Prince of the City (1981) is a film about Danny Cielloa, a New York policeman in the Special Investigations Unit. He wants ‘absolution’ as he describes it; to come clean and turn informant for internal affairs. Once Danny agrees to wear a wire — so long as he doesn’t implicate any of his partners — he records vital evidence used to prosecute numerous corrupt policemen. Other policemen soon join him, agreeing to cooperate with the investigation to gain immunity from indictment. But, as Danny painfully realises, ‘absolution’ comes at a high price.
The film’s tension comes from the interplay between Danny’s loyalty to his partners (an ‘unwritten rule’ all police follow) and his desire to come clean. His motivation to ‘absolve’ himself comes in part from his addict brother who goads him that all policemen are corrupt, and his feelings of guilt arising from a violent beating he dishes out to an addict (which is possibly a transference of anger associated with his brother).
The story’s power comes from Danny’s character development, from the brash Danny we first meet, to the emotional wreckage he becomes. The pressure on him mounts as the anti-corruption investigation spirals into a massive phenomenon revealing systemic failure: police colluding with the Mafia, faked evidence, the taking of bribes, and the theft of confiscated money and narcotics. To make matters worse, the truth about his own illegal activities emerges. And having put himself on the line, his family is put in danger and must be moved to a safe house.
Danny comes from a tough, working-class background. He knows ‘the street’ and lives within a grey area somewhere between being a scrupulously ‘clean cop’ and being ‘on-the-take’: an accepted and ‘innocent’ side-line income police use to support their families. Danny even has family members who are involved in organised crime. The blur between right and wrong puts him in an impossible situation, sandwiched between his desire to behave ethically and the criminal activities of those around him: his corrupt partners in the Special Intelligence Unit (who have the nickname the ‘princes of the city’). As the story develops his desire not to implicate his partners fails, causing carnage: a suicide, lifelong friendships ruined, death threats, and destroyed lives. The ‘family’ that these policemen were, the trust, mutual support and faith is irrevocably broken. Danny witnesses this, all too aware that he is the cause: that he has ruined the lives of people he loved as much as his own family.
Danny doesn’t feel like a hero; he feels like a traitor. And while the middle-class bureaucrats running the investigation use him to advance their own careers — enjoying the benefits of large promotions — he is left to face the real mess, once they have lost interest in him and moved on. Danny comes close to being prosecuted for his actions, but this is dropped when investigators agree no one will come forward to give evidence if they punish him.
Prince of the City has obvious similarities to Serpico (1973) except that Frank in Serpico is always ‘clean’, whereas Danny is tainted and hoping to redeem himself. Serpico is back and white, right and wrong: Serpico is almost saintly in his behaviour. Danny exists in a more nuanced world where there are lesser and greater degrees of wrongdoing: corruption doesn’t just happen instantly it stealthily creeps up on people over time — starting small and getting bigger. Danny is surrounded by this reality. It’s part of who and what he is.
Where Prince of the City excels is in the small moments, where macho men become emotionally vulnerable, where a few quiet words are exchanged to reveal worlds of hidden loyalty and meaning. Prince of the City is a celebration of one man’s determination to be a better person, it is also a warning about personal sacrifice: the terrible cost paid to tell the truth in the real world, a world of complicated lies where nothing is simple.