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Prince of the City: Special Edition

It's impossible to declare what Sidney Lumet's "best" film is — the director behind such masterpieces as 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network built his reputation on a series of cinematic adaptations (be it novels, plays, or non-fiction) that highlight his ability to tell a story with brutal immediacy, while also crafting sheer actors' showcases that have captured legendary performances from Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Burt Lancaster, Sean Connery, and Paul Newman, to name a few. But ask Lumet himself, and he'll say that 1981's Prince of the City is his most thematically complex picture, and one of his most personally satisfying, despite the fact that it failed to ignite the box-office, was virtually overlooked during the awards season, and didn't propel Treat Williams into the A-list leading-man roles he clearly deserved at the time. Williams stars as Danny Ciello, a detective with the NYPD's Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an elite group of 70 investigators who work virtually unsupervised — "princes of the city," as they're known — while selecting targets and making cases as they see fit. The unit is full of untouchables, and the charismatic Ciello is the leader of his own six-man narcotics team, despite being the youngest among them. For each one, the narcotics beat has created several collateral benefits, and in Danny's case it means a suburban home, flash clothes, and stylish hair. But Danny realizes that he's often just one step away from the wrong side of the law, a fact underscored by his junkie brother (Matthew Laurance) and mob-connected cousin (Ronald Maccone). Thus, after being contacted by District Attorney Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker) in matters related to the newly formed Chase Commission — an investigation designed to look for corruption within the courts and law enforcement — Ciello faces down a severe battle with his own conscience and volunteers to work for Cappalino and his colleague, U.S. Attorney Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling). In exchange, Danny's SIU team is re-organized, he is promised that he will never have to investigate his former partners, and he confesses to three large payoffs he took in his 11 years as a cop. After that, he's turned loose on New York City, setting up a corrupt bail-bondsman and double-dealing cop while building other cases. Word even gets out that he's the "rat" who will testify for the Chase Commission, which only makes Ciello more daring by wearing wires to dangerous meets and refusing to carry a gun. However, Ciello's good work only draws more attention on the inside, in particular from U.S. Attorney Santimassino (Bob Balaban), who's determined to indict Ciello's old friend Gino Mascone (Carmine Caridi), a highly decorated, if corrupt, cop. And after the "French Connection" bust loses 120 lbs. of pure heroin from a police lockup, New York DA Polito (James Tolkan) begins to squeeze Danny's old partners, hoping they all will eventually rat out each other for various unconfessed crimes.

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Brian De Palma reportedly worked in pre-production on Prince of the City for nearly a year before setting the project aside, after which it was taken up by Sidney Lumet on the recommendation of screenwriter/producer Jay Presson Allen. There's little doubt that the film would have been substantially different under De Palma's watch, and if first choice Al Pacino had taken the role of Danny Ciello (he turned it down, considering it too similar to Serpico), it would have earned much more attention in 1981. However, it's unlikely that it would have been a better picture, and the lesser-known Treat Williams as Danny Ciello, supported by Lumet's typically understated direction, gives Prince of the City its quasi-documentary quality — and not only because of Lumet's careful casting and New York location work, but also because the film has no score whatsoever until the final hour. The results aren't merely "tense" or "suspenseful" — few pictures achieve the sort of paranoid claustrophobia that Lumet mines not only from the complex plotting, but from Ciello's myopic idealism as well. Based on NYPD Det. Bob Leuci (who co-wrote the source book), Ciello seeks to distance himself from a corrupt legal system, but he won't let go of the police work that made him untouchable — snooping for the feds, he continues to operate without oversight or caution, and if he occasionally has to provide stoolies with drugs, then danger clearly is his. Prince of the City has the structural trappings of tragedy, where it's not easy for viewers to cling to a protagonist who seems so clearly doomed. Here, despite Ciello's charisma and noble intentions, his fortunes are cast into a maelstrom of consequences, and we find ourselves compelled to watch over the course of three hours as one of the most powerful men in New York finds himself thwarted and isolated, and eventually (as with Lear) irrational and catatonic. In some ways, Prince of the City is an inverted Godfather — here, a leader of a tight-knit clan steps outside of it, eventually undermining the sacred fraternity he swore he would protect (unlike Michael Corelone, an innocuous outsider who eventually becomes a spiritually corrupted patriarch). The motif is unmistakable, particularly in a key scene when Danny reveals his activities to his former partners, who gather in a dimly lit room and array themselves around their youngest like mafiosos in an oil painting. Such are the poses some cops will take when they find themselves operating in a city where prosecutors are more interested in taking down corrupt police officers than drug traffickers; it's a small portrait of survival. But Danny doesn't seem to grasp the nuances of it all. "I wanted to do something to show I was a good guy, not a bad guy," he later explains, and if that in itself doesn't make him heroic, we can at least understand how he became torn between two noble pursuits: being on the right side of the law, and remaining loyal to the people who love him.

Warner's DVD release of Prince of the City offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a very good source-print, with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. The film is split across two discs (there is no theatrical intermission), while admirers will enjoy the sole extra feature, Laurent Bouzereau's "Prince of the City: The Real Story" (30 min.), a new retrospective featurette with comments from Sidney Lumet, Treat Williams, Bob Leuci, Jay Presson Allen, and others. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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