Robin’s Underrated Gems: Prince of the City (1981)

When a director like Sidney Lumet has such a long and storied career that lasts for over 50 years, it’s probably inevitable that a lot of really good films of his will wind up being lost in the shuffle. Lumet has directed such iconic classics as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, but he has also directed an equal amount of highly underrated gems such as The Hill, Running on Empty, Q & A, Night Falls on Manhattan and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The most underrated title in his filmography, however, has to be his epic 1981 cop drama, Prince of the City. If I was compiling a list of Sidney Lumet’s all-time greatest films, I’d probably place Prince of the City at #2 or #3 on the list even though it has never gotten anywhere near the recognition it deserves. When it was originally released, some people may have mistakenly assumed that it was just a rehash of Serpico because it told another story about a cop blowing the whistle on police corruption, and I doubt many people were overly excited about the idea of seeing Treat Williams in the Al Pacino role. However, I personally find Prince of the City to be a superior film to Serpico as it’s a story of much greater moral complexity and probably does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of showcasing the emotional and mental toil of a flawed person who desperately wants to do the right thing.

Prince of the City is based on a book of the same name by Robert Daley that outlined the true story of a New York cop named Robert Leuci who worked undercover for years secretly collecting evidence and providing testimony to put away over 50 corrupt cops from the N.Y.P.D.’s Special Investigation Unit. In the film, Leuci’s name has been changed to Daniel Ciello and he is played by Treat Williams. He works for the city’s Special Investigations Unit on drugs and since he and his partners make a lot of arrests and get a lot of results, they are allowed an awful lot of leeway when it comes to doing their job. Unlike Frank Serpico, Danny Ciello is not a morally righteous cop who refused to break the law or take a payoff and decided to blow the whistle on police corruption. Danny and his partners will often keep some of the money they obtain during drug busts, make illegal deals with criminals, and will provide drugs for their junkie snitches in exchange for information. In their minds, the grim realities of their job justify their actions, but Danny reaches a point where the guilt starts to eat away at him. While many cops who’ve blown the whistle on corruption have only done so after they’ve been caught doing something wrong, Danny decides to voluntarily offer his services to the Chase Commission, a federal organization designed to root out police corruption. His breaking point appears to be this harrowing scene where Danny personally witnesses the horrible lifestyle of the drug addicts he often has to provide for. Sex and the City fans will want to keep an eye out for 15-year old Cynthia Nixon in one of her earliest roles as a junkie.

Danny makes a deal with the Commission, who offer him immunity from his own admitted wrongdoings during his career. He agrees to compile evidence and provide testimony that will allow them to indict a lot of criminals and crooked cops, but his only condition is that he will not give up his own partners in the S.I.U.. The investigation winds up lasting many years and the whole ordeal winds up taking a greater toil on Danny than he could have ever imagined. The total running time of Prince and the City is 167 minutes and while some detractors may complain that the film is way too long, I’d say the length perfectly justifies the material. I can’t say there are any scenes in the final cut that I think should have wound up on the cutting room floor. After spending nearly three hours with Danny Ciello while goes through one stressful situation after another, the viewer completely identifies with his mindset and realizes just how gruelling an assignment of this magnitude can be. Danny is forced to put himself in many situations where his life is at great risk, and he and his family soon find themselves living under 24-hour guard from the U.S. marshals. Whenever Danny develops a genuine friendship with one of the prosecutors he’s working with, they wind up leaving him because Danny’s work on the investigation earns them big promotions. And, of course, there Danny’s huge moral dilemma over the fact that he is going to be putting away a lot of cops (and some criminals) he genuinely cares about and who genuinely care about him, and it eventually gets to the point where Danny realizes that he will have break his own promise and rat out his own partners. It soon comes to light that Danny may not have completely revealed all of his wrongdoings and has committed perjury on the stand, an allegation that could completely destroy the entire investigation. After using Danny to get what they want, some of the prosecutors are more than willing to throw him to the wolves in order to further their own careers, and one District Attorney, George Polito (James Tolkan) seems to have a special hatred for him.

Prince of the City would never have worked at all if the right actor had not been cast in the lead role. While actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were considered, Sidney Lumet decided that he wanted a relative unknown to play the part, so Treat Williams – whose only notable role at the time had been in the musical, Hair – was eventually selected. Williams is just flat-out sensational as Daniel Ciello and why he never got an Oscar nomination for this performance is beyond me. It’s an extremely demanding role since Danny has to appear in literally 98 % of the scenes of the film and is an emotional wreck in over half of them, but Williams is up to the challenge and has never given a better performance in his career. The entire cast is comprised of terrific character actors and the biggest standouts include Jerry Orbach in a wonderful turn as one of Danny’s partners and Bob Balaban as a very brash, cold-hearted prosecutor. James Tolkan, best known for his role as Mr. Strickland in the Back to the Future films, steals almost every scene he’s in as the weaselly Polito. The film climaxes with a very riveting scene where all the prosecutors debate about whether Danny should be indicted for perjury, and even the most dislikeable characters bring up some very valid points. Prince of the City is such a fascinating police drama because it offers no easy moral answers. Virtually every character presented here genuinely believes that what they are doing is right and they all offer very interesting viewpoints, no matter how illegal they may be. The most interesting narrative device of the film is that the only person who isn’t quite sure that what he is doing is right in the main character. Overall, Prince of the City is a very spellbinding look at a man who really wants to redeem himself, but somehow finds that he is going down a path where he is making everything worse for everyone involved. The movie’s final scene is a perfect representation of the burden Daniel Ciello will always be forced to carry. Finally, the film is a terrific showcase of Sidney Lumet does best and that’s delivering gritty, realistic New York police dramas. It’s possible that the film’s massive length and lack of big-name stars prevented this movie from finding the success it deserved when it originally, but Prince of the City demands rediscovery.

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