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If a guy took as a cop, he’ll take as a detective.

Movie

Prince of the City
(1981)

 

The theme of corruption, be it localised or endemic, is an evergreen, and it’s one that particularly preoccupied moviemakers during the cynical backend of the ’60s and subsequently throughout the ’70s. Prince of the City concerns itself with events that occurred at the beginning of this period; Robert Leuci graduated the Police Academy in the early-60s, joining the NYPD and ending up in the Narcotics Bureau’s Special Investigation Unit (or SIU). In 1970, he was asked if he’d work with the Knapp Commission, which was charged with investigating police corruption. One of those asking was Frank Serpico, whom Sidney Lumet had made a movie about nearly a decade before this picture. Prince of the City often gets credited as going one better than Serpico, in terms of depth afforded the subject matter and authenticity, but there’s a reason(s) it can’t match its predecessor’s profile. It lacks the anchor of real star charisma. And further, through its attempts at fidelity, it ends up sprawling and unfocussed where it counts. Sure, you’ll come away unimpressed with a system that can’t even clean house with dedication and clarity of purpose, but there’s nothing very resonant or revelatory about it.

Perhaps that’s partly down to the way Lumet and co-screenwriter Jay Presson Allen have necessitated a shift in focus (this was originally to have been a Brian De Palma picture, starring Robert De Niro – a vestige of this version is found in the wiretap flashback in that director’s Blow Out – and, whether or not it would have favoured style over content, it certainly wouldn’t have got itself bogged down in a mire of drab verisimilitude). Per the Wiki summary of Leuci’s career (so I make no presumptions of complete accuracy or impartiality), he made it a condition of his cooperation that the Commission would look to the corruption inherent in the system, rather than just the police; while his movie surrogate Daniel Ciello alludes to such corruption being everywhere, it isn’t something he brandishes as leverage. 

But then, Ciello isn’t much of a character at all, in terms of giving us a steer on exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing. It grates a little, given the shit storm that rains down on him as a consequence. There are slivers of reasons – having to deal with the accusations of his druggie brother and tending to the needs of junkie informants – but there’s a sketchiness that becomes irritating when filtered through Treat Williams’ often painful overplaying (besides which, he’s more your all-American quarterback type than a wholly credible Italian-American). 

Ciello doesn’t want to dob in his friends yet exults in the daring of spilling the beans and undercover work. Inhabited by someone able to offer more texture and nuance, his motivation might have crystallised without any need for overstatement, but what we get is dissatisfyingly contrarian; we never believe Danny has any genuine misgivings about his culpability (perhaps he just saw the writing on the wall), so wringing his hands over the consequences of his actions quickly becomes tiresome. And his flagrant perjuring just ensurs he looks a bit stupid. Indeed, perhaps that’s the takeaway; Ciello’s just a bit stupid. Which makes for an imbalance at the centre of a movie presenting itself as trenchant, perceptive and considered.

Alvarez: I don’t know why you people don’t understand the system. You want a conviction, but you’ve got these stupid search and seizure laws. And wiretaps. Case one never got made without an illegal wiretap. And you’re never gonna get a conviction if a cop don’t commit perjury. What is it that you want? You want the big dealer out of business? The only way I know to push him out of business is to steal his cash. Otherwise somewhere down the line, he’s gonna buy out. He’ll buy himself a bondsman. A DA. A judge. The scumbag dealer’s back on the streets before the arresting officer.

With regard to the corruption aspect, I was much more persuaded by the interview with Detective Alvarez (Tony Page, also of Q: The Winged Serpent). He saying it’s rife (so per Leuci). It’s the way the system works. He knows that on the street level. On a macro level, that of the architects of inherently flawed social systems, this is essential to its function. The cops here are doing what they’re doing to get by, and on one level, they’re doing a good job (as David Simon noted of the case, when discussing We Own This City, the cops would fess to taking money, but they were affronted at the idea they would take the drugs; by his yardstick, on sliding scales of principles, this was no longer true 50 years later). The system needs to be riddled with comprised individuals in order for the wheels of the elite (or deep state) to function smoothly. You don’t need the cop on the street to know this, or the mob guy, or the DA, all of whom have some awareness of their immediate jurisdiction and justification for behaviour therein, from whatever perspective (good/bad, legal/illegal, justified/unjustified). 

It isn’t Prince of the City’s remit to probe the sanctity of the legal system, for example; there are allusions to corrupt DAs, but we don’t see any (…And Justice for All is slicker but also more jaundiced in that regard). Instead, the processions of attorneys, DAs, prosecutors and judges offering their input are characterised by either their humanity – their ability to empathise with Danny – or their implacability.  Hardnosed DA Polito (James Tolkan), based on Thomas Puccio, who represented Claus von Bülow, is shown to be utterly unsympathetic towards the cops in the case; anything punitive coming their way, they deserve. In a highly memorable scene, an unchastened Detective Gus Levy (Jerry Orbach), one of Danny’s former cohorts, gut punches Polito after flipping his desk over and barks at him that, rather than charging him for taking a lousy 400 dollars, he should “at least get me for assault”.

That’s the kind of charged moment you’re looking for here, the lack of which makes the proceedings rather listless. In Goodfellas, Scorsese portrayed a world that was fully invested in its code; unconscionable as it might be to anyone looking in, it was also entirely coherent. Serpico seemed like – possibly cartoonishly so to some – a martyr to his cause. At one-point, Ciello protests that you won’t find Mafia guys blowing their brains out (as one of his partners does), which illustrates the difference between them, why those pursuing the investigation “gotta treat us different”. But the mafia guys DO whack his cousin (Ron Maccone), who wrongly vouched for Danny. 

When you see stridency in Prince of the City, it invariably comprises being a prick with it. Bob Balaban essays highly manipulative Special Assistant US Attorney Santimassino, based on Michael F Armstrong (chief counsel to the Knapp Commission, and who represented Sunny von Bülow’s kids against Claus, adding to the sense that all these guys form a coterie at the higher levels). While Polito maintains that his stance as the chief prosecutor takes account of the various representations regarding Ciello’s fate – he is of the view that some of those involved have “fallen in love with this perpetrator”, but the law means everything to him – Stantimassino reveals his hand when he avers, “No matter how you slice it, Ciello is a corrupt narcotics agent”, before exploding “And what this is all about finally, is NARCOTICS!” In doing so – not that it wasn’t already entirely obvious, thanks to Balaban’s impudent and pompous playing – he reveals that he’s entirely unprincipled himself, happy to tell Ciello what he wants to hear in order to extract what they want from him. 

Indeed, this is, finally, where Ciello’s initial contacts, Special Assistant US Attorney Cappalino (Norman Parker), based on Nicholas Scopetta, and Special Assistant US Attorney Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling), regain some lost ground, having earlier left Ciello flailing in the winds of the system when they moved on to other cases; they admit they all allowed him to perjure himself and knew he was lying about committing only 3 offences. They argue someone risking their life to expose the system is very different to a doctor or a lawyer who runs no such danger, and that further, if they prosecute him, it will warn off cops from testifying in the future. Adding to this is the guy who takes over from them, Mario Vincente (Steve Inwood), based on Rudy Giuliani, professing that “If Danny Ciello is indicted, I’ll have to tender my resignation from the US Attorney’s Office”. Which receives a curt “Bullshit” from Polito, convinced its cynical grandstanding.

Are these investigations – such as the Knapp Commission – sincere, or are they for show? Maybe the former holds, in the immediacy of those appointed (who move or are moved on). Mostly, however, they plug a hole, receive publicity, take some scalps, and then the familiar service resumes, albeit with perhaps slightly different moving parts. Prince of the City attempts to recognise that cleaning house isn’t the straightforward process – functionally, ethically and morally – it might appear to be at first glance, as the corrupt betray shades of grey, and degrees of honour, of honesty, and of duty, yet it never seems especially erudite when addressing these elements. 

Moviechat (preserving the old IMDB forums) elicits some fiery rebukes and contrasting praises of Ciello/Leuci, suggesting the area remains one where a superficial pronouncement – from either extreme vantage – does the situation no favours. Excepting of course, to recognise that, if it doesn’t work, and if cleaning it up simply shifts corruption somewhere else – because it isn’t going away, whether it’s the manufactured problem of drugs or exacerbated one of crime, or conveniently curated concerns over corruption – it’s all been part of the plan. 

As noted, reactions to Prince of the City, which Lumet brought in below its $10m budget yet still failed to make a profit, have tended to be retrospectively glowing, with many claiming it as his crown jewel. I was lukewarm when I first saw it and remain so. Indeed, in contrast to Time Out’s Jessica Winter, I’d argue Serpico makes for a far more engaging picture on the same theme (she called it “Serpico all over again, but revised, enlarged and immeasurably improved”). Perhaps “All moral certainties have gone, leaving instead a can of worms where questions of friendship, loyalty and honesty are redefined in the ambiguous light of corruption…” but the picture’s can of worms is a sloppy, unrefined mess in the telling. 

Consequently, I tend more towards Pauline Kael’s verdict, from her criticism of Williams, who “plays each scene as an acting exercise – going through so much teary, spiritual agony that you want to throw something at him”, on down (she suggested, “He acts all over the place, yet the movie – 2 hours and 47 minutes of pseud-documentary seriousness – is so poorly structured that you keep wondering what’s going on and why he has agreed to inform on his friends”). Kael also had-at the look of the production itself, which elicited Kurosawa’s praise, the “super-realistic overall gloom, and people are so ‘ethnic’ and yell so much that you begin to long for the sight of a cool blond in bright sunshine”.

Paul Chihara’s score starts with an ominous electronic heartbeat effect that suggests we’re in for something tense and relentless, but it soon falls apart in favour of trite melodramatic cues (Kael: “The music… suggests an existential fugue by Schubert”). Indeed, the score might be the key contribution evidencing Lumet lacked a clear vision for the film; he was simply churning out another New York crime picture, a companion piece to Serpico, rather than coming to the subject matter fresh and treating it with due care and consideration. As the ’80s dawned, the director was on an increasingly variable streak: one moment The Wiz, the next The Verdict (indeed, the latter is probably his last great movie, released the year after this). He had a good run, but he’d already mined this territory (he’d return to it again with Q&A). Someone with a fresher take might have made hay from Prince of the City.

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