Release Date(s)1981 (August 24, 2021)
Studio(s)Orion Pictures/Warner Bros (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C
Prince of the City is a remarkable achievement from director Sidney Lumet: a sprawling, 167-minute epic about deception and betrayal, with over 100 speaking parts and dozens of locations all across New York City, which nevertheless manages to be one of the most intimate portraits of a single individual that he ever created. There are so many key characters in the film that Lumet opted to show on-screen identification cards to help viewers keep track of them, and yet all of that potential chaos is anchored securely by Treat Williams in the main role as Special Investigative Unit Detective Danny Ciello—the film never loses its focus no matter how many other characters swirl around him.
Ciello was based on real-life Detective Robert Leuci, who chose to cooperate with a massive corruption investigation, wore a wire, and obtained evidence which resulted in the indictment of 52 of the 70 members of the SIU (as well as many others). Leuci's story had been turned into a book by Robert Daley in 1978, and after one failed attempt to bring it to the screen, the project ended up with Lumet and producer Jay Presson Allen. The two would collaborate on the screenplay—it was actually the first writing credit in Lumet's distinguished career, though fortunately it would not be his last.
Despite all of the acclaim that Serpico had received, Lumet was never entirely satisfied with it as he felt that it represented the informant’s internal conflict with too little nuance; the film treated Serpico as unambiguously heroic. Lumet approached Prince of the City with far more ambivalence, in part because Leuci/Ciello had been just as corrupt as the other members of the SIU. In the film, Ciello turns informant as a way of assuaging his own conscience for all the things that he’s done. Yet he only does so under the condition that he won’t turn on his partners or other members of the police, but rather wants to focus on the corruption in the rest of the justice system. So, he lays a tangled web of lies to cover up his own sins, as well as those of his partners. Inevitably, as the investigation broadens, everyone falls under its net, including Ciello.
Prince of the City examines the unspoken code by which police officers protect each other, as Ciello explains: “I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners.” It also explores the ease with which corruption can enter any system, regardless of intentions. Most importantly, it shows the burden that all of that can place on one individual, and the difficulty that he has extricating himself from the life. Prince of the City isn’t really a redemption story, because redemption is never that simple. The more that Ciello tries to redeem himself without admitting to what he has done, the more problems that he creates. Yet ultimately, he did achieve something noble, despite his own lack of nobility. That’s the paradox at the core of the film, a point which is driven home from the first scene to the final haunting shot.
Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak shot Prince of the City using Panaflex cameras with spherical Panavision lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. There’s no information given about the elements used for this transfer, but it’s likely a 2K scan taken from an interpositive (as is customary with many Warner Bros Blu-ray releases). The opening titles display the usual softness from generational loss due to the optical effects, but the moment that they end, the film sharpens considerably. Fine detail is good, the grain looks natural, and there are few signs of damage (although there’s a bit of noise in some of the darker scenes). The colors are muted in a way which is typical of Bartkowiak’s work for Lumet, but they look accurate. Short of a 4K scan from the original negatives, this is probably the best that Prince of the City will ever look on home video.
The only audio option available is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a dialogue-heavy film, with generally muted environmental effects, and a subdued score by Paul Chihara—all of which sounds clear and well-balanced here.
Extras include the following:
- “The Real Story” (SD – 28:37)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:44)
“The Real Story” is perhaps misnamed, since it focuses primarily on the film. It does open with Robert Leuci talking about the SIU, his loyalty to his partners, and the changes which led him to working with the investigation. After that, it includes Richard Daley explaining the process of writing the book, before moving on to the cast and crew of the film, who cover its development and production. The most interesting section features Lumet explaining the complex visual design of the film. Lumet was considered an “actor’s director,” and he often doesn’t get enough credit for the subtle ways that he used visuals to enhance the story. In the case of Prince of the City, he used both wide angle and telephoto lenses to distort visual relationships between the foreground and the background. He also varied the lighting and the production design throughout. In the first third of the film, the backgrounds are lit brighter than the foreground, and filled with activity. In the middle third, the backgrounds and foregrounds are lit equally, and in the final third, the backgrounds are darker. Combined with gradually stripping down the production design from busier to more austere, it has the effect of showing the increasing sense of isolation felt by Ciello. Lumet also notes that the film works because of his own ambivalence toward Ciello while he was directing it, but he admits that after the film was released, he came to see Ciello’s actions as heroic.
Prince of the City was a box office failure, and it was shunned by the Academy, receiving only a single nomination for its script. It’s a real shame that Treat Williams was overlooked, because the entire film hangs on his performance. The rest of the cast is filled with memorable character actors—Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, James Tolkan, Lindsay Crouse, Ron Karabotsos, Lane Smith, and Alan King, among others—but the film wouldn’t have held together without Williams. Prince of the City is one of the crown jewels in Williams’ filmography, as well as Lumet’s. Hopefully Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray will help it find a wider audience.
- Stephen Bjork
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