Prince of the City is a great Lumet movie, that has aged oddly for me. Treat Williams has never been better, but the whole nature of the film is how cops can get away with anything. When watching the film in a post Donnie Brasco environment, it’s odd to see how bad cops that momentarily developed a conscience can get away with anything. Hell, it’s weird how American film celebrates people ratting each other out.
Director Sidney Lumet almost seems above this kind of story. But, he mines the polar opposite of what he had in Serpico. That movie was super critical of police as a giant organization. Prince of the City focuses on cops as flawed individuals. Honestly, I kinda hate that anymore. While all humanity deserves the ability to be dissected and discussed on an individual level, I’m tired of treating cops as naturally heroic.
What do I mean by that? Well, whether if they are a good or bad cop, they still make choices to manipulate their power. Treat Williams isn’t playing a good guy. He’s a guy that realizes he’s busted early and makes a deal against his friends and family. While everyone else twists in the wind, he’s wrestling with the difficult decision of being a rat. Prince of the City confuses the issue of being a rat with being a hero. At the end of the day, a rat is just a rat.
Dramas about Internal Affairs among Police don’t hit right anymore. Why should any non cop care when a cop can’t be bothered to do their job. It’s noble to investigate cops for malfeasance, but we live in an era where cops are dirtier than they’ve been since pre World War II. Stepping back into the late 70s/early 80s to watch a cop perjure himself to create an air of nobility is just wrong. These aren’t good people.
But, movie fans not part of the current Tik Tok generation might say that you’re not supposed to like these people. That is correct, but Prince of the City was created as a response to Serpico. Lumet had spent a decade thinking about the need to show extra dimensions to cops. Yet, it feels like a betrayal of everything Frank Serpico tried to achieve in his self-titled film. Especially because Prince of the City ends on the revelation that nothing really changes.
Cop movies are a staple of the American cinema. For as long as we worshipped cowboys, doctors and crooks as fictional heroes…Hollywood was trying to make us care about cops. Why is that? Well, there is the obvious conditioning of societal issues that get forced onto us from birth. But, what is to gain from a film that shows cops eating each other alive and no less than two suicides by service weapon?
Prince of the City demands a lot of viewers, but not as much as classic movie fans remember. Honestly, the movie is so ripe for parody that I’m shocked no one attempted it in the 80s. At every single step of the journey, Treat Williams functions as this Barry Lyndon at best wrecking havoc among his friends’ lives. Then, he gets away with it. If you don’t believe me, watch it again.
Having read the Robert Daley source book, I can’t say that the film was an improvement. Daley reported on the facts as he interpreted them and Lumet took liberties past that point. The end result is that Prince of the City swings for the fences, but hits low into right field. That’s a sports metaphor, nerds.
Warner Archive gives Prince of the City its Blu-ray bow with a ton of special features. You get a vintage featurette and a trailer for the film. Honestly, I loved seeing the vintage Orion logo at the start of the film. But, the real winner on this set is the A/V Quality offering up the cleanest look at Prince of the City to date. In the end, I’d recommend a purchase to fans.