We've all seen plenty of "dirty cop gives up his former partners" movies by now. Sometimes it's an honest cop who won't play ball with the others in his department, (as in Lumet's earlier film "Serpico") other times it's a bad cop trying to avoid his own punishment by giving up others. "Prince of the City" gives us a different set up from the very first scene, that of Officer Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) unable to sleep. Danny isn't under investigation at all, he's bothered by dealing with the misery of junkies and drug dealers, while at the same time profiting from their misfortune. Despite his and his partners' illegal side activities, the idea of being a cop means something to Danny. He tells the Chase Commission Attorney Cappalino that the day he became a cop was the happiest day of his life. It's since dawned on him that he hasn't lived up to what being a cop was all about.
When he meets Cappalino, he's fascinated with the idea of redeeming himself somehow, but knows he can't talk without hurting his partners. Watching him struggle with the opportunity that's almost in his grasp, we get a revealing look at him. He calls Cappalino twice and meets with him only to repeat his insistence that cops are all good. He knows what he has to do, but he needs time to talk himself into it. He needs assurances, and to hear the right things.
One thing that this film really gets across better than any film of it's kind is the bond between partners. These men are the very best of friends rather than the usual characters you'd find in a film like this, greedy cops just waiting to turn on each other. When anyone takes money, they all split it evenly, even with Bando, the weakest of them, who they always leave outside. When they discover that Danny's getting cops indicted, they don't hold a grudge, they know him too well for that. Faced with the knowledge that Danny told everything, they don't try to kill him, they just make their own choices with that information. Danny is family, and his actions can't be undone. They don't like it, but not one of his partners ever even calls Danny a "rat." He's the same guy they've always known.
Ciello is assured that he won't have to turn on his partners, but once he becomes a part of the larger system, it becomes clear that it will be inevitable. Danny points out that they're singling out cops because "cops are easy." Cappalino agrees and wishes they weren't. He tells Danny that he'd be glad to hear about corrupt lawyers and judges, and certainly some efforts are spent in that direction. Danny tells them he's done "three things" while heading his SIU, a necessary strategy, to protect his partners. He's cautioned against perjuring himself, but he's perjured himself before, as have most of his fellow officers, in order to get convictions. Nobody calls him on it, because he's helping them get convictions.
His efforts get people promoted, good fortune that only adds to Danny's real troubles. He was able to get off the fence and act in no small part because of the rapport he'd built with Cappalino and Brooks. Once they're promoted out of the daily picture, he becomes just another cog in the machinery. Men like Santimassino and Attorney Polito have no loyalty towards him, and look forward to indicting him even as he's working with them. He didn't make their careers. To them, he's just another dirty cop, and they're not entirely wrong. It's asking a lot to expect a presumably upright attorney to revere a dirty cop just because he's helping them get other cops. They're eager to use him for their own ends, picking up their grudges when they get what they want. Loyalty is important in this story, and Danny's main redeeming quality (until he gives that up.)
This is a world where indictments are only numbers to the men seeking them. Danny doesn't quite understand this, as his heart breaks for the junkies he works with. His behavior, even when reprehensible is very human. When he decides to help Cappalino, he doesn't come across as noble. He's a guy who doesn't know which end is up, finally getting some sense of direction. Treat Williams makes this a very interesting role. He doesn't give us a super cop or even a very tough one. His Ciello is a guy two steps away from falling apart. He's told quite a few times that he "worries too much." and it's hard to disagree. He appears anxious every second, unsure of what to do next and having no idea what anyone else will do. He's very human above all else and it's surprising that he's able to make any progress without getting killed. He delights in telling suspicious parties "yeah, I'm wearing a wire." as if it's a ridiculous idea, when he is in fact wearing one.
He doesn't consider that his cousin Nick will pay the consequences for being involved with his activities. At times it's uncomfortable to watch him as he looks so ill at ease. Brooks and Cappalino discuss his habit of not carrying his gun any more, wondering if that's his decision not to fight it if he gets caught. For this character that seems plausible. He has more guilt than he knows what to with and he doesn't even understand it. As corrupt as he is, he's also impossibly naive to think that he could work for the Commission and not implicate his partners. That's likely a willful if not conscious lack of foresight, to enable him to do something. He's used to playing by his own rules, as a "prince of the city." As could be applied to anyone in the system he works for, he's been "judged by results." Convictions as just numbers is the logic that kept his unit going strong. He seeks to escape that by working for Cappalino, but finds that same logic again, only this time he's the equivalent of the junkie informant.
"Prince of the City" doesn't really answer this dilemma. It's not likely to encourage any dirty cops to come forward, but should we feel bad that a dirty cop doesn't get a get out of jail free card? Not really, but then again, he's been used as a valuable tool. Should he be rewarded for coming forward of his own free will? It does seem to mean more than someone who was pressured, but this is a movie about a system that only sees results, and whether pressured or through free will, the results would likely be the same. Ciello's squad is not the worst of the worst, they don't kill people, they just steal money and keep their informants supplied with drugs in a pinch. We're not told how it started, but we're told that it has been accepted for some time, even expected. Everyone in this film knows that cops dealing with Narcotics are dirty. Their behavior is no secret to anyone. What's new here is the effort put forth to stop it.
Ciello is attacked in court for perjury in an effort to overturn a conviction of a very corrupt lawyer. What do we want to happen? He did commit serious perjury, and the lawyer was convicted. Should it be overturned? We know the lawyer was corrupt. The judge decides that Ciello's perjury was not central to that conviction, as fair an outcome as we could ask, leaving the matter of Ciello's indictment to a separate hearing behind closed doors. Ultimately, a few men show their loyalty. They used Ciello, they can't just throw him away. Attorney Vincente threatens to resign over it. Vincente, Cappalino and Brooks are heard enough to help dismiss the idea. In coming forward on his own, they believe that he was trying to do the right thing and he didn't know enough about the system to avoid the problems he ran into. As Cappalino points out, the road to corruption was a gradual one, but the road back is made in one big leap without all the information.
Visually the film has an almost documentary style, giving us a rough looking New York City and putting our focus on the characters who work there. It feels like it could have as easily been a stage production, but the story and the acting are top notch. Treat Williams is perfectly cast in one of his best roles, and Jerry Orbach is terrific as Gus Levy, the only cop that isn't in the least intimidated by the Commission. The strength of the film is in the characters and their relationships, Ciello with his partners and then with Cappalino and lastly Vincente. Ciello needs a voice in his ear to function and he's lucky enough to find some people with genuine regard for him. Even a dirty cop has something if he has good friends, and he has that at least. His friends are likely headed for prison, but all the same it's good to see those relationships presented realistically, disappointment rather than oaths of revenge.
We're left without a neat little bow to wrap it up. Ciello helped the government convict dirty cops because he felt tortured by what the was doing, but in doing so he betrayed everyone close to him as he swore he would never do. In a way he's back where he started, having learned that the Chase Commission is "not his friend." The audience can be happy that many dirty cops were put away, but it's unlikely that Ciello will be happy any time soon, which is perhaps as it should be, some things can't be absolved that easily. The other good thing to take away is that you don't have to be Danny Ciello.
Lumet was a director who often presented stories where humanity isn't something that's rewarded by the system that regulates it. "Prince of the City" visits the same territory as "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," and "Dog Day Afternoon" among so many others. These are worlds where certain people have to work awfully hard to get any sense of the right thing to do and if you happen to be the wrong person, maybe there's no answer at all. While many subscribe to the idea that if you can't present a solution you shouldn't complain about a problem, Lumet clearly did not agree, and did us all a service by pointing at aspects of the problem we may not have considered, one of them being that honest cops and dirty cops both have some serious problems trying to work in the system, and there's always more corruption somewhere. It's interesting though, that Ciello the dirty cop, seemed to get off a little easier than Serpico the honest cop. If there's any lesson to be learned here, it's just that this isn't a system you want to trust with your fate. The stubborn voice of humanity comes through eventually, thanks to Cappalino and Vincente, but it's nowhere close to a sure thing in a system built for numbers, that rewards those who see in black and white, although the fates of so many exist in between those extremes.
Danny (Treat Williams) is the head of SIU (Special Investigative Unit) in New York City. He leads a tight knit group of cops, Dom Bando (Kenny Marino,) Joe Marinaro, (Richard Foronjy,) Bill Mayo, (Don Billett,) and Gus Levy, (Jerry Orbach) who he refers to collectively as his partners. They conduct narcotics busts efficiently working very much unsupervised. Taking drugs and money from the bad guys is all a part of the operation. They also have a network of informants consisting mostly of junkies. These aren't cops who steal drugs to feed their own habits, it's more of a practicality. They have to keep their informants happy, a difficult task if they don't have their fix. The money is another matter and that goes to keeping them in nice houses and wearing the best clothes. They also reason that taking the money is the best way to get rid of the bigger operators. They have a system, any time money is taken, it's divided evenly between everyone in the unit. This is how it works every single day. They do manage to put away a lot of drug dealers, as their unit is known for it's spectacular results. Ciello's partners are his best friends, even when they're not working they get together for cookouts.
Danny is called into Special Assistant US Attorney Rick Cappalino's (Norman Parker) office. Cappalino along with another Special Attorney, Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling) is working for the Chase Commission on Police Corruption and he tells Danny that he's not under investigation, but Cappalino figured why not start at the top of SIU? He tells Danny that a judge calls SIU "Princes of the City" due to their ability to do what they please. Cappalino tells him that SIU is under suspicion. Ciello tells Cappalino that he "goes for cops because cops are easy." Cappalino agrees and adds "and I can't tell you how sorry I am that cops are easy." Ciello counters that many judges are also corrupt and he doesn't know anything but great cops in SIU.
At a cookout with his family and partners, Ciello is confronted by his brother, also a junkie. His brother tells him he never helps him. which to him is hooking him up with drugs. He accuses Danny of being "the same fucking crook" as anyone in the street, except that he has a badge. Danny loses his temper and slaps his brother around. Leaving the room, Danny's tells him that his brother is right about these things. The pressure is weighing on Danny and he calls Cappalino and meets him at his house although he only repeats the earlier conversation.
Ciello gets a call at 3 in the morning from one of his junkie informers who's desperate for his drugs. We see that he respects their arrangement and meets him in the pouring rain resolved to help him out. After a few tries don't work out, Ciello drives to a dealers place and sees another junkie, Jose, leaving. He chases him man down and takes the drugs he just bought to give to his informer. Badly beaten and bloodied, Jose asks that Ciello not take them all, but leave him enough to take care of himself. Ciello obliges. However, once he drops hands off the drugs to his informer, Ciello feels bad for Jose and brings him home, only to watch as his drugs are instantly grabbed by his girlfriend, another junkie. Danny deals with this every day. He leaves them to fight it out. It's the nature of his work and it's affecting him more all the time.
We see him meeting with Cappalino again. Cappalino asks about his cousin Nick, who's in the mob. Cappalino remarks that it's the second time he's called. He sets up a meeting with Brooks Paige. Ciello initially tells Cappalino and Brooks that the problem is lawyers and judges rather than cops. He tells them "nobody cares about me but my partners!" before breaking down in front of them saying "these people we take from own us." He settles down and admits that he gives his informants drugs. He tells them that he won't give up his partners. They agree to break up his SIU unit so he can try to protect them. At home, his wife Carla (Lindsay Crouse,) questions his decision, telling him the time will come when he'll have to hurt his friends. He ensures her that he never will. "It'll happen." she tells him "and how am I gonna live with you while you live with that?" He meets with Cappalino again just to remind him that he will never go against his partners.
At the station Danny's SIU partners all meet to gather their personal effects from SIU. They exchange gifts and tell jokes. Danny soon goes to work for Brooks and Cappalino. He tells them "I did three things in SIU." He tells them about a couple instances of involvement in brokering deals and extortion, and that he agreed to take a thousand dollars to put two cops on safe and lock squad. Brooks warns him that if he perjures himself the whole operation will be destroyed, and they ask if he's done anything else. He assures them that he hasn't. They set him up with a wire to tape conversations with suspected corrupt figures (other than his partners) He goes to work, gathering conversations and testifying about them. Danny's excited about his work, even asking his Mafia cousin Nick (Ronald Maccone) to help him get to a suspect, Rocky Gazzo (Tony Munafo) He starts making a game out of whether he wears a wire or not and stops carrying his gun.
Word starts getting around that he's an informant, which he responds to by admitting it sarcastically, even bragging about it to Cappalino and Brooks. He ends up involved with a corrupt attorney Blomberg (Michael Beckett) who is about to go to trial. Ciello acts as if he's helping Blomberg while gathering facts against him.
Ciello is soon introduced to Santimissino (Bob Balaban) a Washington Department of Justice official, who demands that Ciello help bring down a Marcel Sardino who is tied in with his friend and fellow cop, Gino Mascone (Carmine Caridi) Danny refuses and Santimissino reminds him that Gino wasn't his partner, so he's not holding up their deal. He finds that Santimissino was playing games with him, and already had someone in the works to take down Gino, Sardino, the man he had asked Danny to pursue. Sardino sets up Gino, documenting him taking a bribe. Santimissino pressures Gino to make some calls for them, and has Danny on the way to talk to him. Before Danny reaches him, however, Gino shoots himself rather than help Santimissino. This of course leaves Danny shaken. Rocky Gazzo confronts Danny, telling him he heard about what he's doing. He reminds him that this puts his cousing in a bad spot. Rocky offers to give him $150,000.00 to leave town and "stop being a rat." Danny turns him down. Danny tells Rocky that "if you kill me you're dead." Rocky tells him "You worry too much." and tells Danny to go ahead and take him in.
Dany starts cracking up. At a gathering with his ex partners, he tells them he didn't have anything to do with Gino. They tell him they've all heard some stories but they don't believe them. He comes clean with his partners about his activities to them, but promises he hasn't done anything to get them in trouble. They all believe him and tell him to take it easy. The next day, Danny's picture is in the newspaper as the informant for the Chase Commission. Cappalino arranges protection for Danny and his family, headed by Tug Barnes (Lane Smith) Danny realizes that they expect him to give testimony for two years. Nick turns up and tells Danny that he was offered the job to kill him but he refused and instead warns him to keep an eye out. The pressure is increased when Cappalino gets a promotion due to their efforts, and Brooks gets promoted soon afterwards moving them both out of the picture. Danny starts reporting to D.A. Burano (Lance Henriksen.) Blomberg's lawyer starts turning up people who will testify that Danny did a lot more than three things wrong in the SIU, attempting to prove he's been perjuring himself to overturn Blomberg's conviction.
While Danny is pushed on the stand by Blomberg's lawyer, he is also openly resented by District Attorney Polito (James Tolkan,) who along with Santimissino, is eager to indict Ciello. Danny's cousin Nick turns up dead for helping Danny prompting a relocation and increased security for his family. The pressure increases for Danny to admit other past wrongdoing. Mario Vincente (Steve Inwood) from the U.S. Attorney's Office starts getting to know Danny. Polito puts more pressure on Danny, calling in someone from an old case and letting him spit in Danny's face and telling Danny that he thinks he can indict him. He then starts looking at Gus Levy, the officer closest to Danny. Gus assures Danny they'll never get a thing out of him, and true to his word, he not only refuses to talk but assaults Polito. Vincente encourages Danny to come clean, promising he won't share information with Polito. Danny starts feeling the pressure more. At home he can't even pay attention to his kids. He tells his wife what's happening. Vincente tells Danny that Polito is getting an indictment against him. He tells him "You've run out of options. You've got to tell the truth, whatever it is." He presents telling the truth as the only way to save his partners, if he can get them to come forward afterwards. Danny tells Vincente everything and starts calling his partners to let them know and ask them to come in. Bando, the least involved in their activities, isn't interested in talking. Marinaro tells him he'll call him back later. He calls Mayo the next day. Mayo says he'll come in, but instead sets up a meeting with Gus. Rather than go in, Mayo shoots himself in the car as Gus approaches. Danny shows up at the scene but can't bring himself to talk to Gus. He runs, losing his security and spends a minute looking over a bridge before going to see Brooks. Danny is obviously coming unhinged. Brooks takes him to see Marinaro, so Danny can tell him about Mayo. Marinaro goes into his backyard and screams while Danny comforts him. Brooks remarks "I'm never getting involved with cops again." Danny finally confronts Gus and tells him "I told them everything." Gus tells him he's not cooperating no matter what. Danny interrupts Marinero's interrogation and brags about what Gus told him. Leaving he says "Don't hate me, Joe." Marinero says "I could never hate you, Danny."
A prosecutor's meeting is called in chambers with Ciello's 84 page confession to decide whether or not to indict Ciello. During that time Ciello is in court facing Blomberg's attorney who now has an easier time. Cappalino sticks up for him, reminding the room of what Danny had done for them and why. Polito has no sympathy at all. Brooks sticks up for Danny as well. Vincente tells them that when he watched Danny on the stand he knew he was lying, and he can't believe they were leading him to lie to convict Blomberg. He then tells them that if they indict Danny, he'll hand in his resignation. It's decided not to indict Danny, and the judge in court decides not to overturn the Blomberg conviction.
We see Ciello in a classroom afterwards teaching about surveillance techniques. A student asks if he's "The" Detective Ciello. and when he says he is, the student says "I don't think I have anything to learn from you." before leaving the class.