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HTF REVIEW: Prince of the City: Two-Disc Special Edition

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#1 of 7 Ken_McAlinden



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Posted May 24 2007 - 04:14 PM

Prince of the City: Two-Disc Special Edition

Directed By: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Norman Parker, Bob Balaban, Lindsay Crouse, James Tolkan, Lane Smith, Lance Henricksen

Studio: Warner Brothers

Year: 1981

Rated: R

Film Length: 167 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish

Release Date: May 22, 2007

The Film

Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" is an adaptation of the Robert Daley book, "Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew too Much". The Daley book told the true story of Robert Leuci, a leader in the New York Police Department's elite Special Investigations Unit in the 1970s who cooperated with government prosecutors as an informant for corruption cases. In the film adaptation, his name has been changed to Robert Ciello and many of the real life players from the actual events (some of whom included Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz), have had their names changed or been blended into "composite" characters.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Danny Ciello (Williams). He is something of a "golden boy" in the NYPD, leading a unit of the narcotics division's SIU despite being younger than most of his fellow detectives. Danny's unit is given wide latitude to go after the narcotics trade as they see fit, and they are not shy about engaging in illegal acts to keep junkie informants talking, keep rival drug peddlers ratting on each other, and occasionally line their own pockets with drugs and cash. Despite several successful high profile busts, Danny's conscience starts to gnaw at him, and, after a couple of tentative meetings, agrees to work as an informant in a federal corruption probe as long as he is not asked to turn on his partners. Danny inserts himself in various dangerous situations in attempts to gather information on crooked lawyers and mobsters, and compiles an extensive amount of evidence over the next few years until his cover is finally blown. He then becomes more or less a professional witness in several cases against organized crime figures and corrupt officials. His stress level builds as he realizes that the revolving door of federal investigators and attorneys with whom he is working are less interested in his well being than some of the people he is helping them prosecute. Things spiral further out of control when a large drug theft from police evidence prompts a crackdown on past and present SIU officers.

Treat Williams gives a very impressive performance in the role of Danny Ciello. He is at the center of the action for the vast majority of the film's two hour and 47 minute running time, playing a character who is a mass of contradictions and less than admirable in many ways. Despite Williams' innate charisma in the role, the film remains deliberately ambivalent about whether he is a heroic crusader or a backstabbing opportunist. Williams makes the tension between Danny's sometimes conflicting impulses to confess his sins, honor his friendships, and save his own skin palpable, particularly in the film's final acts.

Thematically, Lumet takes his time painting his picture of Danny as he progresses from the camaraderie of his elite SIU squad to his loneliness as an informer who keeps seeing the lawyers around him change and move on after using him for successful prosecutions. The film is a fascinating illustration of how a seemingly noble impulse can lead to destructive consequences and personal tragedy.

The supporting cast is large and well chosen from a group of primarily New York actors, most of who did not have a lot of feature film credits at the time. The lack of matinee idol faces adds to the documentary feel of the film, although some of the cast went on to considerable success afterwards. Jerry Orbach cements here the persona that would evolve into his roles as durable TV detectives. A 15-year-old Cynthia Nixon has a blink and you'll miss it cameo as the girlfriend of a junkie early in the film. Amusingly, seventies hairstyles seem a bit exaggerated, especially during the scenes in the picture's first third that are set about a decade before the movie was made. A few of the characters look like they have what David Letterman would refer to as "the worst toupees in show business".

Overall, Lumet delivers another excellent entry in his cycle of legal and police-themed films. This film has always seemed to be somewhat disrespected, from its relative lack of Academy recognition (only one Oscar nomination) to its late-in-the-game introduction on DVD. Perhaps audiences and critics thought Lumet was just trying to make a "Serpico" clone after the back to back change of pace disasters of "The Wiz" and "Just Tell Me What You Want". Maybe they just thought it was too long and sprawling compared to the typically compact and efficient traditional noirs with similar themes. In actuality, it is a perfect companion piece to "Serpico". Rather than focusing on a cop who steadfastly refused to take part in rampant corruption, "Prince of the City" tells the story of one who has sold his soul many times over and miscalculates the price, and even the possibility, of buying it back.

The Video

The video presentation expands the theatrical aspect ratio slightly to fill the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. The transfer has a somewhat dated, grainy appearance which betrays its "70s have just become the 80s" origin. Shadow detail is acceptable, but not as deep as can be achieved with modern low contrast film stocks. Certain shots look significantly softer than others, suggesting either focus problems or "dupe" sections of film. The grainy, occasionally inconsistent appearance does evoke a certain documentary feel that was likely intentional. Mild edge-ringing was noticeable during certain exterior shots.

The Audio

The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack does a good job conveying the film's jazz-noir score and sound effects, but the dialog frequently sounds over compressed and is occasionally harsh to the point of distortion. An alternate mono track dubbed in French is also available.

The Extras

The only extra available on the first disc is the film's fairly dull theatrical trailer. It runs one minute and 42 seconds and is presented in 16:9 enhanced video with DD 2.0 mono audio.

The second disc contains the only other extra, but it is a pretty good one. "'Prince of the City': The Real Story", is a 28 and a half minute featurette directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Like most of Bouzereau's DVD featurettes, it consists of newly shot interview footage intercut with clips and montages from the film. For this one, he has an impressive line-up of on-camera participants including Robert Leuci, Robert Daley, screenwriter-producer Jay Presson Allen, Sidney Lumet, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, production designer Tony Walton, producer Burtt Harris, and Lance Henrickson. Topics covered include the casting of the film, rehearsals, the cinematography and production design strategies, Lumet's fast shooting methods, and the film's mixed critical and popular reception.


The discs come in a standard Amaray-style case with a hinged tray allowing it to hold a second disc. The film is split between the two discs. Disc One is a dual-layered DVD-9 that holds the first hour and 50 minutes of the film. Disc two is a single-layered DVD-5 that holds the final 57 minutes.


Warner Home Video has finally treated us to Sidney Lumet's underrated epic-neo-noir in convenient five-inch disc form. The DVD provides a decent audio-video presentation of a somewhat difficult, dated looking film element. Aside from the film's theatrical trailer, the only extra is a documentary featurette, but it is an insightful and informative one that is worth watching more than once.


Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 7 Nick Shookla

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Posted May 24 2007 - 11:36 PM

Great review!

Lumet has made some incredible movies over his career and I feel that this is one of his best, and Treat Williams gives what is probably the role of his life.

It's a bit of a shame there wasn't a commentary recorded with Lumet, especially since he's been quite talky on "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network". However, this has been near the top of my most-wanted list for DVD for quite some time; so I am just glad that the film is finally available.

#3 of 7 Gordon McMurphy

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Posted May 25 2007 - 02:15 AM

This was the first time I had seen this film and I was deeply impressed. Why Treat Williams wasn't even nominated for an Oscar is a scandal; it's an amazing arcing performance of a very difficult role.

Looking forward to Lumet's, The Hill next month. I do wish that MGM would release The Offence on R1 as that is one of Lumet's very best films - and most certainly features Sean Connery's best performance. It's available over here (R2 UK) in a flawless anamorphic transfer, though bare-bones.

#4 of 7 Elizabeth S

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Posted May 25 2007 - 07:09 AM

One of my long-awaited titles. I can't help but picture the final frame every time I think of this film.

#5 of 7 Russell G

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Posted May 25 2007 - 07:38 AM

I blind bought this after really enjoying Dog and Serpico. I'll have to give it a spin.

#6 of 7 Felix Martinez

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Posted May 25 2007 - 03:37 PM

Great film - haven't seen this in 25 years. Solid DVD. Image-wise, opticals (credits, dissolves, etc.) look unstable, soft, and "dupey," but that's to be expected. The rest of the footage snaps into place, with acceptable sharpness and visible - but appropriate - grain. Compression was done right on challenging material. Audio is unremarkable Dolby 1.0, but it does the job. Not thrilled that the feature is split over 2 discs, but the break is placed in an appropriate spot.

Just read this on Wikipedia:
The film originally premiered on TV in a 4-hour version, introducing new material that had been cut for the theatrical release, which runs 167 minutes. This material isn't featured on the "Special Edition" double DVD.
While it would have been great to see more footage, it's still great to have this film finally out on DVD.

#7 of 7 Russell G

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Posted May 29 2007 - 08:40 AM

I watched this on the weekend and loved every frame of it. I got completely sucked into, so I didn't notice any opticals or what not. This might be my favorite undercover film, I think it surpased Serpico in every way.

Great review!