DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet's PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

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by Steven Santos
August 15, 2011 11:00 AM
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is proud to premiere this video essay by New York based critic-filmmaker Steven Santos. His piece on Prince of the City is split into two parts and can be viewed above. It is a visual analysis of Sidney Lumet's so-called "NYPD films": Prince of the City, Serpico, Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan.

by Steven Santos
Press Play Contributor

THE STORY

Prince of the City was released on August 19, 1981. Like so many of Sidney Lumet's movies, this one lives and breathes New York City, showing us everything from tenements to court rooms and everyone from drug addicts to district attorneys. The film has well over a hundred speaking roles and what I would consider one of the best casting of authentic New Yorkers in film, mixing professional and non-professional actors throughout. The look and feel of the movie would influence many films and television shows in subsequent decades, ones that strove for realism and a more procedural approach to the cop genre. One of those shows, Law & Order, even used one of the film's most prominent cast members, Jerry Orbach.

Prince is a complex tale of police corruption in the 1970's adapted from the book by Robert Daley and based on the life of narcotics detective Robert Leuci. Danny Ciello, played in a towering performance by Treat Williams, is an over-confident narcotics detective has skimmed money from criminals for years without it weighing on his conscience. The film's title refers to his ability to make cases while working mostly unsupervised.

But from the opening scene, you begin to see the cracks in this prince's facade. An argument with his drug addicted brother shows that there is someone unwilling to continue the charade that Ciello and his partners are somehow upstanding officers of the law. In a key scene, Ciello is forced to rob a drug addict to supply heroin to his informant. He begins to take pity on him, perhaps recognizing his own addicted brother. More importantly, he begins to witness firsthand the consequences his illegal acts as a cop have on others.Ciello remembers why he wanted to become a detective, and makes an effort to change because he can no longer see much of a difference between the cops and the criminals no matter how much he tries to justify his actions by blaming the way the criminal justice system works. Perhaps you would think that this film will be a simple tale of redemption, where a man acknowledges his wrongdoings and then helps to put the remorseless criminals behind bars.

But as we all know, but rarely care to admit, doing the right thing is quite a messy process. While Prince of the City may be a sprawling epic about how deep corruption runs in the New York City police department, it is as much about how we never can quite wash the slate clean of our own past corruptions, big or small.

SERPICO/CIELLO

Prince was not the first or last time that Sidney Lumet examined this subject. 1973's "Serpico", based on the real-life detective Frank Serpico, is the only one of his films about police corruption in New York City that he did not write or co-write. In real life, Robert Leuci was an acquaintance of Frank Serpico. Serpico begins with its main character graduating from the police academy and follows him from precinct to precinct, as he seems to run into a citywide problem of outwardly corrupt police officers. In interviews, Lumet has said that he made Prince because he was not satisfied with the way he portrayed cops in his earlier film. Watching Serpico today, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. While it features a terrific performance by Al Pacino, the film refuses to examine this real-life figure beyond making him a martyr. It's not about a man struggling with doing the right thing, it's about a man resented by the world for being a tortured saint. While both Serpico's and Leuci's stories occurred during the same time frame, the films about them seem to take place in different worlds.

The key difference between Serpico and Ciello is that Ciello does not necessarily stop lying when he decides to come clean, for fear of incriminating himself or ratting out his partners. Lumet's Serpico does not necessarily challenge its main character's righteousness, nor does it bring many shades of gray to its exploration of why the rest of the police department seems completely corrupt. Prince raises questions about morality and loyalty; unlike Serpico, it doesn't make it easy for us to decide who the bad people are. Police corruption was the subject matter that Lumet kept revisiting and exploring, perhaps to find new shades that could not be contained in just one film.

LUMET'S NYPD

In addition to Serpico and Prince of the City, Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption twice more in the 1990's with Q & A (1990) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997). Of the four films, Q & A is the one that plays most like a crime thriller, as we watch a fairly degenerate cop (Nick Nolte) target drug dealers who had ripped him off at the same time that he's is being investigated by an assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton). Without a doubt, you can call Nolte's character the villain of the film. But even so, Lumet allows this corrupt cop to explain his logic, almost daring you to empathize with someone who you know from the very first scene has committed the murder he is being investigated for.

In 1997's Night Falls on Manhattan, also based on a book by Robert Daley, corruption extends to family members. The film centers on an assistant district attorney (Andy Garcia) whose rise in that office coincides with an investigation into police corruption that may involve his own father (Ian Holm). While the father's partner (James Gandolfini) is clearly on the take, his own corruption involves fudging an arrest warrant to put away a drug dealer that he had been targeting for a long time.

Lumet is fascinated by the logic behind corruption. What is the thought process that causes people to lose their way? The key to Lumet's success in exploring this theme is the degree to which he does not pass black and white judgment on his characters. The more we see ourselves reflected in people who justify their amoral actions, the more Lumet has made these people human. While Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan admirably try to explore the gray zone of morality and corruption, it is Prince of the City that is Sidney Lumet's masterwork on that theme.

ARE YOU THE DETECTIVE CIELLO?

While we may understand what drives Danny Ciello to help the special attorney task force make cases against corrupt cops, we are less sure how we feel about him. Much of what drives this man is his loyalty to his partners. As he puts it, "The first thing a cop learns is that he can't trust anybody but his partners. I'll tell you something right now. I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners."

Prince of the City takes the time to show us why that is. Even when Ciello finally admits to his partners that he is working to take down corrupt cops, they gather to not necessarily support him, but show concern for his well being. There is a loyalty among these detectives that Ciello will never have with all the attorneys he works for. The film further blurs the line between moral and amoral by showing Ciello's mob-connected cousin as someone more reliable than the often ambitious attorneys. In one scene where a crooked cop and bondsman threaten to kill Ciello, it's his cousin who vouches for him, saving his life.

Prince of the City is the Lumet film that truly makes you understand corruption by showing us this expansive group of people and the degrees they are willing to live with their consciences. Ciello's final confessions lead to the destruction of people he considered family, people who loved him in a way that he will probably never experience again in his life. That is why you can see and understand the regret in his face when his partners eventually shun him. Doing the right thing is quite a messy process.

While Prince of the City has many admirers, the film has not gotten its due for its influence on the genre or the complexity with which it presents its subject matter. I consider it to be the Sidney Lumet film to watch to fully understand who he is as a director, a summation of all his work. With its large cast, the film creates a detailed world with communities of lawyers, gangsters, drug addicts and cops. At the center of it all is a performance by Treat Williams that ranks among the best, comparable to the greatest work of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, actors originally considered for the role.

What makes "Prince" essential is its universal and complicated take on how each of us cope with the moral choices we make. If we try to understand who Detective Ciello and how we feel about him, we begin to understand ourselves.

ADDENDUM:

This video essay has been in the works for a while. By coincidence, while I was editing it near the end of July, Prince of the City was given a rare screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with both Treat Williams and Robert Leuci in attendance. It was shown as part of the Film Society's tribute to Sidney Lumet.

Williams and Leuci had a fascinating Q & A after the film in which they mostly talked about working with Lumet. Williams in particular showed pride in this film. It is clearly the highlight of his career. But it was odd to see the man the film was based on talk about it in the flesh, considering that film does not portray him heroically. Leuci had not even seen the film from beginning to end until that night, probably because reliving that experience could not have been easy. While he admits the film takes some dramatic license, Leuci lauded how Lumet had stayed true to his story.

As this was a tribute to Lumet, Williams and Leuci told stories about the making of Prince, talking about the long audition process Williams went through and how Lumet did not want Leuci around set due to the not-very-happy experience of having Frank Serpico on set all the time during the production of Serpico. Although Lumet is not acknowledged as a significant auteur by cinephiles because his almost invisible direction served the story rather than himself, the Williams/Leuci Q & A re-asserted that Lumet was a filmmaker with a true vision, and highlighted the choices he made that enabled Prince to be so effective.

According to Scott Foundas, who introduced the screening, Prince of the City was the hardest film of the tribute to locate a 35mm print for. Apparently, this print was borrowed from the Harvard Archives. In essence, on its 30th anniversary, Prince almost feels like a lost film. It wasn't even released on DVD until about four years ago. I hope this video essay will shine a light on Prince of the City as well as Lumet, acknowledge its masterful filmmaking and storytelling, and perhaps help prevent the film from being lost in the coming years.

Steven Santos is a freelance television editor/filmmaker based in New York. He has cut docu-series for MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet. His work can be found at http://www.stevenedits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut). You can also follow him on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  • Isabel Felix | November 4, 2012 8:09 AMReply

    Great movie,but at the same time it makes you wonder about the Police Officers that are out there to serve and protect. Unfortunately it seems to me that lots of people forget who they are and where they come from, and i believe this is the reason why they become corrupt. On the other hand Frank Serpico might have been consider a "rat" but he at least he wasn't a follower. He went to the force knowing who he was and remain the same. In life we must stand for something because at the end you will be remember for nothing.

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