings with fed snoopers until he consents to wear a wire and rat on the criminals he’s been working with for years.
Now entering his sixth decade as a filmmaker, Sidney Lumet’s oeuvre is performance-centered, pre-eminently his mid ’70s burst with the prime Al Pacino vehicles Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and the Paddy Chayefsky-penned jeremiad against TV news, Network. Lumet films often feature urban location grit and efficient social-problem scripts, but rise or fall on the ensemble (often stuffed with Method naturalism) that’s marshaled to humanize the shape of their invariably classical structures. Prince of the City, which received measured acclaim and flat box-office upon its 1981 release, features a huge cast in which character actors are complemented by over fifty non-professionals in speaking parts. They populate a New York of courts, drug dens, bars and law-enforcement offices, where a saga of police corruption (the thrust of at least five Lumet pictures) unfolds through fidgety everyday behavior: a man can seal his doom in a phone call taken while he touches up the paint on the front porch.
Adapted like Serpico from a non-fiction bestseller, Prince is less schematic and a deeper tragedy—the story of a dirty cop who’s conflicted about becoming virtuous, instead of Pacino’s blue knight who’s the “only clean cop” in Gotham. Ciello bullshits the probers with an initial confession that he “did three [corrupt] things” on the job, knowing that he’ll be vulnerable to indictment if any further misconduct comes to light. “Turning rat” eats away at Ciello’s heart like the leaking battery acid that burns into his flesh on a wired operation. Prince isn’t really a thriller because his repeated insistence that “I will not give up my partners” and “This is my setup” have a whistling-in-the-dark desperation. Its scenes of traditional suspense—Ciello’s cover on the verge of being fatally blown while his backups remain oblivious—are injected with absurd or grotesque touches: The detective is vouched for by his mobster cousin; a fat, menacing bail bondsman flops to the sidewalk as if harpooned; bleeding, a cop under arrest mutters to Ciello, “Can you get me a deal?”
As the drama’s fulcrum (based directly on the SIU informant Robert Leuci), the beetle-browed Williams, cast fresh off his role as a charismatic hippie in the Milos Forman filmHair, is a mixed bag at first. An early “fuck you” rant to the feds tears at the scenery rather than seems authentically explosive. But given Ciello’s nickname of “Babyface,” his penchant for joking to his targets that they should grab his balls to see if he’s miked, and the nonstop mortal danger and doubts that the character swims in, Williams’ performative charm suits the role: This cop’s job is acting. If not the great actor that could’ve launched the movie to classic status, he thrives in the final act as the noose tightens and Ciello, in protective custody so he can deliver years’ worth of testimony, nearly goes mad with fear and self-loathing.
Until a climactic debate of prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office on whether to indict Ciello for his crimes, Prince of the City tries to remain as ambivalent about the cop’s ethos as he is about turning informant. The deck is stacked somewhat toward empathy by the casting of supercilious Bob Balaban and the reptilian James Tolkan as two of Ciello’s most adversarial federal overseers. (One tip-off that the bow-tied bloodhound played by Balaban may be bad news for Ciello comes when he fussily pours a Budweiser into a tipped glass. Really: a Bud.) Among the supporting police, Jerry Orbach (at the time best known for his Broadway musical career) as erstwhile partner Gus Levy leaves the most indelible imprint. Casually racist and unshakeable in maintaining the Blue Wall of Silence, Levy functions as both Ciello’s brother and antagonist in the final reels. Orbach memorably storms into Tolkan’s office to rage against the cleansing of SUI’s ranks, and plays a disgusted scene of renunciation with Williams. Also registering strongly are Lindsay Crouse as Ciello’s Cassandra-like wife, Carmine Caridi as the departmental mentor he betrays, and Lee Richardson as a silky-voiced defense lawyer who eviscerates him on the stand.
The morally suspect who inhabit both exterior scenes and fluorescent-lit rooms are mostly neutralized by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography, or even diminished by wide-angle shots that dwarf them in the city’s streetscape; the camera moves when it follows characters in flight, as on a rain-soaked night where Ciello chases and bloodily beats a junkie to procure heroin for a stoolie in withdrawal, or when two men wander away from official ears to reassure or threaten each other. Lumet and co-adapter Jay Presson Allen show an NYPD of almost exclusively white ethnic men (who revel in war stories where “the natives scatter” with the crunch of baton on head) whose “princes” feel entitled to Rolexes, Italian suits and Long Island homes bought with plunder from their crusades. What the price of indicting 52 compromised police officers was, and whether it initiated a lasting cultural change in the NYPD, is left open through Prince of the City’s concluding freeze-frame.
Prince of the City is now available on DVD.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-07-05