by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
CAST: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, Lindsay Crouse
MY RATING: 8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 92% Fresh
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.