Prince of the City (1981) is not a happy movie, but it is a great one. Even for film noir fans wholly comfortable with moral ambiguity and anti-heroes, this film drags you neck deep into murky waters that blur right and wrong and lets you swim ashore on your own.
In the late 1960s, Detective Robert Leuci led one of the NYPD's most elite anti-drug trade task force units. At 31, he was seven years younger than the next youngest man on his team. He was intelligent and brash, taking advantage of his team's city-wide jurisdiction to set his own hours and make up his own rules about law enforcement. But after a few years of free reign at SIU Leuci began to feel a gnawing guilt about all the corners SIU was cutting in order to make arrests stick and get convictions. Corners such as illegal wiretapping, shaking down street dealers, bribing snitches with drugs, falsifying evidence, lying under oath, pocketing seized drug money, and accepting bribes. In 1970 Leuci started cooperating with state and federal prosecutors, looking to absolve himself of some of his own wrongdoing by exposing the corrupt criminal justice system that facilitated and condoned his illegal activities.
The story of what happened to Leuci and everyone around him as a result of his coming forward was published in Robert Daly's book Prince of the City. For Sidney Lumet's 1981 film adaptation, the names of all the people in Daley's book were changed—so from here on out Leuci will be referred to by his character's name in the film, Daniel Ciello.
At the start of the film Ciello and his partners are portrayed as the SIU fatcats they were in real-life: chomping cigars and backslapping each other after a big arrest, strolling into their squad room dressed in impeccable suits no honest cop could afford, and preempting a night court arraignment by parading before the judge a handcuffed chain of South American drug traffickers due for deportation. Though he enjoys the luxury that skimming cash from these high-level dealers provides, Ciello is horrified by the squalor of the street pushers and the junkies that he relies on for information. He sees the cycle of public indifference facilitated by a corrupt court system that allows high-level dealers to skate on misdemeanors while street addicts are incarcerated and brutalized.
Ciello no longer feels good about anything he's doing and decides to go to federal prosecutors to unburden himself. In justifying his decision, he remarks wistfully to his wife, "Remember when I was starting out how good it felt? I wanna feel that way again." In his youthful arrogance (played to the hilt by Treat Williams), Ciello believes that once he lets it be known that he can provide information about corrupt lawyers and police officers, he can control the course and scope of the ensuing investigation. As he puts it: "A rat is when they catch you and make you inform. No one caught me, this is my setup." The prosecutors promise Ciello, "We aren't going to make you do anything you can't live with," and agree that they will not force Ciello to discuss anything dealing with his partners at SIU.
Ciello admits that there were three illegal things he did while leading his team at SIU, small instances of accepting bribes from gangsters and drug dealers, that he regales to prosecutors with animated enthusiasm. The joy in which he remembers his past acts make the prosecutors uneasy, but their doubts about his sincerity are put aside at the prospect of making some very big cases.
Ciello enjoys the cloak and dagger nature of his "undercover" work, artfully finding new places to hide his wire transmitter and acting like the quarterback of a championship game whenever another crooked lawyer or gangster gets nailed by their own admissions that he's caught on tape. But finally, the inevitable happens: the investigations start crossing and crisscrossing one another, and roads are starting to lead back to the SIU and Ciello's team.
The game Ciello's playing becomes bigger than him, and he can no longer control who gets caught up in the dragnet. Cops that vouched for his honesty start getting prosecuted, and friends in the underworld who defended Ciello as a "straight guy" find themselves on the short end of a razor.
Around the same time that friends and colleagues of Ciello's start getting axed, his credibility as an informant becomes murky when defense attorneys start poking holes in his "Three Things." High-level dealers, displeased with the notion of spending the next thirty years in jail, readily give up all they know about Ciello's unit and a lot of their stories about kickbacks and bribes start to check out. The federal prosecutors that Ciello has surrounded himself with and treated as a surrogate-SIU family turn on him overnight, demanding that he submit to polygraph tests and threatening serious jail time if any crimes beyond his "Three Things" are proven true. The prosecutors explain to Ciello the trapped position he now finds himself in, "All cops want to admit their guilt—that's how you got here."
Ciello is now in a position where he has to admit everything, and can no longer shield his partners. His best friend in the unit is Gus Levy (played by Jerry Orbach). Gus is the toughest member of the team and warmest character in the film. Gus has no internal conflicts about what he's done in SIU, and has always favored real police work over shady practices anyway. While other members of the team take the news of Ciello's defection with surprising calm, resignation, or fear, Gus reacts with anger. Anger at Ciello turning in his friends, anger at the prosecutors who relish busting cops while making names for themselves, and anger at an unforgiving system that punishes the least culpable with the most force. In defense of Ciello, some lawyers are troubled by the hypocrisy of their position, of feigning shock when they learn that Ciello was less than truthful after they'd used his information to leverage their own career. "We used him," they admit, in a private meeting that will determine Ciello's fate in the eyes of the law.
By the end of the film Ciello is a dead man walking. Having escaped the harshest of penalties for his crimes, he has to carry with him the knowledge that most who trusted him are now dead (often by their own hand) or in prison. As one of his now-indicted partners reflects, "This ain't ever gonna be alright." In trying to absolve himself of his guilt and return to the side of the angels, Danny Ciello will always live under a cloud of suspicion and hatred in the eyes of those he loved most.
Is Danny Ciello a hero or a rat? Part of the reason why Prince of the City is so powerful is that director Sidney Lumet never places any judgement on Ciello, admitting in an interview, "I never knew how I felt about him." By allowing us to come in with our own biases and preconceptions, the story is able to say so much about the moral ambiguities that drive some to crime, others to hypocrisy, and the rest to dwell somewhere in between.
Ironically, the greatness of Lumet's earlier film Serpico (1973) is that Al Pacino's Frank Serpico (real-life NYPD detective from 1959-1971) is literally the only honest cop in New York—it's a film that can be enjoyed by people who love the police as well as people who hate the police because Serpico is the ideal of what peace officers could and should represent in US society and never do. Prince of the City's Treat Williams's whistleblower is literally the anti-Serpico, unraveling over the course of the film not by what others have tried to do to him but by what he's already done to himself. Robert Leuci acted as an advisor to Lumet and Williams while they were rehearsing for the film, and by allowing Ciello's character to be all the conflicting traits that Robert Leuci was in real-life it's an authentic portrait of a man trying to forgive himself for deeds he can't undo.
Prince of the City was panned when it was released in 1981, dismissed as an overlong (2hrs 47mins) police procedural with a flat "ripped from the headlines" back story. Thankfully we can now enjoy it for the amazing epic drama that it is, perhaps the most ambitious offering from one of America's greatest filmmakers.
Prince of the City is available on DVD from Warner Home Video, and streaming via Amazon Prime