In response to:
The Young Pretender from the October 22, 1981 issue
To the Editors:
When a distinguished journalist like Murray Kempton undertakes to review a movie [NYR, October 22], one does not necessarily expect distinguished criticism. One does, however, expect competent reporting. It would not, for instance, have taken a Deep Throat investigation for Mr. Kempton to ascertain that Prince of the City is not, as he reports, based on Bob Leuci’s autobiography (nonexistent), but on a book by Robert Daley, Mr. Daley’s book is based, in turn, on the single most documented police case in history. These documents are available to anyone who has the motivation and the energy to pursue them. Mr. Daley (and the screenwriters) read volumes of witness depositions and court transcripts and listened to hundreds of hours of tape, recorded both openly and undercover.
Mr. Kempton chastises the people who made Prince of the City for “a parade of inauthenticities” which no one “remotely familiar with law enforcement agencies would make.” Mr. Kempton makes the ex cathedra pronouncement that “no policeman would think to tell a District Attorney that all society is a jungle” because he’s “aware that an ADA knows that as well as he does.” I can only submit that in a moment of passion Bob Leuci made the tiresome social error of telling somebody something they already knew. Nicholas Scoppetta, the District Attorney so addressed, taped the encounter in which Mr. Leuci suffered this regrettable lapse of taste.
Next, Mr. Kempton insists that no cop would ever “talk to, let alone drink with and take into his sympathetic grasp, another cop rumored to be talking to prosecutors.” However, all the foregoing actions did occur and are attested to by Mr. Leuci’s police bodyguards as well as by the officers involved. They did talk with, drink with, and embrace Mr. Leuci. What’s more, the encounter took place, not as the movie shows it, in Leuci’s backyard, but in a public bar.
The final law on criminal justice procedure, as handed down by Mr. Kempton, is that “no group of prosecutors would seriously debate indicting an informant for perjury. They need him,” Mr. Kempton asserts, “too much.”
Nevertheless, a dozen prosecutors who had worked with Leuci over a period of five years, did meet in 1975 in the office of Paul Curran, the incumbent United States district attorney, and they did debate whether or not to indict. Among those present were Whitney North Seymour, district attorney at the beginning and during the major part of the case. Also present were Nicholas Scoppetta and Michael Shaw, under whose auspices the Leuci case had its origins, and Rudy Giuliani, at present the assistant attorney general of the United States.
Mr. Kempton, alas, is rather more “remotely” familiar with police and prosecutorial procedure than he believes or than his editors have every right to expect. In his review, Mr. Kempton appears to have relied overmuch on a piece by Nicholas Pileggi in New York Magazine in which Mr. Pileggi’s principal complaint was that we had made this particular movie rather than one Mr. Pileggi wished us to have made. As instances of police corruption which he suggests the movie makers either ignored or swept under the rug, Mr. Pileggi reeled off a list of offenses cited by the Knapp Commission against officers charged with responsibility for narcotics law enforcement at the street level. However, Mr. Pileggi, a journalist writing under the restraints of the libel laws, was not so careless as to connect specific names with specific crimes. Nor did the Knapp Commission, the rule generally being the same for DA’s and journalists and elite commissions: if you can’t prove it, a little caution. The same rule extends to movie studios.
In any event, we were not making a movie about the Knapp Commission, but about an investigation that took place outside that body. We were making a movie about five SIU detectives, partners in corruption, five men clearly and, in four cases, admittedly guilty of the crimes depicted in the movie. No one of these men was ever indicted or even accused of those other offenses so dear to Mr. Pileggi’s sense of theater.
The SIU was as corrupt an arm of law enforcement as one is likely to find this side of Hong Kong. It was so corrupt it selfdestructed, which the movie makes abundantly clear to anyone not looking for absolutes. We made a movie about five men, some eagerly corrupt, some not so eager but still corrupt, flawed men trapped in a flawed system. It is not a movie about heroes or villains or societal symbols. And the vast majority of the audience understands this.
A number of prominent members of the criminal justice system, whose expertise in their field surely transcends Mr. Kempton’s, have gone to some pains to communicate their satisfaction in the movie. We have heard from Judge William Knapp, Police Commissioner Robert McGuire, Associate Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun, FBI Director William Webster, and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Francis Mullen.
I would like to quote for Mr. Kempton a letter to Sidney Lumet from Whitney North Seymour:
This is a fan letter…you did a first-class job of capturing the spirit of a dramatic episode in law enforcement. I was very proud of the direct participants at the time and you should be very proud of the remarkable translation of the people and the events onto film.
Unlike Mr. Kempton, Mr. Lumet and I did our homework and we, too, are proud of Prince of the City.
Jay Presson Allen
LAH Film Corporation
New York, New York
Murray Kempton replies:
From takings of offense that run on longer than the offense itself, Good Lord deliver us. Anyway,
(1) “Distinguished” seems to me a rather outsized adjective to apply to journalism and movie criticism. Still, working as a reporter does make you aware how seldom anyone who knows anything about a particular event or personage could possibly recognize either from the accounts and descriptions served up by even the best newspapers. I should hope that in due course Mrs. Allen will find out how curious a movie can look to any observer who has even fleetingly traveled in the ambience it asserts itself as depicting. We both work at crafts deeply dependent upon inauthenticity. That, of course, is just one more disaster of pretension. Time was when movies were written by hacks to whom this distinguished journal would have been terra incognita. But most of them had been police reporters, which is why a play like The Front Page remains even now faithful to the reality of the press shack. Hecht and McCarthy had been there. But then people came along who took themselves and the movies seriously, and elevation replaced description as the purpose of narrative; and thereafter, as Mary McCarthy may or may not have said to Randall Jarrell, films became something that you had to see not to believe.
(2) One hesitates to puff one’s credentials upon subjects as sleazy as criminal justice. All the same, since I am unqualified for the cosmic, I spend all too much of my time hanging out in courts, and it could be said, either for or against me, that I write about trials more often than any reporter in New York who is not exclusively assigned to them. This does not mean that I understand cops—as Mrs. Allen’s hero put the case with such thundering originality, “It’s a jungle out there”—but I can claim to know perhaps as much about the subject as any journalist who spent a year in Palermo could about Sicily, which is precious little but enough to assure me that only someone who had never seen night court could conceive the one presented early on in Prince of the City. Let me at least say that I know criminal justice, as it is called, somewhat more intimately than the former general counsel of the Mayo Clinic who is now the Supreme Court justice Mrs. Allen cites as an authority on this dirty business.
(3) Of course, Prince of the City is autobiography. It is, in fact, trebly more suspicious than autobiography, which is at worst no more than the lies the autobiographer has told himself. The book about Leuci is the version he has told an author desperately anxious to make his case. The movie is the version that is added to make him a hero. The result is unreality cubed most of the time. There is one basic question about Leuci, one concededly simpler than any answer could be: “Did his conversion arrive on the road to Damascus or the road to Waterloo?” I cannot demand that Mrs. Allen give me the answer, but I have some right to wonder if she asked the question.
(4) Oh, Lord, people who go on do seem to be the cause of going on in others. All the same, I am struck by the persistence in trivializing that informs Mrs. Allen’s paragraph on the Special Investigations Unit, “As corrupt an arm of law enforcement as one is likely to find this side of Hong Kong.” Since the SIU was assigned to the war against heroin, the corruption thus facetiously described could only have been the toleration of traffic in heroin for pay. Then we come to “it was so corrupt that it self-destructed,” an image right out of the infinite delights all of us remember from Max Sennett. Mrs. Allen has answered my complaint by compounding my grounds: even now she is still not just telling us but probably even believing that policemen who take bribes from the peddlers of heroin are charming rogues. I do not mean to dismiss them as monsters; but choosing that special style of corruption does suggest complications unnoticed in Prince of the City.
(5) Mrs. Allen says that twelve prosecutors met to debate whether to indict Leuci for perjury. I did not question the fact of that meeting; I merely certified the inevitability of the decision not to indict him. I have heard government informants swear in court to perjuries so blatant that the prosecutor had to know they were lies. Hell, even I knew they were lies. If Mrs. Allen believes that prosecutors indict the people who make their cases in some fit of shock at discovering they have perjured themselves, then will she do me the kindness of naming one miscreant so punished? The only one who lodges in that inadequate memory bank, my mind, is Harvey Matusow. He lied about communists and earned guilty verdicts for the Justice Department. He then recanted his lies. Then and only then was he indicted for perjury.
(6) The great joke is that Mrs. Allen has been so unfair to prosecutors as to arouse even me to cry, “Enough, already.” I am so implacably and irresponsibly defense-minded that prosecutors are always abusing me for my affection for the felon in question, and I can only reply by reminding them that they will all too soon be counsel for the defense of some unspeakable dope peddler and soliciting and, what’s more disgraceful, getting my sympathy. That does not mean that I approve of caricatures of their craft. US Attorney Thomas Puccio may glow with a light that I should prefer not to see on land or sea; but he is not a wimp. No movie should be blamed for its audience; but Mrs. Allen really ought to be embarrassed at the moment when Jerry Ohrbach turns the desk over on Puccio and the spectators are awakened from the numbness induced by the hysterical sloth of this narrative to cheer fervently. That just could not have happened. No cop in trouble would be dumb enough to insult a prosecutor; and the cop who is the model for Jerry Ohrbach’s part was circumspect so far beyond even that high average that he managed, by guile, charm, and heroic abstention from outright candor, to convince a jury to acquit him.
I apologize for consuming space better reserved for protests on behalf of serious people like dissident Czechs. I certainly do not apologize for my reliance on Nick Pileggi and, if the unlikely occasion when I might have to should arise, I do not expect to be alerted to it by someone who thinks homework more useful than experience and whose homework seems, in any case, to have been so lightly brushed as to leave the pupil unaware of the Christian name of the truly distinguished jurist who was chairman of the Knapp Commission. I would be remiss if I did not say how much I respect Mr. Lumet’s and Mrs. Allen’s other work and that I look forward to next time, when I hope they will return to real life.