Saturday, November 21, 2009

PRINCE OF THE CITY (SIDNEY LUMET, 1981)

I begin this blog with a small preface. I am not one to start a blog. I am not one to post any sort of opinion on the internet. There are too many people and too many opinions circulating around the internet for my ideas and thoughts to count for anything. However, seeing as I am a lover of all sorts of films, I cannot help but bring attention to certain movies that have been neglected over the years. Some of the movies I will review are relatively old. They are perhaps from another country, in another language. Some of them might be from recent years, and widely available for rental or purchase. But each and every one of these films has a special quality to it, and each of them is not as well known and popular as it deservedly should be. My only hope is that just one person reads just one review and rents just one movie and enjoys it. Then, my goal will be accomplished. Perhaps these reviews will not be read by anyone any time soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.


Now on to our first film. "Prince of the City" was directed by the great Sidney Lumet in 1981. At this point in his career, he had already directed numerous classic films including his marvelous debut "12 Angry Men" in 1957, "Serpico" in 1973 with Al Pacino, and "Network", which would go on to win 4 Academy Awards, in 1976. Prince of the City stars Treat Williams as a corrupt cop who attempts to go straight by snitching on fellow police officers. Based on a true story which was the template for Robert Daley's 1978 book of the same name, Williams perfectly portrays the transition the main character experiences throughout the story. At the beginning, he is a confident and tough cop who has love for his family and his partners in the precinct. However, after becoming an accomplice with the district attorneys whose aim is to bring these corrupt officers and lawyers to justice, his life becomes a living hell. His attempts at remaining a shadow on the wall fail. He is outed as the snitch and all of his familial and friendly relationships die out. The epic multi-layer film chronicles the rough consequences for a man who was simply trying to make up for his mistakes.

Expertly directed by Lumet, it was familiar territory for him when he made this film nearly 30 years ago. Having directed Al Pacino in a tour-de-force performance as Frank Serpico, an honest man who wouldn't abide to the rules that came with being a street wise cop, Lumet was revisiting past settings with this gritty, New York cop drama. Although, as Lumet stated in an interview back in 1981, he felt guilty about the two-dimensional way he treated police officers in "Serpico" and said that Prince of the City was his way to rectify this depiction.

Treat Williams, still early in his career, was never better, and hasn’t been better since. The performance is something to marvel at. He might not have the reputation that Pacino has accumulated since working with Lumet in the 70s on “Serpico” and his notable follow-up “Dog Day Afternoon”, but Williams still manages to keep our attention and command the screen for its nearly 3-hour length. It is particularly heartbreaking to watch as Williams’ tries to plead with the DA’s not to force him to snitch on his closest friends and partners. As he explains it “I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners!”

The question that the movie had me wondering since the opening scenes was why? Why would a cop who has a good, loving family, and loyal friends and partners, want to ruin all of that by revealing his own transgressions from the past as well as those of other cops and lawyers he knew did and were doing wrong? And while it takes the film nearly its entire length to attempt to answer that question, it never really does. But that is not even the point of the story. The point of this film, as well as Lumet’s previous, more well-known “Serpico”, was that things are not what they seem to be on the surface. We might look at our police department as the good guys, but in the end, they might be the exact opposite. Because cops are people too. They get greedy, just like any human being does at some point in their life. Except these cops have less to fight through when confronted with this greed. A regular person doesn’t come across drug dealers, drug addicts, hookers, junkies, criminals, and million dollar exchanges for large quantities of contraband in their everyday lives. But police officers do, particularly the unit portrayed in the film, the Special Investigative Unit, otherwise known as the SIU.

“Prince of the City” went pretty much under the radar during its initial release in 1981. Budgeted at a robust $10 million, it opened at just three theaters during the summer of ’81 and never made the same impact that other work by Lumet made. Since the film, Lumet’s career has been somewhat on a downward spiral. He directed a few clunkers along the way, including “Gloria” in 1999, a remake of the old Cassavetes film as well as 2006’s “Find Me Guilty” which only grossed $2.6 million worldwide. He did, however experience a resurgence of popularity in 2007 after his critically acclaimed “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” won praise for its stylish direction and great performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

“Prince of the City” still remains one of the finest American movies of the early-1980s and I’d suggest adding it to your must-see list as soon as possible.

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