Sep 15, 2021
By Austin Trunick
Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is the youngest-ever narcotics detective on the Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD—part of the best team in the force, with a promising career ahead of him. The job is getting to him, though: too many light nights slipping heroin to tweaking informants, and denying accusations from his pops and junky brother that he and his partners’ dealings aren’t completely on the up-and-up. When the guilt becomes too much to bottle up—and Danny starts feeling like he’s lost track of why he became a cop in the first place—he strikes a secret deal with federal prosecutors to help build a case against some of the biggest players in police corruption. What he doesn’t count on is how this will blow back against the people closest to him: his family, and his partners.
Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1983) is often lost in the shuffle among the director’s incredible track record of hits. It’s a sprawling film that remains riveting throughout its near-three hour runtime—even though it might feel like a few different films combined into one. The first half is a thrilling tale of undercover police work—a reckless cop putting himself into increasingly dangerous situations to record tape, seemingly addicted to the danger, or perhaps having a death wish. The second half is a lengthy legal drama, as Danny’s hard work is taken to court and he himself becomes the feds’ key witness—and the defense attorneys turn their magnifying glasses on the shady dealings of his own past, to make him look like an untrustworthy source of information.
Both sides work equally well thanks to a gigantic cast of great actors, who create a winding web of multi-layered characters on both sides of the law that predates The Wire by almost two decades. If there’s an issue that detracts from the overall film, it’s nearly impossible to track how much time has passed between scenes—the film covers years’ worth of investigative work, but from scene to scene it’s tough to guess whether a day has passed, or months. The few references made to the passage of time in the script only confuse matters more. In the end, it doesn’t hurt the story too significantly—it’s just a minor annoyance that crops up again and again.
Warner Archive’s Prince of the City Blu-ray looks excellent, and sounds good—except for one head-scratching moment of painfully awkward overdubbing that’s apparently remained present through several home video editions of the film. Extras are light, but solid: a trailer and a half-hour documentary about the film created in 2007, which talks to most of the big cast and crew members, as well as the author of the non-fiction book that inspired the film.