There once was a kingdom ruled over by a fair and righteous king. One day, an evil witch descended upon the well from which the people drank, and poisoned the water. The very next day everyone but the righteous king drank the poisoned water. And they all went insane. All but the king that is. For several days after, the people wondered aloud, "What happened to our king," they shouted in the streets, "Has he gone insane?" So the king went and drank from the poisoned water, and everything was well again.
That is the story Al Pacino's girlfriend tells him late in "Serpico", Sidney Lumet's celebrated 1973 true-life tale about police corruption and one's man's obstinate stand against it. Apart from Pacino's performance as Frank Serpico, that film was a compromised moral drama, thrown haphazardly together to fit a commercial running time. The success of "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) and "Network" (1976) then allowed Lumet to make Prince of The City, unquestionably his greatest work, and worthy of the story of the king. As a piece of narrative it ignores all the established rules: There are no acts (first, second or third). There are no heroes, and no villains. There are no gun battles or showdowns. This, for its entire three hour running time, is an account of a cop who decides to blow the whistle on corruption, and the legal repercussions that ensue. Unlike Serpico, Det. Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) is no saint. He does what, in his view, needs to be done. And given the nature of power, a lot more. On his own accord, he heads to the Chase commission, where he decides to "do the right thing", and confess. His one condition? He won't rat on his partners. He knows them to be good men. We see them at his luxurious two-story house. They are cordial, pleasant, brotherly. When he states his condition to the government lawyers, he says, "I sleep with my wife. But I live with my partners."
Except the forces that be don't see things the way he does. Ciello and his partners are the Special Investigative Unit for Narcotics, the "Princes of the city". They have citywide jurisdiction and are virtually unsupervised. When they make a bust they A) Keep the drug dealer's money. B) Sell the drug dealer his freedom. Or C) Arrest him and take his money. They have reasons too. You see, a drug dealer without money would never be able to buy another cop, a DA or a judge. And if they don't have enough evidence to convict anyway, they may as well have the money. This group of cops, as they have no doubt explained to themselves, tens if not hundreds of times, have a moral right to scam the dealers. They have a moral imperative to keep their junkie stoolies (snitches) supplied with Heroin. Yes they do this for the information, but also because, "a junkie will break your heart." The practice of giving Heroin, according to the government lawyers, is exactly the same as dealing. Legally, they are as culpable as drug dealers. And the moral haze thickens.
No one joins the police force to become a bad guy. That is why Lumet, whose films are basically about the subjectivity of right and wrong, is fascinated with cops. They are not gangsters, who, as depicted in Scorsese's Goodfellas, are more about the money and "the life" than a mythical code of honor. For cops (even those who beat protestors or torture prisoners around the world) there has been, in most cases, a point where they justified their actions. In Prince of The City, Lumet affords all his characters, including the tens of government lawyers, an unfeigned authenticity that makes every scene in the film riveting. For every odious act performed against, or by a cop (or even a lawyer), there's an underlying moral position. The moral complexity of Lumet's best work lies in the assumption that pure evil does not exist.
What sets Prince of the City apart (and what earns it comparisons to the films of Martin Scorsese) is the unusual strength of its characters. Lumet, who co-wrote the screenplay, something he does not do often, employs a strangely effective technique. Instead of a narration, there are regular grim stills of the ID Cards of the characters involved accompanied by quotations such as "nobody cares about you but your partners", and "I'll be telling lies for the rest of my life". The whole film then takes a feel of a postmortem documentary. The stills are there because the characters involved, probably for calamitous reasons, need to be identified. The quotations are the leads character's regrets. And as Ciello, Treat Williams gives a forceful performance that requires him to be in every scene. His character's quest for absolution closely resembles that of Charlie in Scorsese's Mean Streets. Why did this successful "Prince of the City" decide to voluntarily confess his trespasses, throwing all his riches away? Maybe the sight of starved junkie, shivering in abandoned warehouse, begging him for drugs didn't seem like much of a kingdom.