The Films Of Sidney Lumet: 'Prince Of The City'

Photo: Paul Davis On Crime
A New York City narcotics detective reluctantly agrees to cooperate with a special commission investigating police corruption. However, he soon discovers that he's in over his head, and nobody can be trusted.

Released in 1981 and starring a young (and relatively unknown) Treat Williams, Prince of the City is one of Lumet's most overlooked and underrated gems and a film that's been cast in the shadow of Serpico, a less challenging but ultimately more iconic film from the era; both were directed by Lumet, and both contain striking similarities thematically, but Prince of the City offers a more stirring, profound portrait of crime and punishment.

Based on the real-life story of a New York City police officer and adapted from Robert Daley's 1978 book of the same name, Prince of the City is a quintessential crime drama that helped set the template for modernized television cop dramas (Homicide, Law & Order, etc.). Of course, with the perpetual banality that exists within that sub-genre, it's hardly a thing to boast; for this reason, the film hasn't aged incredibly well, but there's still plenty to enjoy.

More after the jump...

Police officers often straddle a very fine line between corruption and the pursuit of justice. Prince of the City serves as a thorough examination of this grey area; It's grand thesis offers many questions of morality and ethics, but provides no concrete answers. It does not paint its central character, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) as a hero or a villain, but rather focuses on his psyche as he's tormented by his own pride, loyalty, and the influental feds and lawyers who hover over him. It's up to us, the viewers, to determine whether his actions are justifiable.
Photo: Movieberry

The film introduces us to Ciello as a hotshot NYPD narcotics officer whose crooked methods of police work get him and his unit noticed by federal investigators. Looking to reform his ideals, Ciello reluctantly agrees to become a narc for the feds as long as they also agree to leave his partners out of their investigation. He'll rat out the rest of the world if he has to, but he won't let them touch his partners.

This, along with the issue of perjury, ultimately become the central issues in the film. As Ciello begins to be used as a pawn for the feds just as he was once using junkies in a similar fashion, we begin to see the deception and corruption that exists on just about every level in government and law enforcement.

It may not be the most wholly entertaining film at two hours and 47 minutes long, but Prince of the City is certainly a profoundly challenging examination of ethics. And it's striking imagery of the dirty, decaying street life of New York City, juxtaposed with a narrative of ubiquitous crooks and low-lifes, serves as one of the more iconic and authentic cinematic portraits of late-'70s NYC.

Photo: Total Film
  • The character of Daniel Ciello is based on real-life NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci. Leuci's testimony helped indict 52 corrupt detectives. After he quit the job, Leuci turned novelist and wrote the gritty police dramas
    Snitch, Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly.
  • Sidney Lumet agreed to direct under two conditions: he wanted an unknown actor to play Leuci and he wanted the running time to be at least three hours long. Treat Williams was unknown at the time but the final cut was edited down to 2 hours and 47 minutes.
  • Lumet wanted to direct the film because he felt it would be a more accurate portrayal of police than Serpico (1973). The lead role was originally offered to Al Pacino, who declined, feeling it was too similar to the character he'd played previously in Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973).

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