Saturday, April 9, 2011

RIP Train: Sidney Lumet's PRINCE OF THE CITY

The RIP Train is back in function for the great Sidney Lumet.  And hey, what a way to get back on it with a near-classic police thriller: Prince of the City.

The first question one might have with a film from Sidney Lumet that is about a cop going against the people he works with in the police force and becoming a "rat" is that 'why bother'?  He certainly made THE cop-corruption film, if not ever than of its time, with Serpico.  But after seeing Prince of the City I could see why: it's not about a cop, like in Frank Serpico's case, who was kind of an outsider even when things were a little simpler, and when it came time to become a rat he was more concerned about his own well-being due to how much paranoia there was to be had about being killed.  Here, the main cop, Danny Ciello, is in a close-knit group with the cops he works with - or, as is said more than once in the film, his partners are "the only guys he can trust" - and when he turns informant he has a code at first: not to ever, ever rat on his partners, only on other dirty cops with drug dealings.

Of course, as these things go, it's never that simple, especially since unlike with Frank Serpico Danny is not a cop who is a clean guy and actually upstanding.  No, he's done some bad things, and not just the three that he mentions as his big upsets to the internal-affair investigators he talks with.  He's "given" out heroin before with people on the street who could give him back information, and he's taken money in other instances.  But he's got a moral dilemma as he genuinely wants to do the right thing, to absolve himself of the past bad shit he's been involved in.  The tipping point, when in the middle of the night he gets a call from a fellow strung-out junkie to come help him get some junk and he does in a rain-soaked nightmare of a chase, is quite staggering if not so much the event itself than being in the whole atmosphere of a junkie cesspool-dump.

It's an epic story, surprisingly enough, and actually best watched with the intermission placed in watching on two VHS tapes (though it's very out-of-date to do so, for me it was for convenience-sake as the only copy around the house).  Ciello goes through not so much a transformation but an acceptance gradually of what it is he's doing, and how eventually those he is closest with will go down, people like Levy and Mayo and Marino and those cops closest to him (and really, how could a cop not be close to Jerry Orbach, he was practically out-of-the-womb with a badge and .38 on his tiny trousers).  The question becomes really, how can I possibly, in any way, soften the blow?  Can they come in with me on this, the ratting, or am I all alone?  And what about family and, of course, the perjury on the stand for saying he did the "three" things instead of the many other (albeit minor) things?

For Lumet the reality of the scenes where they're set is crucial- like Serpico it is a full-blown NYC movie with the locations all over the place and all adding to the gritty character of the film, be it an Italian restaurant that's only slightly better lit than the one in The Godfather, or a brick-laden street where a couple of thuggish cops take Ciello at one point to possibly 'take-him-out' for suspecting he wears a wire (to which he plays it cool by actually saying "Yeah, sure, I got a wire, feel my balls, waddaya think ya fuck!" kind of talk to them).

 And so too is how the actors naturally act and react in a scene, sometimes with basic conventional close-up and medium shot cutting and other times letting a scene play out like on a stage play.  And hey, these are real life-or-death stakes going on, so why not make it as real as possible.  Sometimes tension is just there without knowing it till it pops.  When Danny and his wife are having a moment, while they're 'in hiding', in the Catskills, a gun goes off and everyone, them, the guards for Danny as he's a protected witness, all go for cover, and we wonder who it is.  Just a kid.  Ah, relax.  Really?

A scene so intense it needed to be folded in quarters

The other thing, of course for Lumet, is the acting.  At first I wasn't totally sold on Treat Williams, if I look back on it in full disclosure.  Forget even that he's playing an Italian, but just early on when he's talking with the two IA people in the room at night (not the first time the second time) and is going off on like "What the fuck do YOU know about the streets?!" and so on, and it didn't feel real enough.  Williams starts out good in this scene but is trying too hard to be believable as this torn cop.  But then he, like the character transforms pretty quickly into something that is believable and compelling and with a conscience that is wracked with guilt for doing the 'right' thing in a sense (not for all of the cops of course, it really first hits with Gino Mascone).  I ultimately really liked Williams in the film; maybe that was one of the first scenes shot or he didn't click with it, but after that it becomes a performance to rank with the best of them as far as good-but-confliced tough-guy cops go.

Supporting acting of course is also key here, and there's not one performance that feels slipped up, even with the black guy who takes the poli-graph lie detector to try and show that Ciello lied under oath about his further corruption (only a couple of scenes really but effective for everything called for).  In this film there are mostly gritty New York characters actors called for, and naturally for every minute he's on screen Jerry Orbach steals the show though not as an over-the-top guy (albeit the guy could flip a desk in rage like nobody's badass business) however through natural grace and good humor even.  But then there's also Bob Balaban, somewhat surprisingly, as a mousy federal pencil pusher who does such a great job as Santimassino of not being 'wrong' in what he talks about but being so prickish that you can't like him even as he says things that make sense.

Look into my eyes, you bastard... shit your pants?  Good, let's move on..

That's another thing about the film that's impressive, how Lumet shows quite simply this little group of the SIU people with Ciello and Gus and everyone and how they are a tight-knit group, a family, and one with honor despite being crooked in ways of ripping off drug dealers and making other deals with the mob or whatever.  The point is made, and not without some back-up in the film with some of the supporting characters, how at this same time the law is corrupted too with DA's and other lawyers getting bumped up as judges for money kickbacks.  Ciello then has to be a kind of different hero than Serpico, who was more like a lone-wolf kind of guy with a semi-unintentional Jesus complex.  He's more like a serious, less-fucked-up version of Mark Whitacre from The Informant! who is an unlikely guy to bring in people he's close to to justice.  But that's how it is sometimes, heroes in the most unlikely and possibly doomed places.

Prince of the City has a lot of greatness to it, and if it shoots short of it it's hard to pinpoint exactly where.  Maybe it is just a little too long, though where to cut I'd never tell the late Lumet.  And I mentioned Williams already.  Certainly the action, when it springs up, is taut and incredible, based more on the unpredictable like in the burst of violence that happens in the Italian restaurant.  It's a character study more than any kind of 'plot-driven film, and that's where it gains its strength most.  Lumet even has the balls to end the film on a note of 'No, hold on a second, if he is a hero, let's be clear: people definitely may not *like* this guy for what he did.'  Maybe not.  It's a brave little coda that comes at a point where the film could have ended and would've been acceptable.  With that, it gained a certain 'something' that came with Lumet's crime-melodramas. 

Prince of the City (Theatrical Trailer) by NakedBrotha2007

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