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Prince of the City
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Subpar Rendition of 'Serpico"
2 stars

If you're going to see it, expect nothing really solid except the stellar supporting performances.

There's a scene very late in the game in Sidney Lumet's neurasthenic, nearly-three-hour New York police-corruption tale Prince of the City that illuminates its two central flaws: a story with way too many familiarities and generalities, and a weak central performance by Treat Williams in the title role. After years of Detective Daniel Ciello wearing a wire on his fellow corrupt officers and corrupt bail bondsmen and lawyers associated with them, and testifying at numerous trials as the star witness, his fate is being decided in a room full of prosecutors he's worked under and a top Washington, D.C. prosecutor who's given them three days to either make the case for or against Ciello being indicted on some forty counts of perjury. A former narcotics officer with the department's elite Special Investigative Unit (SIU), consisting of him and his three tight-knit partners, Ciello, without any pressure, decided to go to work for an anti-corruption strike force headed by two ambitious, Ivy League-educated government prosecutors who he had nothing but initial contempt for but chose to join out of guilt over his own corrupt actions. At the onset of their relationship, he volunteered only three unlawful actions he partook in, which to them seemed a paltry number considering his eleven years as a police officer; as we've seen prior to this, he made it his duty to locate heroin and supply it to his junkie informants who were absolutely crucial in attaining pertinent street information. Even though he didn't ask for money in exchange for the dope, he did supply it, which, technically, in the eyes of the legal system, is equivalent with "selling." Eventually, one of his chief informants, who's been indicted and financially wiped out due to liens and seizures brought against him, has submitted detailed information of his many illegal transactions with Ciello; after a while, too emotionally worn-out and spent to defend himself any longer, Ciello confesses to all his illegalities. So the aforementioned scene is the very height of the film: Should Ciello be prosecuted for the crimes or be given immunity because he did in fact voluntary come forward to expose corruption without asking anything in return except only that his partners be left out of it? The reason the scene is interesting is because it addresses a non-black-and-white issue in giving many logical reasons for both sides. Yes, Ciello has sacrificed his career and family for the better good, but prosecutors, like police officers, also took an oath to uphold the law. It's also the standout scene because all of the supporting actors in it are infinitely superior to Williams who doesn't appear in this scene, as opposed to the other scenes where their talented thespian selves effortlessly blow him away.

Williams isn't necessarily a bad actor. He's got the looks and some charisma, but not much interior life, alas. He was smug in the equally-smug adaptation of the Broadway musical hit Hair, but the very next year in the slight-but-nice romantic comedy Why Would I Lie? he displayed some natural appeal. In this starring role, however, in which he appears in virtually every scene, even though the role is inconsistently written, he comes across as "unformed" -- you never get the impression he has an ounce of genuine world experience to draw upon to lend gravitas and texture to the character; he's like a first-year acting student thrown to the wolves in a demanding part he just isn't capable of filling out. (He's got guts but not gusto: he admirably throws himself into his scenes with aplomb but just doesn't have the authenticity to carry them.) We're supposed to believe Ciello's the commander of his unit, a good seven years younger than the youngest senior cop, and Williams' vapidity makes this come off as highly implausible; maybe if Ciello were a high-ranking official's spoiled son given this position it would make some sense, but we can't accept it because this limited actor doesn't project so much as an iota of concentrated force -- the four actors playing his partners are "real," while Williams is "patented." Lumet's other police-corruption tale, 1973's Serpico, was also clunky in structure and ragged in execution, but Al Pacino's galvanizing star performance made up for some of that -- he had more substance than the writing and directing combined. It shouldn't give any critic joy in berating an actor, especially when one as noble as Williams is clearly giving it his very best, but Lumet, who clearly loves actors and gives them a lot of leeway (sometimes way too much, as if he were head of the Actors Studio rather than a director responsible for giving attention to a film's other aspects), supplies Williams with a lion's share of emotional scenes to prove his stuff where we're supposed to feel his tortured soul coming apart at the seams right before our eyes, and he isn't up to it. You keep waiting and waiting and waiting for the performance to come alive, and all Williams can deliver are generic acting "choices" that come right out of a can. On the evening Ciello accepts the task force's offer with the two prosecutors sitting in an office before him, Ciello moves around and yells that they've no idea what low-paid, always-in-danger cops go through on a daily basis ("The first thing a cop learns is that he can't trust anybody but his partners. I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners!"), and all I could think was, "Gee, that Lumet must have promised Williams he could have a self-indulgent, going-for-the-Oscar speech every thirty minutes or so, and ended up regretful in his director's chair over his unwise decision in doing so."

Still, it would negligible in assigning the majority of the weight to Williams when Lumet, who not only directed but co-wrote the unbelievably scattershot screenplay, bears more than his share of the blame. After not only the box-office smash Serpico but the well-received Dog Day Afternoon he's been regarded as the "king of cinematic New York" along with Martin Scorsese; but at least Scorsese, for all his self-indulgent luridness, has genuine expressive film craft whereas Lumet lacks both visual and narrative assuredness. He can give you "gritty," but so can many film directors given access to bountiful New York locations and a decent budget; but what he can't do -- or won't allow himself to or is lacking in the talent to (I vote the latter) -- is root a story in true cinematic terms by improving upon a screenplay by lending it valid treatment on the silver screen. Prince of the City takes place in over a hundred locations, but Lumet, so utterly dedicated to giving us spatial "variety," never stays long enough at any given one to give us our bearings -- right when a scene starts to build interest, Lumet cuts to another one, and right when we think he's carrying something over from the previous scene he leapfrogs ahead again, keeping us dizzy rather than dazzled. Countless characters are introduced and then shoved aside for a while just so the shaky plot can progress; just about everything in the film feels second-rate and shopworn -- Lumet clearly was more concerned with quantity than quality ("Life is filled with numerous encounters with numerous people in a man's life, so by showing all this I'm making the whole thing real," you can practically hear him trying to convince himself throughout the production). William Friedkin's dynamite The French Connection was simplistic in its story but not in its storytelling -- you felt the vroom of the take-no-prisoners narrative velocity that shook you up and left you spent, and it didn't make its characters ciphers during the talking-heads chapters just to fuse with the bravura action. Prince of the City, sans any real action scenes, takes on the attitude that being overly contemplative and solemn is superior because it gives more screen time to its characters, but when they're all so badly developed you never feel you're in the company of recognizable human beings, just a stock acting troupe merely wanting another film to put on their resumes. Oh, there are a couple of beautiful acting jobs you want to take home and bottle -- Norman Parker's as Rick, one of the first prosecutors Ciello hooks up with who we're not sure will stay by his side till the end, and Jerry Orbach as Gus Levy, the oldest of Ciello's partners who valiantly stands steadfast against any deal to testify that might help his vulnerable situation -- but, like the scenes, their characters aren't adequately shaped and integrated into an organic overall whole. To say Prince of the City is enervating and episodic is like saying the island of Maui is sunny and beautiful.

There's nothing more frustrating than an absurdly overlong film that treads over tired territory and fails to burrow down and unearth anything fresh from it. We get that same-old spiel of cops reminding non-cops to know their place in the civilian world and to unquestionably respect them ("We're the only thing between you and the jungle"). We get the tainted cop who wants to "come clean" because he wants to do something to remind himself why he became a cop in the first place. We get thankless domestic scenes with his wife always complaining what the pressure of his cooperating is doing to their family. We get obvious, overexplicit dialogue by the likes of, "I don't know what the truth is anymore." What's especially bothersome is Ciello's hopeless naivety, both in his belief that none of his partners will be thrown to the wolves later on down the line (which, of course, they will be), and being surprised when his comfortable suburban life is turned upside down by his being moved to different locales and surrounded by around-the-clock armed government agents for his protection ("I'm the first to go to prison," he ruefully remarks when shown into the drab apartment he'll be staying in while testifying). There's a potentially marvelous path the film is on the horizon of taking when Ciello starts getting euphoric highs over taking huge chances wearing wires to certain meetings he's advised not to because the risk is perceived of being too great -- at one point, he gets right into a subject's face while the man's eating in a public restaurant and jokingly tells him over and over that he's wired and all he has to do is search him -- but that, like countless other things in the story, is glossed over and dropped. (What would have been wrong with a live-wire of a character shaking and stirring things up to the volatile point where he became more of a liability than a benefit to the strike force? Because Lumet couldn't justify numerous close-ups of Williams to show that this Average Joe is just hurtin' all the darn time.) We're, I think, supposed to view Ciello as both hero and anti-hero, and, I think, Levy, the cop who won't rat no matter how much of a case the strike force has against him, as the real hero. But near the end in that scene where the prosecutors deliberate Ciello's fate and the decision winds up in his favor, Lumet makes sure to have it punctuated with a round of applause from most of the people in the room, and we're not exactly brought up short but a wee bit disappointed because, all in all, it's a "feel-good" movie conclusion on mainstream par with, say, the favorable jury outcome in Lumet's own 12 Angry Men.

Simplistic, solipsistic and superfluous, Prince of the City, despite the absence of genuine sound and fury, still succeeds in signifying absolutely nothing for being so uninvolving and unfocused. It could've been about a lot of things it brings up and then subterfuges because Lumet is so dedicated to cramming so much material in. An entire film could be made detailing the tight relationship cops have to maintain with street-level low-lives to ensure they have all the needed information to know where drugs are coming from, who the up-and-coming big boys on the block are so they can be neutralized before rising any higher, and so on. Ciello's conscience was bugging him when he beat up a junkie so he could steal his supply to give to a "jonsing" junkie informant who badly needed a fix at three in the morning; he winds up taking the roughed-up junkie back to the man's seedy apartment, only to stand by and do nothing as the man beats up on his girlfriend for having helped herself to too much of his supply; then later in the film Ciello expresses some kind of sympathy for his informants, that he eventually grows to care for them, but the point is fuzzy because Lumet is trying to have it both ways. The bottom line is Ciello needs relationships with junkies for his work. If they stopped giving him information, would he still care for them? Of course not. Then Ciello confesses he and his partners have kept as much as half the cash from the occasional big-time drug-dealer's bust so the man doesn't have the money to make his bail, which could probably make for some biting black comedy if handled right, but then the implications aren't followed through on -- we're supposed to see that these cops are entitled to this money to provide fancy houses and private schools for their children, and backyard barbeques for the family get-togethers merely because they're doing a dangerous, never-really-off-duty job. When Ciello's drug-addicted younger brother berates him for lecturing him when he knows Ciello's corrupt in light of his material luxuries, and Ciello shouts (and, boy, does he shout a lot), "I've earned everything I have," maybe Lumet is trying to make Ciello the self-deluded fool, maybe not. And what about special prosecutors doing their best to reel in cops to be informants and then later on down the line abandoning them after that cop's successful efforts land them lucrative, powerful positions up the bureaucracy because of all the convictions they've gotten because of him? I wouldn't call Prince of the City applaudable for its supposed willingness to throw all this in to convey the "messiness" of life, but I would call it messy for its lack of following through on much of anything to give the impression of mere "scope." In the end, I don't know if we're meant to have contempt or praise for Ciello, but I do know we feel nothing but contempt for the film.

As flawed as "Serpico" is, it's a far better Redbox rental.

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originally posted: 12/07/11 12:20:18
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  19-Aug-1981 (R)
  DVD: 22-May-2007



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