Martin Bregman was in a bind. He had hired Sidney Lumet, by then carrying a well-earned reputation as a chronicler of institutional corruption on screen, to direct the new adaptation of the 1932 Howard Hawks gangster film Scarface that he was producing. Al Pacino was already locked to star, and after working with Lumet on two films, the police corruption drama Serpico (1973) and the ripped-from-the-headlines bank robbery picture Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a third film together seemed like a home run. When Lumet and Bregman fell out over creative differences — Lumet wanted a more overt political thriller, unsurprisingly — and the director left the project, he brought in Brian De Palma, the Hitchcock devotee who injected Scarface with the satirical energy and spectacle that ended up in the final film when it was eventually released in 1983. De Palma was available to direct because he had left a police thriller about a crooked cop turned informant. De Palma hadn’t left the film fully behind, however. He had lifted a brief moment, when the informant’s microphone battery leaks and gives him a severe acidic burn on his side, to motivate his central character’s traumatic past in the political thriller Blow Out (1981). The film, as downbeat as any produced during the New Hollywood era, was a box office failure. De Palma needed a hit, and hoped to get one with Scarface. He did. Meanwhile, the police thriller he had abandoned would beat his gangster epic to the screen by nearly two full years, now having fallen into the capable hands of none other than Lumet. The two had swapped projects. Scarface had delivered De Palma from movie jail for the time being, but Lumet’s film, Prince of the City (1981), would barely recoup its earnings. Its running time, its performances and, ultimately, its aggressively bitter worldview made for a film just as misanthropic as Blow Out. Prince of the City is Lumet’s longest and grandest film; it is also the most bracing attack on the American justice system he ever delivered.
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, and the blockbuster film began to displace the more personal mainstream cinema that dominated the previous decade, a number of the directors who found success in the cynical 1970s found themselves in a difficult position. Passion projects that were hitting big with audiences in the middle of the decade were suddenly falling flat. Budgets climbed ever higher, and the young directors who had set the world on fire suddenly were going frustratingly cold. William Friekdin’s Sorcerer (1977), a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), had the misfortune of opening the week after George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), an expressionistic homage to the MGM musicals of Vincente Minnelli and the Freed Unit, seemed too cumbersome for audiences to handle. Most notoriously, Michael Cimino’s western Heaven’s Gate (1980) saw its ballooning running time and budget become an industry joke, and when it was finally released, the critics torched it, audiences shrugged and United Artists recut the nearly four-hour film by taking half of it out. Never mind that each of these “failures” is a masterpiece; at the time, they were not received as such by audiences. The era of bad feelings — which made money — was over. The era of good feelings was about to begin.
Nobody told Lumet. He was no kid by the time the 1970s ended, with 20-plus years of feature directing experience behind him. Lumet had intermittently returned to the justice system as his subject throughout his career, but Dog Day Afternoon, six years before, had been his most recent effort. Prince of the City, based on a non-fiction book about the experiences of NYPD detective Robert Leuci, would be a dramatic resumption of hostilities between Lumet and the subject that animates many of his most successful, compelling films. The character would be renamed Danny Ciello for Prince of the City, and he would be played not by Pacino, but by young actor Treat Williams, taking his first lead role after a handful of small appearances and supporting characters, including in Steven Spielberg’s disastrous World War II farce 1941 (1979). The film bears obvious similarities with Serpico, Lumet’s acclaimed attack on corruption in the NYPD that had also taken its story from the experiences of a real life cop. It tracks Pacino’s Frank Serpico as he tries to do honest policing in a corrupt department rife with bribery and graft; though Frank manages to draw media and political attention to the problem, he barely survives an attempt on his life and finds himself alienated from his work, girlfriend and fellow officers. The final text crawl informs the audience that he left the police force and the country, presumably retiring to a monastic life far from the beat. In Prince of the City, the rot goes even deeper.
Lumet’s epic approach expands upon the methods he used in Serpico; in Prince of the City, entire years of Ciello’s undercover work pass by unmarked, with the film relying merely on context to track his experiences over nearly a decade. Ciello begins as the department’s golden boy, a youthful leader of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a job that requires bending and often breaking the law. Out of guilt, he agrees to wear a wire for ambitious Assistant District Attorneys and begins a series of increasingly dangerous but thrilling undercover assignments ensnaring crooked officers and other justice officials, with the caveat that he won’t turn against his partners. After his cover is blown, Ciello begins the long process of testifying in the various trials held for the men his evidence has indicted, and begins to drink heavily as the pressure of serving two masters, being two people begins to destroy him. Finally, the extent of his own criminality, which he had previously concealed, comes to light and compels him to testify against his partners. He crosses the line he had drawn in the sand for himself. Though no charges are brought against him despite his severe offenses, he is condemned to a kind of purgatory, teaching classes at the police academy to recruits for whom his duplicitous reputation has preceded him. Prince of the City’s number of scenes exceeds 100, as does the number of shooting locations. Lumet’s cast is sprawling. The scope is epic. Prince of the City clocks in at 167 minutes.
Throughout his justice system films, Lumet continually uses the settings and locations to lodge critiques of the institutional forces that control his characters. In his debut, 12 Angry Men (1957), and in his then-most recent justice film Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet relies on claustrophobic settings — the jury room in the former and the bank where the hostages are held in the latter. Despite Prince of the City’s epic scope, Lumet still uses his settings to capture a claustrophobic feeling, commenting on the degree to which Ciello, his District Attorney’s office handlers and the other corrupt officers he is trying to bring down are all trapped by the same system. The New York of Prince of the City is arrestingly shaped by the city’s economic strife. Throughout much of the 1970s, the city’s finances were in terrible shape, leading to a dramatic reduction in city services that allowed drugs, prostitution and violent crimes to proliferate. Entire neighborhoods in the South Bronx were decimated, wracked by a plague of arson, much of it perpetrated by building owners who wanted to flee the city for the suburbs. Ciello visits the South Bronx during a downpour one night early in Prince of the City, summoned out of bed by the desperate plea of an informant in need of heroin. Trying to secure the drugs for his informant, Ciello chases another junkie through the former neighborhood, its vacant lots forebodingly cluttered with bricks left behind from demolition. When Ciello finally catches up and beats the drugs out of him, he does so beneath a dramatic archway that might have been the most stunning feature in the building when it was functional; now, it is an urban ruin, the skeleton of a structure in a once-populated area of the city rendered irrelevant by seemingly irreversible decline. Beneath it, a police officer beats a suspect bloody until he vomits, and then takes the four bags of heroin the addict has just purchased and divides them in half, giving two to his anxiously waiting informant. While the informant skips away to fix, Ciello apologizes to the addict he has beaten, and in a tender gesture, wipes the blood and vomit away from the pathetic man’s face. He drives him home, only to listen while the junkie beats his girlfriend in the other room when he discovers she has taken the shot meant for him. All the while, the rain clatters on the windows and pavement outside. This drama is depressingly meaningless.
The errand makes Ciello realize that he has strayed far afield from the lofty ideals that made him want to become a police officer in the first place. The city has become an apocalyptic nightmare, its streets littered with trash, and beating up one junkie so that another can cop some of his fix hardly feels like a noble undertaking. Above all, Prince of the City approaches this sense of a justice system completely untethered from its foundational principles. Rampant crime has infected the police department, and the prosecutors who pursue the corrupt cops are guilty of shortsighted thinking. Their ad hoc offices look no more put together than the streets of the South Bronx; Lumet’s production design team litters the empty buildings with garbage and leftover, decrepit furniture, piles of trash advancing towards the center of the room that illustrate the system’s ossification. A number of the rooms have water stains on the walls; others have outrageously large holes smashed in the drywall. When Ciello is first called in to see Assistant D.A. Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), he sits in a wooden chair that collapses under his weight, one of its legs giving way. Cappalino apologizes, and then grabs another discarded chair from the pile, which holds up beneath Ciello. The justice system’s parts are interchangeable, but many have fallen into disuse. Prince of the City takes place amidst a junkyard of disused equipment, desks and filing cabinets, with all of them symbolizing a bygone era when the justice system had meaning and purpose.
In Prince of the City, the American justice system has resorted to little more than cannibalism; feckless in the face of widespread criminality, the system’s various players eat one another. Whatever purpose animates Ciello and Cappalino, along with prosecutor Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling) when the investigation begins, it seems to have vanished completely by the time U.S. Attorney Santimassino (Bob Balaban) gets involved. Santimassino’s stately office in Washington D.C. cuts quite a contrast with the ratholes in New York City; it is decorated with gold-framed paintings of Colonial Americans, its high ceilings stretching seemingly into infinity. As Ciello works deeper into the case and Santimassino begins to demand more of him, the investigation drifts further away from its core purpose and threatens to implicate people close to Ciello. Fellow cop Gino Mascone (Carmine Caridi), who looked out for Ciello when he was first in the department, becomes a crucial link between a crooked bail bondsman and an international drug trafficker. When Ciello protests, not wanting to give up Mascone, Santimassino splits hairs: “The deal was no partners, correct?” Mascone, not technically one of Ciello’s partners, is fair game. The complexity of Santimassino’s machinations is revealed when Ciello expresses concern that the drug trafficker poses a flight risk after the apprehension of the bail bondsman; Santimassino confidently assures Ciello that the trafficker isn’t going anywhere, and Ciello correctly surmises that the trafficker is working for Santimassino as an informant. When Mascone is arrested and prosecutors lean on him, he shoots himself in the safehouse motel room rather than cooperate. To Santimassino, Mascone is just an informant, and if he is unavailable, another will materialize. To Ciello, Mascone is a mentor, so he feels responsible for the man’s tragic death. Whatever penance he sought in gathering evidence against his fellow corrupt officers has evaporated, replaced only by more damnation.
Santimassino and the other representatives of the federal bureaucracy have an unlimited threshold for tolerating collateral damage, and they will charge anyone with a crime at any time. They show little loyalty to Ciello when they learn that he has deceived them by downplaying the extent of his criminality, fearing that his misdeeds will come to light and vacate the convictions they have already earned for those he implicated. The entire second half of Prince of the City follows Ciello’s simultaneous efforts to serve as a credible state’s witness against his fellow officers and their associates and to stay out of jail himself. One prosecutor, Burano (Lance Henriksen), walks Ciello into an office to a hero’s welcome, insisting that his star witness receive all the accolades for the conviction they’ve just secured; a few scenes later, when Ciello’s credibility has been challenged by a man under indictment, Burano promises Ciello that he will prosecute the case himself if the accuser’s charges are true. For the lawyers, relationships are entirely transactional. Their mercenary approach to their witnesses stuns Ciello, whose working relationships are entirely built on interpersonal dependence. Ciello lives by a maxim: “the only one who loves you is your partner.” A tearful confession to the other members of SIU demonstrates that Ciello feels he has betrayed their trust; the prosecutors show no such feeling towards him, and are ready to throw him in jail if it suits their purpose.
From the cops on the street like Ciello to the highest ranks of the U.S. Attorney’s office like Santimassino, none of the actors within the system behave admirably. This is where Ciello parts company with Frank Serpico; Lumet’s earlier police officer was a bohemian, intellectual weirdo who just wanted to do his job. In his estimation, fellow officers who took money were free to make that decision, and it is only when they demanded that he also accept bribes that he took offense. For them, his refusal to take part made him untrustworthy. For Serpico, their insistence on participating in their corruption infringed on his ability to do the job the way he wanted to do it. He only testified against them when he was pushed past his breaking point by their intimidation and ultimately his brush with death. Ciello, however, is unflinchingly corrupt from the beginning of Prince of the City. In a bit of self-knowing commentary, Lumet stages an opening scene wherein Ciello and his fellow officers take a drug dealer down by kicking in his door, a restaging of the very kind of sequence during which Serpico was shot in the face and nearly killed. Marching up the stairs, Ciello complains about the risks of taking a door, a knowing gesture in his on-screen predecessor’s direction. However, Ciello has plenty of backup, and when they take the door, it goes about as smoothly as it could; the squad rushes in, apprehends the drug dealer and secures half of his money for themselves. Prince of the City’s opening sequence is a crooked deal that establishes the protagonist’s dubious moral position. His choice to cooperate with the prosecutors is entirely motivated by his own guilt, not some larger principle that police corruption is wrong. When he first explores the idea of working with the authorities, he delivers a self-serving monologue to Cappalino and Paige that excuses his own wrong-doing as a logical outcome of the system as it is built. “You want us to keep everybody on the outside so you can stay on the inside!” he shouts at the prosecutors, who he insists are the ones perpetuating a bad system with their predilection for plea bargaining, with their ambitions to sit on the bench, with their desires to jump to white shoe law firms after doing time in the public sector. He self-righteously explains away his own criminality by claiming victimization on behalf of his fellow police officers: “You people, you’re just out to hurt us! You want to lay the whole fucked-up system on us!” Ciello insists he is not a “rat,” that much-bandied about term which signifies the lowest life form on the police-gangster axis, but of course he is. Ciello rationalizes his choice to cooperate by insisting that he won’t give up his partners, won’t commit that betrayal, won’t hurt men he knows and shares barbecues with, won’t destroy their lives, won’t send them to jail. And he won’t, and he won’t, and he won’t, until he does it. And Ciello does it to save himself. He is contemptible, a far cry from Frank Serpico, the noble eccentric who loved his funny costumes and wanted to do his policework in peace.
Prince of the City’s most staggering critique is also its most radical: its depiction of the justice system calls its very existence into question. The system it presents has so radically departed from its first principles that it has been rendered unrecognizable. It has no defining ethos, no adherence to larger ideals, no honor in its dealings. Nearly every sequence in Prince of the City serves to undermine the justice system visually. Lumet calls all the way back to 12 Angry Men in one key sequence. His debut film opened and closed with awestruck shots that looked up at the mighty pillars of a New York City courthouse, the system powerfully intact. 12 Angry Men offers a stress test of the system, one that it ultimately passes. In Prince of the City, the system has no credibility left. When Lumet shoots outside the very same lower Manhattan courthouse he photographed 20-plus years before, the pillars supporting its edifice seem imbued with menace, not righteousness. His camera doesn’t look up at them, but across, catching Ciello and a pair of prosecutors in long shot as they ascend the stairs. The building is intimidating, invested with capricious power rather than a monument to law and order. Throughout Prince of the City, all of the prosecutorial machinations seem like a desperate play to save the reputation of the system; individual officials inside have lost touch with guiding principles, and have begun to destroy themselves.
The policework depicted in Prince of the City all feels so pointless. The film has absolutely no faith in any individual operator, and its criticism of the system is unsparing. In Prince of the City’s estimation, the system as it is constituted has produced dishonest cops like Ciello, who make the rational choice to skim money from drug dealers because corruption is rampant. The system has also produced bloodless prosecutors and climbers like Santimassino, who serve their own ambition and double-cross anyone who does not serve their interests. Given the overwhelming bleakness of Prince of the City’s worldview, it is no wonder that it failed. Like Sorcerer, New York, New York and Heaven’s Gate, Prince of the City matches its epic scope with a correlative cynicism. Many of the great epics throughout Classic Hollywood history were affirmational, but these grand disasters have no such desire. Prince of the City is a taxing, draining experience, but one that is ultimately rooted in real despair; the system, it argues, has failed. If these characters are the products of the American criminal justice system, then it ought to be blown up. What remains is little more than a battle for turf between unethical cops and unethical prosecutors. Lumet’s film bears a telling omission: criminals. Throughout its entire mammoth running time, Prince of the City spends almost no time with the traditional targets of law enforcement investigation. Nearly all of its lawbreakers are police officers or others associated with the system. This is a film about the system fighting for its soul; the tragedy is that the fight is already over.
Ciello’s final moments on screen illustrate the depths of Prince of the City’ despair. After testifying against his partners — two go to jail and one shoots himself — Ciello barely escapes the wrath of the prosecutors. Lumet stages a remarkable marathon scene inside a dimly lit office in Washington D.C., during which a coterie of attorneys and justice officials debate Ciello’s fate. He has sacrificed immensely, defenders like Cappalino and Paige argue, out of a real desire to reform himself and go straight. Ciello’s detractors, including the vindictive Polito (James Tolkan) and the icy Santimassino, want to make an example of his misdeeds by throwing him in jail along with the crooks he has helped them apprehend. The argument is finally settled by the man in charge: no charges against Ciello. Though this may seem like a reprieve, Ciello will bear the mark of his sins in his continued work for the department. Prince of the City’s final scene takes place in a classroom at the police academy, where Ciello is an invited guest brought before his fellow officers to discuss tactics and best practices for wiretapping and conducting surveillance. After the instructor introduces Ciello to the gathered officers, a plainclothes detective raises his hand: “Are you the Detective Ciello?” he wants to know. Knowing the import of that contemptuous inflection, Danny responds: “I’m Detective Ciello.” His posture is defensive, his tone defiant. The plainclothes detective stands up and walks out, saying, “I don’t think I have anything to learn from you.” Lumet cuts back to the wounded, furious Ciello and freezes. In trying to escape one set of sins, Ciello has committed many more. Before, he had the fellowship and brotherhood of the police department. Now, he has lost it. The plainclothesman’s dismissive exit line is also Prince of the City’s final one. Lumet’s challenge, in ending the film with this lacerating shrug of the shoulders, is addressed to the spectator: Ciello’s story offers no cautionary tale, no lesson. There is, in the detective’s words, nothing to learn here. Prince of the City offers no light at the end of its 167-minute tunnel. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. No one is coming to help. Prince of the City is a film without even the tiniest glimmer of hope. It comes at the midway point of Sidney Lumet’s films about the justice system, and the director would never again go so dark, so unsparing, so cynical. Ciello is irredeemable, and so is the system he serves. Next time, Lumet would offer a different verdict.
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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.