When director Sidney Lumet chose Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC to shoot his law-and-order epic Prince of the City, the young cinematographer had big shoes to fill: Lumet had by then collaborated with ASC members Boris Kaufman, Owen Roizman and Victor J. Kemper, among others. Bartkowiak justified Lumet’s faith, however, with visually meticulous work, and the duo went on to collaborate on several more dramas about politics and the criminal-justice system, including The Verdict, Q&A and Daniel.
Based on a true story, Prince of the City follows Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams), a morally compromised narcotics detective who decides to cooperate with an investigation into police corruption by wearing wiretaps and naming names. He finds that it is impossible for him or his beloved partners to remain untouched by the scandal; Ciello’s life is endangered because of the problems he causes the New York mob, and his own indiscretions and those of his friends threaten to send them all to jail.
Lumet and co-screenwriter Jay Presson Allen chart the complex moral terrain with clarity and depth. Ciello and the supporting characters are all realistic, contradictory characters; people in the film with noble intentions often do horrible things; and gangsters and junkies are presented with sympathy and understanding. The large ensemble cast is further defined by a vivid, realistic context, thanks to precise details that make the milieu of crime and punishment come to life.
One thing that keeps Prince of the City compelling for almost three hours is its ability to consistently surprise us. Things and people are never as they seem, and Lumet and Bartkowiak emphasize this idea by using short or long lenses that subtly alter perspective. (Lumet claims they avoided midrange focal lengths altogether.) Bartkowiak also steadily increases characters’ isolation via lighting: at the beginning of the film the backgrounds are brightly lit and the compositions favor the characters’ surroundings, but by the end of the movie Ciello and his associates are seen in darker, more tightly framed shots that convey every punishing betrayal. Even in scenes where Ciello doesn’t yet know he’s in trouble, Bartkowiak hints at the real meaning of his actions by “imprisoning” him with shadows. The decision to shoot most of the exteriors at angles that eliminate the sky adds to the sense of oppression as Ciello makes one tortuous ethical choice after another.
This gritty tale has suffered in previous video incarnations, but Warner Home Video’s new anamorphic transfer is solid and preserves the nuances of Bartkowiak’s work. The monaural soundtrack is relatively dynamic in spite of the lack of surround effects; evocative sound effects occasionally reinforce the brutal societal machine that traps and manipulates the film’s characters.
The 167-minute feature is spread out over two discs, and disc two also features the half-hour supplement “Prince of the City: The Real Story.” This documentary includes interviews with Lumet and actors Williams and Bob Balaban, among others, and provides a concise but enlightening overview of the production. The only other supplement is the film’s theatrical trailer.