Prince of the City
A great deal of harmless gaiety went out of our lives when we began calling movies “films.” Prince of the City is a model instance of the movie that insists on being a film and proceeds inevitably to assault our common sense with the counterfeit of a moral lesson. It has been afforded a degree of critical respect extraordinary enough to rank it as a benchmark in the development of a process that our great-grandchildren, who had better be smarter than we are, will likely identify as the Dumbing of America.
Prince of the City’s subject is police corruption and its hero is Danny Ciello, a tainted narcotics detective who repents and helps the investigating prosecutors. Its villains are the prosecutors and their victims are Ciello’s fellow takers, who are offered as a company of charming rogues, although, except for Jerry Ohrbach, the actors who play them have been stimulated into excesses of strutting, braying, and bawling that would make any real crooked cop blush at their vulgarity.
Like all well-intentionedly false pictures, this one has its source in a reality. Danny Ciello is drawn from Detective Robert Leuci and these caricatures of cops are crudely modeled on his partners in the Special Investigations Unit of the Police Department. Nick Pileggi most manfully disposes of the presumed inoffensiveness of Leuci’s squad in a recent issue of New York Magazine. This is a band of brothers that took bribes from heroin dealers. Now and then, the more enterprising among them would sell the dope they had confiscated in the street.
The dumbing of America thus shows itself in the concentration on a minor moral problem to the entire neglect of a major one. Time was when police graft had its standards of decency; policemen took money from gamblers and bartenders who stayed open after hours, because they did not look upon the sins thus tolerated as crimes against society. But the heroin trade is deeply offensive to every impulse of humanity; and the Special Investigations Unit belongs to the history of the heroin trade not as antagonist but as a largely benign observer and in some cases partner. Is it possible to make a useful comment about moral decay and never wonder what has happened to a policeman when he is not ashamed of profiting off drug peddlers?
But, of course, our instruments of information are lamentably dependent on the information that is for sale in the market, and all that’s generally available are the recollections of a reformed criminal. First he writes his autobiography, and paints his sins with the lightest and his public service with the heaviest of brushes. Then the movies buy his book and distort it further to avoid impurities in the mixture appointed for heroes.
His true character is thus hopelessly lost, and any effort to find it and explain its conflicts carefully avoided. You cannot blame poor Treat Williams, who plays Ciello, for being unable to do anything in such a plight except scream…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
Copyright © 1981 Newsday, Inc.