I’m still very slowly working my way through some of the lesser known Sidney Lumet films in the wake of his death. On the surface, Prince of the City should be a great film. Lumet at the helm, a supporting cast that includes Jerry Orbach and Bob Balaban, action film veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartowiak, a corrupt-cop epic plot…but it falls flat.
Here’s something I’ve heard many times: Treat Williams, who stars in Prince of the City, was robbed of the Best Actor Academy Award in 1981. I can’t disagree more. Williams’ performance is laughable. It’s consistently overwrought, histrionic, and inconsistent. In fact, Williams’ performance is very reminiscent of vintage SNL-era Steve Martin. He’s got the shoulders working, the crying face that stretches to its limits, and the squinted-eyes-half-smile. It’s actually uncanny, and unintentionally funny.
Some of the blame has to fall on Lumet’s shoulders as well. Case in point:
Sometimes when there’s a missing beat you forgive it. Okay, so that happened too quickly, fine, let’s move on with the story. Or maybe an emotion rings as slightly false. I can live with missed beats. It happens in all but the true masterpieces.
What I can’t forgive is when the missed beat is the critical one that the believability of the rest of the film hinges on. Williams plays Danny Ciello, a tough cop who turns informant. So what’s the critical beat? The moment that he turns informant, of course. If I don’t believe that moment, I won’t believe the rest of the film. And frankly, I didn’t believe it. Here’s why:
Ciello is called in by a lawyer from the DA’s office investigating police corruption. Ciello shrugs him off, but something sticks. Later that night, Ciello has a particularly rough encounter. A drug-addicted informant is in need of some heroin. In the habit of supplying his informants (read: a “dirty” cop himself), Ciello goes violently out of his way to get the drugs. In that scene he has a moment of realization – or at least that’s what Lumet and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen want us to believe.
Jump ahead in time. Ciello keeps visiting the attorney. One night Ciello goes to the attorney’s house. All of sudden he’s got his head in his hands and he’s crying. He’s turned. It’s so fast that it’s absurd. I don’t buy it. This is a guy that we’ve seen in action with his cop friends. He’s a cop through and through. Sure there are other pressures – his drug-addicted brother (a character who’s never followed up on) – but it doesn’t work. When I saw Ciello start crying I laughed out loud. Lumet follows that up with a slow dissolve that now has Ciello starting to spill his guts. He’s on the balcony. It’s dawn and the city is visible behind him. It’s beautiful but, for some reason, Lumet and Williams decide that Ciello now has to speak in a raspy (ie tired) voice. It’s all too soon. He caves too easily, too comically, and it’s too counter to his character. It has to be harder.
With Prince of the City it’s also tough to determine if Lumet is taking the film seriously. There are a few shots where people are crying, one scene of a cop Gino (Carmine Caridi) in particular, where it’s very obvious that the tears are fake and have been applied through makeup. It feels very staged and deliberate, as though Lumet wants to call attention to the artifice on the faces of these tough guys. But I can’t figure a reason for it.
Lumet does some nice things with his blocking in here, and that supporting cast is great. The episodic structure ultimately works and doesn’t put too much pressure on individual vignettes but instead looks at the idea of corruption as a stretched whole. Nonetheless, Treat really kills this film. Sorry supporters.