Prince of the City Review

New York City, the early 1970s. Daniel Ciello agrees to help a Department of Justice investigation into corruption in the New York Police Department. However, above all else, Ciello vows never to inform on his partners. Soon Ciello uncovers a conspiracy to traffic drugs to informers…but also to take a cut of the proceeds, not to mention accepting bribes. In his search for justice, Ciello pays a high price.

Daniel Ciello is a fictional character inspired by a real person, detective Robert Leuci, who similarly informed on his colleagues. Having left the force, Leuci is now a crime novelist. Robert Daley’s book on Leuci, Prince of the City, was brought to director Sidney Lumet’s attention by co-screenwriter and executive producer Jay Presson Allen. The resulting film, boasting 130 locations and 126 speaking parts (I haven’t counted them, though only forty-one are actually credited on screen), attracted generally good notices but indifferent box office. Time has been kind to it, though, and it sits at the heart of Sidney Lumet’s extensive (and, let’s be honest, variable) filmography, an epic-length summation of many of his prevailing themes and concerns, and ranks amongst his best work. A concern with policemen, their loyalties, the dangers they face and the pressures on them and their potential for corruption, set in New York, Lumet’s home turf and a city he knows intimately. He had been there before with Serpico (and let’s not forget the British-set The Offence) and would deal with these themes again in Q&A. Prince of the City makes a big thing of the cops’ loyalty to their friends and partners, whom they see more than their wives and girlfriends. By breaking this code, Ciello alienates himself from them for evermore, as the final scene makes clear.

Lumet is and always has been a superb director of actors. Treat Williams gives the performance of his life as Ciello, a man who becomes increasingly undone as the film goes on. However, you can see how he didn’t click as a film star. He certainly had the looks, but somehow not the charisma, a quality that works in mysterious ways but you know it when you see it. With a genuine star, that quality is seemingly effortless. You watch Williams here with interest through sheer hard work on his and Lumet’s part, but ultimately the camera doesn’t quite love him enough – Williams has since become what he’s best suited to being, a character actor, in films such as Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. In the huge supporting cast, Lumet drew upon New York’s rich reservoir of character actors, including some who had not acted before – even the smallest role is perfectly cast, with a man (this is a very male-oriented film) who looks utterly convincing. Jerry Orbach all but steals the film in a career-making role, and among the smaller roles you can spot Lance Henriksen.

Sidney Lumet is not notable for being a visual stylist, but the grainy realist style on display here is not so artless as it might appear. As Lumet explains in the featurette on this DVD, he and DP Andrzej Bartkowiak (with whom he worked a lot – Bartkowiak has since become a director himself) emphasised the backgrounds with the lighting of each scene in the first third of the film, balanced foreground and background in the middle section, then lit for the foregrounds and let the backgrounds drop away in the final third. This isn’t a film that lends itself to visual pyrotechnics: given Allen and Lumet’s script which admirably elucidates a complex story, Lumet, Bartkowiak and production designer Tony Walton’s task is to tell it with as much clarity as possible.

Prince of the City is certainly a long film – too long for some – but it earns its extended running time through detail and story complexity, which is more than you can say for so many overlong films nowadays. It’s a coincidence of film reviewing that I rewatched this film on DVD during the same weekend as I saw David Fincher’s new film Zodiac in the cinema. Both are period-set crime films, of different subgenres (the hunt for a serial killer versus rooting out police corruption), though based on truth. Though stylistically quite different, both distil a large dramatis personae and events spanning several years into a coherent and engrossing story, and both are long films which need to be.

Though his profile has slipped in the last decade and a half, Sidney Lumet has been a film director for half a century as of this year, after beginning his career in television, and is still working some way into his eighties. He began with a masterpiece, 12 Angry Men, and has worked prolifically across a wide range of genres. The price of such an output is inconsistency – there are a fair number of duds in that filmography, but he has made some great films too. Prince of the City is certainly up there amongst his best.

Prince of the City is released as part of Warner’s Director’s Showcase: Take Two, along with Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Straight Time and Steelyard Blues and is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4. It comprises two discs, a DVD-9 and a DVD-5.

Calling this two-disc release a “special edition” is something of a stretch, as it could quite easily be contained on one DVD-9 disc. The film is split over the two discs, running 110:30 on the first and 56:58 on the second. Prince of the City may well have played with an intermission on its cinema release (though it didn’t when I saw it) but I don’t know if the DVD breaks at the intermission point or not. The chapter numbering is continuous over the two discs, with Disc Two picking up the action at number twenty-eight, out of forty-two in all.

Lumet characteristically shoots his cinema features in a ratio of 1.85:1: I don’t know of an exception to that. As seems to be Warner’s wont, the DVD transfer opens the matte up slightly to 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. No problems with the transfer, which is faithful to the ultra-naturalistic style Lumet and Bartkowiak have adopted. In some scenes shadow detail is fairly poor, but that’s how the film has always looked. The same goes for the grain, which is noticeable but not excessive, and the generally muted colour scheme.

Prince of the City dates from a time when Dolby Stereo soundtracks were beginning to take hold. But many films were still released in mono, and this was one of them. So, quite rightly we get a single-channel soundtrack, which balances the sound effects and Paul Chihara’s sparse music score with the all-important dialogue. There is also a Canadian-French dubbed soundtrack available and a choice of subtitles for the feature only.

As I say above, the DVD format is long past the time when a two-disc release could be considered special. This edition has just the two extras, the trailer on Disc One and a featurette on Disc Two. That’s absolutely fine for a back-catalogue release, don’t get me wrong: my issue here is with over-enthusiastic labelling.

The featurette is “Prince of the City - The Real Story”, which is in 4:3 and runs 28:35. Produced by Laurent Bouzereau, it follows a familiar format: interviews combined with extracts from the film (in non-anamorphic 1.85:1) and behind-the-scenes footage and stills. Interviewees include Sidney Lumet, Jay Presson Allen, producer Burtt Harris and Treat Williams, as well as Robert Leuci. It demonstrates the length of time it takes to make a featurette such as this (copyrighted 2006 and released in 2007) that it contains seemingly new interview segments with Jay Presson Allen, who died in May 2006. The format may be familiar, but there’s interesting material to be had, for example Lumet discussing his visual strategies, such as his use of lighting (summarised above) and wide and long lenses.

The trailer is 16:9 anamorphic and runs 1:42, a fair stab at what is less a thriller than a heavy-duty drama. This can’t have been an especially easy film to sell.

Prince of the City shows Sidney Lumet close to home. There’s something vital about his New York-set films that isn’t always apparent in his other work, and Prince of the City benefits from it. Many of the people involved have not done better work before or since. Warner’s DVD isn’t the Special Edition it claims to be, but the picture and sound are fine and the extras we do have are worthwhile.

9 out of 10
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