Prince of the City

3 out of 5

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

I’m not positive I understand the point of this movie.  Or rather: I’m not sure I understand the point of how it’s presented.  It’s three hours long; it’s wiki summary is three short paragraphs.  That doesn’t have to mean anything, but it’s rather representative of what I kept questioning across those three hours, during which Treat Williams’ SIU Detective Ciello suffers the pangs of conscience as he slowly twists and turns from dirty, well-meaning cop to undercover informant for internal affairs: what else is in these scenes besides the content of that three paragraph summary?

Williams’ performance is definitely convincing, but there’s also a certainly level of assumption here, regarding cops and their partners: that we just “get” the brotherhood of cops, and how strong that bond is, and how hard it is for Ciello to cross the line from swearing not to turn on his buddies but eventually having to do so, and flipping out at the prospect of it.  The flip outs are rather weird due to this; I would believe that director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen roped out to this runtime in order to sell those relationships – starting with Ciello in control of information he leaks, then slowly losing that control, over his own emotions as well – but there are pieces in that story that are somehow missing at the same time.  Parts of the film have this brilliant tick-tock precision; parts apply that same tick-tock precision to force drama into dry scenes, which just ends up feeling rather sloppy; and then someone mentions that two years have passed during which Ciello has been doing his undercover business, and the film hasn’t effectively communicated that…

This is the ultimate oddity of how Prince of the City is portrayed: it’s a Godfather-like epic in scope, showing the slow crumbling of Ciello’s crew of fellow SIUers across months and years of the detective wearing wires to dangerous meets and having his lies about his own bad behaviors come back to bite him, and stepping in to the political aspects of this as well, of prosecutors being their own form of dirty and just “needing” confessions over some questionable “greater good,” but it’s sense of where to focus its dramatics are all over the place.  Lots of scenes of Ciello running away to warn someone about impending danger, only there’s no followthrough (for a viewer) on what that danger is.  Lots of scenes – and dialogue – that ply at the unspoken guilt driving these behaviors without really digging into it.

But there are so many good actors in this thing and many, many compelling scenes in isolation that it remains watchable.  However, the lack of stitching between those isolated scenes is, I think, what’s kept it from being mentioned in the same conversation as other epics of its type.  It’s notable that things finally sync up in its final scenes, which are, tonally, its calmest: Ciello in court; cutting to a different time and place and all the prosecutors discussing what to do about Ciello.  It’s at this point that Prince of the City feels resolved in the story its telling, achieved without odd editing beats or emotional flash.  Somewhere between this and it’s