Prince of the City (1981) – Sidney Lumet’s potent tale of police corruption is one of his most underappreciated films

 

Director Sidney Lumet made four major films on the subject of police corruption – Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A and Night Falls On Manhattan. Out of the four, Serpico seems to be the most popular one but I am of the opinion that Prince of the City is to the police drama genre what The Godfather is to the gangster genre. I feel it is the one that packs the strongest punch out of the four. Maybe I’m in love with all the details that has been presented in the film. Speaking of details, there are plenty of them and also plenty of characters to keep track of and all of them certainly cannot be fit into a film with a run time of 120 mins. I can easily see why Prince of the City was a box office flop when it came out. The run time is close to 3 hours whereas Serpico‘s is 130 minutes.

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The film was based on the best-selling 1978 book of the same name by Robert Daly. The book chronicles the experiences of a real-life narcotics cop named Robert Leuci and the character of Daniel Ciello played by Treat Williams was based on him. Lumet doesn’t waste any time setting up the story and establishes Ciello’s character as a deeply conflicted man in the opening scene. He is unable to sleep and we don’t know why. In the very next scene, a series of police identification cards are shown to us, and Ciello’s is one of them. I found this to be a very interesting way to introduce the names of the characters without wasting any time telling us who they are. These cops are all revealed to be the members of Ciello’s tightly-knit Special Investigation Unit. These guys are extremely loyal to each and they are practically family.

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These guys carry out drug busts with the help of informants who are drug-addicts and illegal phone tapping. Whatever money they find from these busts, they take some of it and split evenly amongst themselves. When an attorney called Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker) informs Ciello that he is conducting an investigation on the internal corruption in the NYPD, he sees this as a chance for redemption. Cappalino persuades Ciello to be an informant and tell them everything he knows on corrupt cops, lawyers and politicians. Ciello agrees but on one condition: he’ll never rat on his buddies in the S.I.U. This kind of statement is usually made by gangsters and we get a clear idea of what Ciello’s S.I.U unit really is – that they are nearly indistinguishable from the mafia.

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Ciello is very much aware that he has become like a gangster and often has thoughts about why he decided to join the police force in the first place. This is exactly what is giving him sleepless nights. He sometimes steals drugs from other drug addicts to supply his informants and then regrets doing it later. He has a brother who is a drug addict and at one point is lambasted by him because he feels like he is not being treated well, financially. The difference between Ciello and Serpico is that the latter does not even have an ounce of crookedness in him. Ciello on the other hand repeatedly perjures himself in front of this attorney even after he has promised to not do so. Ciello is under tremendous pressure but somehow he is able to hold it together. He has the guts to approach gangsters and corrupt officials with a recording device attached to him. At one point, he is almost killed by some cops because they think he is going to set them up. But he becomes increasingly paranoid when he learns that the mob has put out a contract on him.

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The film may be about corruption but the most predominant theme here is loyalty. Ciello expects more loyalty from his partners than he does from the “honest” officials who are looking to indict them. So it is easy to understand Ciello’s justification for becoming the way he is even though you don’t necessarily agree with him. And it becomes really painful for Ciello when he finally decides to rat on his friends. Lumet has always had a soft corner for characters who feel like they have been screwed by the system and he forbids us from becoming judgmental. I prefer Prince of the City more because Ciello is not as likable as Serpico. And he goes through a much bigger nightmare than him. Lumet intentionally left the nature this character ambiguous as he wanted the audience to come up with their own interpretations. I like it when a director doesn’t try to spoon-feed the audience.

vlcsnap-2015-09-04-16h28m02s125This was one of the rare Lumet films for which he also wrote the script. He shared a screenwriting credit with Jay Presson Allen. Lumet said he took on the job because the story contained some of things that he knew really well and was good at writing: New York, police officers, corruption and courtrooms. I don’t think there was any other director in Hollywood who made New York films the way Lumet did. The actors are all uniformly brilliant, especially Treat Williams and Jerry Orbach. The film has it’s share of admirers from the film industry. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa personally complimented Lumet on his direction and also the camerawork. And director Christopher Nolan recently cited the film as one of his influences while making The Dark Knight.

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