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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Prince of the City
Prince of the City
Warner Bros. // R // May 22, 2007
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted May 21, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Although Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City hit movie theaters in 1981, its leisurely pace, brooding themes and unrelenting moral ambivalence place it squarely in line with the director's string of Seventies-era masterworks that included 1973's Serpico, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon and 1976's Network. Unfairly overlooked during its initial release, this is a complex, meaty tragedy masquerading as a police drama, and its arrival as a two-DVD package is long overdue.

Based on a 1978 nonfiction book by Robert Daley, Prince of the City changes names and times, but it essentially tells the real-life story of Robert Leuci, a New York City cop who wore a wire as part of a sweeping federal probe of corrupt NYPD narcotics detectives. The film's Leuci surrogate, Special Investigative Unit detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), is far from a self-righteous Dudley Do-Right. Like his partners in the narcotics division, Danny shelved his idealism long ago to accommodate the grim realities of his job. He routinely dispenses heroin to the junkies he uses as informants, make deals with mobsters and occasionally helps himself to the suitcases of cash seized in major drug busts. The officers, self-styled cowboys with little administrative oversight, tell themselves that such shenanigans are the only way to cut into the profits of the drug lords.

Although Danny presents himself to the world as cocky and boisterous, he is clearly troubled by his corruption. Consequently, he is intrigued when he is approached by a prosecutor (Norman Parker) representing the Chase Commission, a federal investigation of crooked New York cops. For reasons never made explicit, Danny eventually agrees to wear a wire for the commission and collect evidence against dishonest cops, but he forces the feds to accept an important caveat: He will never ever rat out his partners.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Lumet and Jay Presson Allen has ambition to spare. With more than 100 speaking parts, Prince of the City weaves through a nearly three-hour maze of crosses and doublecrosses, close calls and courtroom wangling. Through it all, Lumet employs a gritty, naturalistic style that contributes to the sense of heightened realism.

The audience is afforded information in spurts and dribbles, effectively forcing us to experience Danny's confusion and powerlessness as he spirals deeper into shadowy investigations that appear to have no end. Moviegoers with a low threshold for police procedurals and convoluted plotlines might not care much for the approach. And, yes, Prince of the City is undoubtedly longer than it needs to be.

But the film's rewards are many. In this simmering cauldron, Prince of the City explores the difficulties of adhering to an ethical code in an unethical world. The ostensible good guys of the federal investigation are opportunistic and duplicitous. Career bureaucrats all, they drift in and out of the process while Danny is eventually left working with Santimassino (Bob Balaban), a coldly aloof prosecutor who treats the cop like a piece of wadded-up gum on the bottom of his shoe. When Danny jokes that he doesn't want to be responsible for getting anyone arrested over Easter, adding that narcotics officers are loathe to jail people during holidays, Santimassino just stares at him blankly. "It's a little different on the federal side," he says tartly.

The men Danny inevitably hurts most are those whom he loves and respects -- and who love and respect him back. Prince of the City extols male bonding, only to shatter such loyalties into a thousand pieces. "I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners!" Danny barks to the feds early on, explaining that he will never betray his friends. Once the journey begins, however, he learns that betrayal begets betrayal -- and that absolution is impossible.

Treat Williams has a formidable task in the film. The actor, whom Lumet cast based on his quasi-breakout role in 1979's Hair, is given the role of a definite antihero; Danny must be charming but blustery, heroic but conniving and deceitful. That does not always make for a sympathetic protagonist, but Williams successfully conveys the character's humanity and inner turmoil. It is a demanding performance, and a marvelous one. But Lumet is well-known for getting the best from his actors. Prince of the City boasts dozens of memorable acting turns, especially by Balaban, Jerry Orbach, Lindsay Crouse and Carmine Caridi.

The DVD

The movie is split over two discs, with scenes 1-27 and the theatrical trailer on Disc One. Disc Two features the remainder of the film and the bonus documentary. The DVDs are housed in a plastic double keepcase.

The Video:

Unfortunately, the good folks at Warner Brothers didn't tax themselves with the most stellar print transfer. The anamorphic widescreen picture is of uneven quality. Nighttime and darkly lit scenes tend to have grain, and images are often soft. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1.

The Audio:

The mono audio track is, well, mono. Even so, the movie is dialogue-heavy, and the sound is wholly adequate. A French audio track is available, with subtitles available in English, French and Spanish.

Extras:

Considering that Lumet has done extraordinary commentaries for several of his flicks, it's disappointing that Prince of the City comes sans commentary. Hell, Treat Williams or Robert Leuci would've been worth the trouble, but evidently it was not meant to be.

Aside from a theatrical trailer, the sole extra is Prince of the City: The Real Story, a very good making-of featurette that clocks in just shy of 29 minutes. Interviewees include Lumet, Allen, Daley, Leuci, Williams, Balaban and others. The Laurent Bouzereau-directed piece is edifying. Lumet notes that perhaps the movie's moral ambivalence stemmed from the fact that the filmmaker himself wasn't sure how he felt about the protagonist until shooting had wrapped up.

Final Thoughts:

Along with 1982's The Verdict, Prince of the City marks Sidney Lumet's best work of the 1980s. Even so, it remains largely overlooked -- strange when you consider how its masterful filmmaking, acting and writing give the movie a timeless quality. This two-disc set doesn't quite do the flick justice, but why complain? Prince of the City is finally on DVD, and that's reason enough to rejoice.

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