The time is the nineteen-seventies and the place is New York City, where crime - especially drugs crime - has reached epidemic proportions. But has that level of lawbreaking reached the echelons of the lawmen themselves? Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a drugs cop, and he and his fellow investigators in a top unit against the crisis are always congratulating themselves on a job well done, even socialising with one another and holding barbecues with their families to shoot the breeze, but the anti-corruption agency is now taking an interest. Danny doesn't think he's done much wrong, the occasional misdemeanour here and there but nothing major, yet when he is invited by internal affairs to inform for them, he must admit it's tempting...
But is Danny to be admired for taking a stand, or is he to be despised for bringing down his closest friends, or is he to be pitied for getting in over his head and ruining his own life as well as those of many others? It was a thorny issue and director Sidney Lumet, adapting the script with producer Jay Presson Allen, was not about to hand you his opinion on a plate to guide you to a conclusion, it was all very much up to your own perception. In this age when ambiguity is seen as the kiss of death in mainstream cinema (and you could argue while it became fashionable for a while it never really took off), Prince of the City seems very strange, not least because it became an influence on filmmakers decades later; though there is one thing it made no bones about: this was a descent into Hell.
Not only Danny's Hell either, basing the plot on the factual story behind one cop whose barely reasoned willingness to snitch hammered a stake through many police careers, including his own. This may begin as the sort of corruption drama that Lumet's Serpico was considered the last word in when it was released, but the director went further, examining in pitiless detail every major aspect of Danny's actions, so much so that the film lasted nearly three hours, making it a tough watch. But that wasn't because of the length, as it was absorbing in its sincerity and verisimilitude so that it was never dull, it was because we were experiencing through the protagonist's eyes what it was like to be dragged down into a maelstrom of revealing truths that will hang him and heartbreakingly, the men he called friends, out to dry.
Danny would have been more palatable if it was just his own neck he was risking, but this is not the case, and more than one person will be dead before the end credits roll as a direct result of his behaviour. Lumet and Allen didn't skimp on the information, indeed they packed in scene after scene of densely assembled dramatic reportage; the names had been changed, but any interested party simply had to check the book they had drawn their screenplay from to find out who was actually involved. At first, Danny thinks he's playing the hero, reminiscent of what attracted him to the force in the first place, but this knight in shining armour is anything but. We can still see him as the good guy, but as more developments arrive he is undeniably compromised, and our judgement of what made him heroic - as well as the whole justice system - is called into question.
A lot of this rested on the acting for what may have been a tough sell, and on Treat Williams' shoulders more than anyone's. He was on route to becoming a big name in the acting world, but somehow never quite made it to the front rank; watch Prince of the City and you'll understand why, as he was a very distinctive actor whose performances could just as easily appear over the top and built on shaky foundations as they could a majestic, tension-filled tightrope act that made it to the other side. Although there is no consensus on Williams' Ciello here, it's an undeniably electrifying reading of a complex situation, and he does enough right to forgive the odd lapse into melodrama. Besides, a yarn as epic as this needs the big emotions, and those emotions are largely dread, desperation and that feeling of being suffocated by events you thought you had in hand but assuredly did not. The supporting cast were excellent, mostly unknowns, though Jerry Orbach deserved special mention as the man who won't back down. As a whole, the film is the epitome of mixed emotions: see petard, hoist by. Music by Paul Chihara.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.