by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
CAST: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, Lindsay Crouse

PLOT: A New York City narcotics detective reluctantly agrees to cooperate with a special commission investigating police corruption, and soon realizes he’s in over his head, and nobody can be trusted.

Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City is based on a true story, and it never lets you forget it.  In a good way.  The film is defiantly ambiguous when it comes to the main character, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), who is onscreen in virtually every scene, so we get to see every detail of his epic, tragic fall from a revered cop in the NYPD’s Special Investigations Unit to a glorified stool pigeon for the feds.

…ah, but see what I did there?  Without even realizing it, I’m already sort of siding WITH Ciello, who participated in many, MANY counts of outright theft, evidence tampering, bribery, and so on and so on.  But…in a very Dirty Harry way (but much more realistic), he was helping to cut through the frustrating red tape that would otherwise enable career criminals to get around the system.  But…he had to break the law to do so, and his fellow officers in the SIU were all complicit, some to greater degrees than others.  Their unbreakable code: never rat out your partners.  Ciello has a revealing line at one point: “I sleep with my wife, but I LIVE with my partners.”

This somewhat misguided code of honor is central to Prince of the City.  The film opens as Ciello’s unit makes a lucrative drug bust, confiscates some or most of the cash, and parades the captured criminals into a ramshackle courtroom, whereupon the assorted drug dealers are immediately sent back to Central or South America, bing, bang, boom, no muss, no fuss.  Meanwhile, a special commission, the Chase Commission, has begun questioning officers about police corruption.  Ciello is naturally resistant to cooperating at first, but a feisty conversation between him and his ne’er-do-well brother puts doubts in his mind.  “Look at you in your big house and your two-car garage!  You think I don’t know where this all comes from?  You think I’m stupid, Danny?!”

Ciello’s conscience finally gets a hold of him, and he agrees to cooperate with the commission.  This includes the unbelievably dangerous practice of wearing a wire to meetings between himself and assorted mob-affiliated tipsters.  I’ve seen numerous other films involving wires and mobsters, but Lumet does something different here, and it carries throughout the entire film.  Instead of punching up the suspense with crazy edits or inserts or spooky music, he simply explains the danger and lets the scene play out with as little movement as possible.  In its simplicity, there is as much suspense there as in anything by Hitchcock, accomplished with much less cinematic “pizzazz.”

This simple style pays off in two incredible scenes.  One is where a mobster is dead sure Ciello is wearing a wire and searches him thoroughly…but Ciello’s sixth sense warned him earlier to leave the wire at home.  Another comes when Ciello unthinkingly hands over some evidence to the mobster…wrapped in a post-it that basically says, “From the desk of the State Attorney’s Office.”  Because everything has been presented in such a straightforward style leading up to this moment, this scene has an astonishing effect on the viewer.  There is real danger here, an almost documentary-like feel to it.  The resolution of this scene, including the unexpected appearance of a gun at the worst possible moment, is one of the emotional highlights of this nearly three-hour film.

The casting of Treat Williams in the lead role of this crime epic was also a key to its success.  In the early ‘80s, there were any number of leading men that might have been a much more natural choice for this part: Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, Beatty, even Travolta.  Putting a relatively unknown, but VERY talented, actor in such a prominent role was a calculated gamble that paid off.  Since he had no major previous roles, Williams was essentially a blank slate.  He hadn’t been typecast as either a villain or a hero yet, so that supports the film’s foundation of maintaining a neutral stance toward the lead character.  The movie isn’t going to come out and tell you if it’s for or against Ciello.  The audience has to make that decision for themselves.

For myself, I would in no way condone his corrupt behavior.  But I admire his decision to at least try to do the right thing.  Despite his adamant stance that he will never, ever turn in his partners, it becomes abundantly clear that the various feds, attorneys general, prosecutors running his case will have no qualms whatsoever about putting him in jail the second he refuses to play ball.  As a result, he winds up being forced to provide crucial evidence that generates indictments for several of his partners.  The aftermath of those indictments varies from partner to partner.  Ciello is being eaten alive by remorse.  He believes he’s doing the right thing, but he can’t stand watching his partners go down one by one.  It’s a fascinating conundrum, manifest at every turn, even in the very last scene of the movie.

In one great scene, a group of prosecutors meet to decide whether to formally indict Ciello and pursue a prison term, even after he has provided them with information that led directly to countless arrests and indictments.  They are divided.  One prosecutor threatens resignation if charges are filed.  But another prosecutor’s argument stuck with me:

“I’ve never known a lawyer to risk his livelihood to expose the crooks in his profession.  And where’s the doctor who ever exposed Medicaid fraud?  Or unnecessary and botched operations?  Or even dope, for that matter?  What doctor ever came in?  Dan Ciello came in, and I don’t care why.  To me, Danny Ciello’s a hero…and we’re trying to decide whether to put him in hail or not.”

For me, that sealed the deal.  The movie is admirably restrained in providing its own standpoint on Ciello, but I would side with those calling him a hero instead of a villain.  I found myself thinking back to Sunday School and the parable of the prodigal son.  After the prodigal forsakes his father and his family, he returns, contrite and humble, begging forgiveness.  The loyal son can’t understand why his father rejoices upon the prodigal’s return, to which the father replies, “We have to celebrate, because your brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Ciello is that lost soul who desperately wants redemption, no matter how it might hurt himself or his literal partners in crime.  For that, I consider him a hero, not a villain.  Perhaps he’s no longer a prince of the city, but he is at least back on the side of the angels.


By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg’s first critical and box office flop, 1941, is a splattered mess of slapstick hysteria set a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Residents of the California coast line prepare to be the next target.  Ahem!!!!!  Well, that’s it for the story…Goodnight.  Tip your waiters.

Just a year ahead of the Zucker brothers with Abrams comedy team that’ll deliver Airplane!, Spielberg opted to direct a spoof script penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back To The Future).  1941 is full of gags galore beginning with a reference to the director’s most successful film to date, Jaws.  For me, seeing actress Susan Backline on screen again for another ocean skinny dip only to be intruded upon by a rising Japanese submarine was the second best joke of the film.  Once that was over, I had two hours left to go.  A long two hours. 

I’ve noted before that satire or spoofs are the riskiest genres to produce.  They can succeed with a picture like Dr. Strangelove…, or Network or Airplane!  Satire can be divisive too though, and thus only one half of your audience will appreciate the poke and prod.  Even worse, satire can just be unfunny across the board no matter which side of the aisle you lean on.  That’s 1941.  It plays too much like a Three Stooges series of slapstick violence.  Reader, even Steven Spielberg cannot capture the magic of the Three Stooges.

Zemeckis and Gale opt to poke a little fun at the Puerto Rican zoot suit riots vs the Enlisted men ahead of America’s entry into World War II.  So, when army soldier Treat Williams gets jealous of one handsome zoot suit dancer flirting with his girl, a fight breaks out which eventually populates two thirds of the film as it escalates all the way over to Hollywood Boulevard. Now thousands of stooge wannabe extras are walloping each other from one side of the street to the next. 

To allow a breather from this, the writers sidetrack over to Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen getting frisky in an out of control bi-plane while being mistaken for the enemy by John Belushi doing a very poor resurrection of his Bluto character from Animal House.  As Captain Wild Bill Kelso, Belushi’s pursuit fires upon everything else in sight, especially Hollywood Boulevard, but misses the plane occupied by Matheson and Allen.

The third point of this rectangle concerns Dan Aykroyd with John Candy and a whole platoon opting to set up a military cannon along the ocean view property belonging to Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary in anticipation of the Japanese invasion.  Ned Beatty is the best stooge of the entire cast as the nerdy resident determined to protect his home while exercising his patriotic duty.  Gary’s response to Beatty’s ineptitude cracked me up as well.  The house wreckage of The Money Pit has nothing on what occurs in 1941.

The fourth storyline focuses on the enemy with a German speaking Nazi portrayed by Christopher Lee debating with the captain of a Japanese submarine (Toshiro Mifune) plotting to bomb Hollywood.  Somehow, each foil understands the other’s language.  These guys are just here to scream at one another.  There’s nothing funny about them.

Oh yeah.  Robert Stack is the Army General who watches Dumbo in the movie theatre while Hollywood Boulevard gets demolished outside.  Ho! Ho!

Often, I compliment Spielberg for his reliance on the sets he provides.  Everything you see on the screen serves a purpose to his films.  It happened as recently as with his remake of West Side Story in 2021, and it’s effectively used in Close Encounters…  He uses the same approach with 1941.  In this film though, there’s no pulse or significance to the props and pieces that are used.  The house is demolished.  So is the storage shed.  So is the movie theatre.  So is the Ferris wheel.  Yes.  What you’ve already seen in endless Looney Toons cartoons occurs here with a miniature model.  The Ferris wheel comes off its hinge and rolls across the beach side dock into the water along with Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen in tow.  When it happens, you’ll tell yourself I was waiting for that to happen.  What you expect to happen, happens, but you’re not laughing at it.

None of what you see in 1941 are terrible gags.  If you watch one scene out of context on a four minute You Tube channel, you may chuckle.  The problem is that every scene is treated like throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what will stick.  Mashing all of this together is not appetizing.  I like ice cream and I like steak.  I don’t like my ice cream on my steak.  Any idea of development is completely ignored.  The film can’t even work like a collection of skits.  Even Airplane! had a romantic storyline trajectory to perform with.  Here, two jealous guys have a fist fight and it more or less stretches that fight for an entire two hours.  The Three Stooges knew when to eventually quit.  Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale didn’t. 

As soon as I saw Belushi on screen, I laughed.  It’s Bluto again.  Yet, the appearance wears off very quickly.  He has little dialogue and is limited to chomping on a cigar while grunting and groaning as the fighter plane he occupies wobbles around shooting at everything in sight.  When he eventually crash lands, Belushi continues to chomp on the cigar and grunt and groan.  Only now, he pratfalls as well…badly.

Ned Beatty is the real star here.  The ultimate nerd is also limited in dialogue. Still, to watch his body language with his glasses and bow tie and pear-shaped physique, accompanied with Lorraine Gary’s helpless gasping wife responding to the damage he commits with the cannon is hilarious.  Absolutely hilarious.  Tape all of their scenes together and make it a short to present ahead of the main attraction in a movie house. The audience will have a great time.

Otherwise, the only other fun I got out of 1941 was spotting the stars that were relevant at the time of its release.  Candy, Aykroyd, Frank McRae, Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, the cute blonde daughter from Eight Is Enough.  Even Penny Marshall has a quick blink and you miss it moment.  Oh, and look, there’s Lenny and Squiggy!

I think Zemeckis and Gale were on to a real smart idea here.  They maybe should have consulted with Harold Ramis and his National Lampoon’s crew however, because that’s the direction Spielberg’s film was aiming for.  What sets a film like Animal House apart from a 1941 though is in the set up.  Dialogue also helps.  1941 lacks set up.  1941 lacks dialogue.  It’s all visual and noise and more noise and more noise. 

1941 begins at letter A, and stops at letter A, never making it to B, and definitely never reaching Z.  An idea with potential was put down on paper.  The problem is these guys stopped writing after the first sentence.