It’s a movie that appeared 32 years ago–making it, for those born in 2000, an oldie. And it wasn’t a blockbuster, being yanked out of theaters almost as soon as it arrived.
Yet “Prince of the City” (1981) remains that rarity–a movie about big-city police that
- Tells a dramatic (and true) story, and
- Offers serious truths for those who want to know how police and prosecutorial bureaucracies really operate.
It’s based on the real-life case of NYPD Detective Robert Leuci (“Danny Ciello” in the film).
A member of the elite Special Investigating Unit (SIU) Ciello (played by Treat Williams) volunteers to work undercover against rampant corruption among narcotics agents, attorneys and bail bondsmen.
His motive appears simple: To redeem himself and the NYPD from the corruption he sees everywhere: “These people we take from own us.”
His only condition: “I will never betray cops who’ve been my partners.”
Assistant US Attorney Rick Cappalino assures Ciello: “We’ll never make you do something you can’t live with.”
As the almost three-hour movie unfolds, Ciello finds–to his growing dismay–that there are a great many things he will have to learn to live with.
Although he doesn’t have a hand in it, he’s appalled to learn that Gino Moscone, a former buddy, is going to be arrested for taking bribes from drug dealers.
Confronted by a high-ranking agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, Moscone refuses to “rat out” his buddies.
Instead, he puts his service revolver to his head and blows out his brains.
Ciello is devastated, but the investigation–and film–must go on.
Along the way, he’s suspected by a corrupt cop and bail bondsman of being a “rat” and threatened with death. He’s about to be wasted in a back alley when his cousin–a Mafia member–suddenly intervenes.
The Mafioso tells Ciello’s would-be killers: “You’d better be sure he’s a rat, because people like him.”
At which point, the grotesquely fat bail bondsman–who has been demanding Ciello’s execution–pats Danny on the arm and says, “No hard feelings.”
It is director Sidney Lumet’s way of graphically saying: “Sometimes the bad guys can be good guys–and the good guys can be bad guys.”
Lumet makes it clear that police don’t always operate with the Godlike perfection of cops in TV and films. It’s precisely because his Federal backup agents lost him that Ciello almost became a casualty.
In the end, Ciello becomes a victim of the prosecutorial forces he has unleashed. Although he’s vowed to never testify against his former partners, Ciello finds this a promise he can’t keep.
Too many of the cops he’s responsible for indicting have implicated him of similar–if not worse–behavior.
He’s even suspected of being involved in the theft of 450 pounds of heroin (“the French Connection”) from the police property room.
A sympathetic prosecutor–Mario Vincente in the movie, Rudolph Giuliani in real-life–convinces Ciello that he must finally reveal everything he knows.
Ciello’s had originally claimed to have done “three things” as a corrupt narcotics agent. By the time his true confessions are over, he’s admitted to scores of felonies.
Ciello then tries to convince his longtime SIU partners to do the same.
One of them commits suicide. Another tells Ciello to screw himself: “I’m not going to shoot myself and I’m not going to rat out my friends.”
To his surprise, Ciello finds himself admiring his corrupt former partner for being willing to stand up to the Federal case-agents and prosecutors demanding his head.
The movie ends with a double dose of irony.
First: Armed with Ciello’s confessions, an attorney whom Ciello had successfully testified against appeals his conviction. But the judge rules these to be “collateral,” apart from the main evidence in the case, and affirms the conviction.
Second: Ciello is himself placed on trial–of a sort. A large group of assistant U.S. attorneys gathers to debate whether their prize “canary” should be indicted.
If he is, his confessions will ensure his conviction.
Some prosecutors argue forcefully that Ciello is a corrupt law enforcement officer who has admitted to more than 40 cases of perjury–among other crimes. How can the government use him to convict others and not address the criminality in his own past?
Other prosecutors argue that Ciello voluntarily risked his life–physically and professionally–to expose rampant police corruption. He deserves a better deal than to be cast aside by those who have made so many cases through his testimony.
Eventually, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York makes his decision: “The government declines to prosecute Detective Daniel Ciello.”
It is Lumet’s way of showing that the decision to prosecute is not always an easy or objective one.
The movie ends with Ciello now teaching surveillance classes at the NYPD Academy. A student asks: “Are you the Detective Ciello?”
“I’m Detective Ciello.”
“I don’t think I have anything to learn from you.”
Is Danny Ciello–again, Robert Leuci in real-life–a hero, a villain, or some combination of the two? It is with this ambiguity that the film ends–an ambiguity that each viewer must resolve for himself.