The Best Movie You Never Saw: Prince of the City

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at PRINCE OF THE CITY!

THE STORY: Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), a crooked NYPD narcotics detective, chooses to expose corruption for idealistic reasons, but soon is forced to give up the people that mean the most to him – his partners.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and Lindsay Crouse. Directed by Sidney Lumet.

THE HISTORY: PRINCE OF THE CITY was originally supposed to be a Brian De Palma crime epic starring John Travolta. After months of work on the script, De Palma and Travolta walked, opting to do BLOW OUT instead, which incorporated several of the set-pieces De Palma had dreamed up for the film. The producers then went to Sidney Lumet, who jumped at the opportunity to show a more nuanced look at police corruption as opposed to SERPICO, which he thought was too “good guys” vs “bad guys”.

As his star, he recruited the almost unknown Treat Williams, and worked on a 240 page script that he always knew would make for a three hour film (in fact, the network TV version runs even longer). The reviews were terrific, and the film was considered authentic enough the DEA requested a copy of it to be shown for training purposes to its officers, but financially it went bust, only grossing $8.1 million. Nowadays, it’s considered Lumet’s unseen masterpiece – and for good reason.

WHY IT'S GREAT: PRINCE OF THE CITY is like THE GODFATHER of police corruption movies. Sidney Lumet himself arguably made the most iconic film of this genre with SERPICO, but PRINCE OF THE CITY, at close to three hours, is more incisive. At first glance, Danny Ciello doesn’t seem like much of a hero. We see him shaking down drug dealers, and scoring heroin for a street connection, but there’s a look of anguish on his face throughout. He and his buddies are no more corrupt than a lot of other guys, but Danny’s conscience can’t take it. What starts as a selfish quest to purge himself of guilt, where he extracts a meaningless promise to leave his precinct out of the investigation, turns into a literal decent into hell. He’s left in an impossible situation – rat on his friends or go to jail. His situation isn’t helped by his own loose morality, in that sure, he feels guilty, but he still only owns up to a fraction of the things he did, leaving him vulnerable to the puritanical D.A (James Tolkan) and pretty much assuring that he’ll be left with no choice but to turn in his partners.

It’s really an extraordinary job on Sidney [Lumet’s] part. It’s a great study in the human condition. It’s a big film. It’s big emotionally. It’s operatic. It’s a great, great film, I think. I wish I’d had more experience and been a little older when I did it, but it’s the best I could do at the time, and I’m very proud of it. – Treat WilliamsRandom Roles – AV Club 

Every cliché is turned on its head here. Ciello is more-or-less the good guy, but he’s no hero. The dirty cops he turns in, including Jerry Orbach in an early part, are generally stand-up guys, even reacting with compassion and understanding rather than anger when they hear Ciello’s turned rat. At three hours, it’s a talky film without much in the way of action (although a diner face off with the worst cop in the bunch is tense), but it moves along at a breakneck pace.

Too bad then that so few people have seen PRINCE OF THE CITY, with it rarely mentioned in retrospectives of Lumet’s work. Chalk that up to the fact that he made so many great movies, but to me it belongs up there with 12 ANGRY MEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE VERDICT, NETWORK, and yes, SERPICO.

BEST SCENE: Some think that Treat Williams went overboard as Ciello, but to me he was just right. Someone like Pacino or De Niro would have tried to internalize his struggle, but Williams goes the other way – he externalizes it in a big way. Some would call it scenery chewing – I personally think it’s powerful and dynamic. This scene, where he defends himself to the committee investigating corruption, is one of the most famous, with Williams apparently hoarse for days after they called a wrap.

SEE IT: PRINCE OF THE CITY is only available on DVD, but it’s a good two-disc edition with a solid documentary attached to it. It’s well-worth a blind buy.

PARTING SHOT: PRINCE OF THE CITY really is a neglected masterpiece, and one of my favorite Lumet films. It should have made Williams’s career, but in one of those weird twists of fate, it never made much of an impact. If you want to see an interesting companion piece to something like THE FRENCH CONNECTION or THE SEVEN-FIVE, this is for you.

Source: JoBlo.com



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