There are many loving and well-deserved tributes to Sidney Lumet to be found on the Internet today, as is appropriate for a man who directed such great movies as 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico.
I've seen all of those, and they are indeed great movies. But my favorite Lumet movie, in fact one of my favorite movies of all time, is Lumet's Prince of the City, which later this year will celebrate its 30th birthday. In a long-ago post, I went so far as to call it "the greatest unsung drama of our time."
Prince of the City tells the true story of Danny Ciello (the original detective's name was Bob Leuci, but the story told in the movie is remarkably true to the story told in the book written by Leuci), a New York City narcotics detective in the early 1970s. Ciello is a member of an elite group of detectives referred to by their colleagues (and their detractors) as "princes of the city" because of their citywide jurisdiction. They pursue the big dealers, make the big cases, and pretty much make up the rules as they go along. As Ciello tells a prosecutor at one point (I'm paraphrasing), "These guys will never get convicted. But we can steal their money, and make sure they get deported."
Eventually, Ciello suffers a crisis of conscience, and decides to team up with two young, ambitious district attorneys to bring corrupt detectives to justice. He goes undercover, but tells them that he has a line - he will never give up his partners. And from the moment he says that, it is inevitable that he will, in fact, give up his partners. The movie tells its story with care, and it slowly unfolds toward its inevitable conclusion. These are men Ciello cares about a great deal. At one point, he goes so far as to say "I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners." He loves them as much as he does his wife and family. But he will betray them.
The movie was not a huge hit at the time, and it didn't win a lot of awards, but it should have. Treat Williams gives the performance of his life as Danny Ciello, but the real strength of the movie comes from its remarkable supporting cast - Jerry Orbach, Lindsay Crouse, Bob Balaban, Richard Foronjy, James Tolkan, and many others. It is an incredible ensemble performance.
Prince of the City is a remarkable film by a remarkable director. Sidney Lumet, R.I.P.
- Sheila O'Malley talks about the impact that Dog Day Afternoon had on her life.
- Matt Zoller Seitz: "He made movies for adults."