When detective Treat Williams decides to work with officials on a wide-reaching police-corruption sting in Prince Of The City, Sidney Lumet's gut-wrenching 1981 epic about the sickness and hypocrisy of "the system," he longs for absolution, but within certain limits. Williams agrees to wear a wire and assist prosecutors under the condition that he never be forced to rat out his partners in the elite Special Investigation Unit. He's also shy about confessing the full spectrum of his own wrongdoing, lest he be indicted alongside the other men in blue. But he learns, as the floodwaters quickly rise over his head, that absolution can't be accomplished halfway, and his flawed heroism puts him on the wrong side of the prosecution, the Police Department, the Mob, and even his own wife (Lindsay Crouse), who shuns him for stepping forward in the first place. In his disingenuous yet genuine effort to do the right thing, he becomes a tragic figure.
Based on Robert Daley's book about real-life undercover narcotics cop Robert Leuci, Prince Of The City unfurls across a large canvas, with hundreds of locations and a speaking part for just about every first-rate character actor in New York. (Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, Donald Pleasence, and Lance Henriksen are just a few of the familiar faces on display.) Having skimmed off drug deals and supplied junkie informants for years, Williams sees an opportunity to turn a new leaf when officials for a major anti-corruption operation approach him. Thrown into dangerous situations, often with a wire and never with a firearm, Williams becomes the lynchpin in about 30 indictments, yet his failure to disclose his misdeeds threatens to unravel those cases and lay the groundwork for a case against him.
The tough urban realism Lumet perfected in cop dramas like Serpico, Q&A, and Prince Of The City has been reflected in first-rate TV shows like Homicide: Life On The Street, The Wire, and The Shield. But those shows had multiple seasons to draw out the breadth of institutional corruption, while Lumet miraculously covers this territory in 167 minutes. He succeeds by staying close to Williams as the world crumbles around him; in the end, the people who suffer most are the ones Lumet's hero took the greatest pains to protect.
Key features: A half-hour documentary featuring Leuci is further testament to the film's exceptional verity.