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Prince Of The City

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Prince Of The City

Starring: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rated: R
RunTime: 167 Minutes
Release Date: January 1981
Genres: Action, Drama, Mystery

*Also starring: Richard Foronjy, Don Billett, Kenny Marino, Lindsay Crouse, Carmine Caridi, Bob Balaban, James Tolkan, Matthew Laurance

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Despite making a lot of disappointing films in last few decades, Sidney Lumet is still viewed as one of the greatest American filmmakers. His past filmography is more than impressive, with excellent films that tackled various subjects and featured many talents. Yet, one theme seems to be common to most of Lumet's films - individuals being forced to make hard and unpleasant moral choices in modern urban jungle. These dilemmas, which provide excellent material for powerful dramas, often become very real to the people in the law enforcement, and it is understandable why Lumet tackled with the subject of New York police corruption in four of his films, starting with SERPICO in 1973. Eight years later he again explored the same territory in his drama PRINCE OF THE CITY.

Same as SERPICO, this film is also based on the real events, covered in the book by Richard Daley. Protagonist of the film is Danny Ciello (played by Treat Williams), New York police detective that leads extremely successful five-man unit specialised in drug busts. Ciello's men work completely unsupervised and owe much of their success to rather questionable practices - illegal wiretaps, stealing drugs in order to pay their junkie informers and, finally, taking some of the drug money as the extra income. After a while, people around Ciello and his colleagues, as well as federal authorities, start becoming aware that meagre police salaries can't explain their luxurious lifestyles. Ciello develops conscience and decides to redeem himself by co-operating with federal prosecutors as an undercover agent in anti- corruption sting operation. The only condition is the promise that he wouldn't have to testify against his partners from the unit. However, as the investigation progresses and Ciello collects enough evidence to put multitudes of corrupt policemen and crooked attorneys to jail, his life, as well as the life of his family, is increasingly in danger. But the greatest danger comes from federal prosecutors who discover plenty of criminal misdeeds in seemingly spotless biography of young policeman. Ciello is now under danger of being prosecuted and testifying against his friends from the unit is the only way to save himself.

PRINCE OF THE CITY, despite earning its share of awards in 1981, is one of the more obscure titles in Lumet's biography. This is probably due to the public perception of this film as nothing more than milking on the success of SERPICO. Similarities between those two films are, however, only superficial - both are based on true stories and deal with corruption in New York Police Department. But the stories are different, the characters are different, and, naturally the films are different, allowing Lumet to show his talent in making this film remarkable to anyone patient enough to sit through almost three hours of its length.

The major difference between SERPICO and PRINCE OF THE CITY is in the character. While SERPICO features title character that can be viewed as nothing else than hero engaged in quixotic struggle against corrupt establishment, Danny Ciello is complex, multi- layered character whose alignment and true motives remain mystery to the end and remain open to various interpretation. Yet, Treat Williams, who plays Ciello, is an excellent (and tragically underrated) actor who manages to give arguments to those interpretation with his powerful performances in each of Ciello's incarnations, whether he is arrogant cocky policeman, loving husband and father, loyal friend or pathetic valium-addicted weakling who would do anything to save his skin. Lumet, who co-wrote screenplay with Jay Presson Allen, chronicles those transformations in couple of simple but powerful scenes that vividly display moral ambiguities of modern-day law enforcement. One of the examples is the scene in which Ciello has to find quick fix to his junkie informer; Williams simply shines in this scene, leaving the audience with unanswered question - is he acts out of genuine compassion for his junkie informers or more mundane concern for them as his only source of information.

The character of Ciello is faced with similar dilemma when he must appraise federal prosecutors and their motives. In the beginning they all make generous promises, and Ciello can allow himself a luxury of seeing them as their friends, which some of them, like those played by Norman Parker and Paul Roebling, are. But in the end Ciello becomes nothing more than expendable tool and friendship from the initial investigation is replaced by the hordes of faceless government bureaucrats. Some of those bureaucrats, like those played by Bob Balaban and James Tolkan, can afford luxury to view Ciello from their ivory towers and express general disgust with his corruption, as well as his blue-collar background. This class dimension of the conflict, probably as relevant now as it was twenty years ago, is another reason why PRINCE OF THE CITY should be viewed as better film than SERPICO, which ignored class differences for the sake of generational conflict fashionable in 1960s and early 1970s, but hardly relevant now. What is even better in this film is Lumet allowing audience to make their own conclusions about Ciello in the final scene when prosecutors offer their opposite but convincing arguments whether to prosecute him or not.

Such powerful drama would be impossible without great cast. PRINCE OF THE CITY features a whole variety of different acting talents, each of them shining in small, but effective roles. Unfortunately, most of those actors are relatively unknown and most of them failed to find role that would match their performance in this film. The only reason why this powerful film has a such an obscure reputation and why it represents another great example of a film that "they don't produce any more" might be found in its length and Lumet's loss of pace in the middle of film. But this small flaw shouldn't discourage anyone from watching this hidden 1980s gem.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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