Prince of the City is a 1981 American crime drama film about an NYPD officer who chooses to expose police corruption for idealistic reasons. The character of Daniel Ciello, played by Treat Williams, was based on real-life NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci.[1] The script was based on Robert Daley's 1978 book of the same name. Sidney Lumet was the director and co-screenwriter; the large supporting cast also featured actors Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and Lindsay Crouse.

Prince of the City was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost to On Golden Pond.


Daniel "Danny" Ciello (Treat Williams) is a narcotics detective who works in the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of the New York City Police Department. He and his partners are called "Princes of the City" because they are largely unsupervised and are given wide latitude to make cases against defendants. They are involved in numerous illegal practices, however, such as skimming money from criminals and supplying informants with drugs. Danny himself has a drug addict for a brother and a cousin in organized crime. After an incident in which Danny beats up a junkie to supply another junkie with heroin, his conscience begins to bother him. He is approached by internal affairs and federal prosecutors to participate in an investigation of police corruption. In exchange for potentially avoiding prosecution as well as federal protection for himself, his wife, and his children, Ciello wears a wire and works undercover to expose the inner workings of illegal police activity and corruption. He agrees to cooperate as long as he does not have to turn in his partners, but his past misdeeds and criminal associates come back to haunt him. One of his partners commits suicide during interrogation, and his cousin in the mafia, who saves his life on one occasion and warns him of a contract on his life at another point, winds up dead. While confessing three crimes he committed in the 11 years he worked for the SIU, Danny perjures himself by denying the many other offenses he and his partners have committed. Despite repeated professions of loyalty, he finally gives up all of his partners, one of whom shoots himself as a result of this betrayal. Most of the others turn against him. In the end, the chief government prosecutor decides not to prosecute Ciello and he returns to work as an instructor at the police academy. [2]



When producer and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen read Robert Daley's book, Prince of the City (1978), she was convinced it was an ideal Sidney Lumet project, but the film rights had already been sold to Orion Pictures for Brian De Palma and David Rabe. Allen let it be known that if that deal should fall through, then she wanted the picture for Sidney. Just as Lumet was about to sign for a different picture, they got the call that Prince of the City was theirs.

Allen hadn't wanted to write Prince of the City, just produce it. She was put off by the book's non-linear story structure, but Lumet wouldn't make the picture without her, and agreed to write the outline for her. Lumet and Allen went over the book and agreed on what they could use and what they could do without. To her horror, Lumet would come in every day for weeks and scribble on legal pads. She was terrified that she would have to tell him that his stuff was unusable, but to her delight the outline was wonderful and she went to work.[3] It was her first project with living subjects, and Allen interviewed nearly everyone in the book and had endless hours of Bob Leuci’s tapes for back-up. With all her research and Lumet's outline, she eventually turned out a 365-page script in 10 days.[4] It was nearly impossible to sell the studio on a three-hour picture, but by offering to slash the budget to $10 million they agreed. (When asked if the original author ever has anything to say about how their book is treated, Allen replied: "Not if I can help it. You cannot open that can of worms. You sell your book, you go to the bank, you shut up."[5])

Orion Pictures had bought Daley's book for $500,000 in 1978.[6] Daley was a former New York Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Affairs who wrote about Robert Leuci, an NYPD detective whose testimony and secret tape recordings helped indict 52 members of the Special Investigation Unit and convict them of income tax evasion.[6] Originally, Brian De Palma was going to direct with David Rabe adapting the book[7] and Robert De Niro playing Leuci but the project fell through.[8] Sidney Lumet came aboard to direct under two conditions: he did not want a big name movie star playing Leuci because he did not "want to spend two reels getting over past associations,"[8] and the movie's running time would be at least three hours long.[7]

Lumet cast Treat Williams after spending three weeks talking to him and listening to the actor read the script and then reading it again with 50 other cast members.[9] In order to research the role, the actor spent a month learning about police work, hung out at 23rd Precinct in New York City, went on a drug bust and lived with Leuci for some time.[10] By the time rehearsals started, Williams said, "I was thinking like a cop."[10]

Lumet felt guilty about the two-dimensional way he had treated cops in the 1973 film Serpico and said that Prince of the City was his way to rectify this depiction.[9] He and Jay Presson Allen wrote a 240-page script in 30 days.[7] The film was budgeted at $10 million but the director was able to bring it in for under $8.6 million.[9]


Orion decided to open the film initially in select theaters in order to allow good reviews and word-of-mouth to build.[6] They were unable to buy television advertising because of the cost and relied heavily on print ads, including an unusual three-page spread in the New York Times.[6]


The film was considered authentic enough by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration that he called Lumet for a copy of the movie for the DEA training program. Some law enforcement officials, however, criticized the film for glamorizing Leuci and other corrupt detectives while portraying most of the prosecutors who uncovered the crimes negatively.[11] John Guido, Chief of Inspectional Services said, "The corrupt guys are the only good guys in the film."[11] Nicholas Scoppetta, the Special Prosecutor who helped convince Leuci to go undercover against his fellow officers, said, "In the film, it seems to be the prosecutors who are disregarding the issue of where real justice lies and the prosecutors seem to be as bad or worse than the corrupt police."[11] In fact, only two of the five prosecutors the film focuses on were portrayed negatively. In particular District Attorney Polito, played by James Tolkan, is shown as petty and vindictive. The character is based on Thomas P. Puccio, the assistant United States Attorney in charge of the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, and Robert Daley agrees that he was treated unfairly in the screenplay.

Interestingly, one of the prosecutors who befriended the Ciello character and is shown in a very positive light was based on then rookie federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani. The character, Mario Vincente, played by Steve Inwood, is portrayed as threatening to resign if the U.S. Attorney's office indicts Ciello (Leuci) for past transgressions. In general, the prosecutors who argued against the prosecution of Leuci are treated sympathetically, while those who sought his indictment are shown as officious and vindictive.

The initial release of Prince of the City garnered both positive and negative reviews, some the latter complaining of what was considered its excessive length or comparing Treat Williams performance unfavorably with that of Al Pacino in Lumet's previous film Serpico. As of January 2017, Prince of the City scores a 95% (among 22 reviews) on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "a very good movie and, like some of its characters, it wants to break your heart. Maybe it will."[12] Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised its "sharply detailed landscape" and states that its "brief characterizations are so keenly drawn that dozens of them stand out with the forcefulness of major performances." She concludes that it "begins with the strength and confidence of a great film, and ends merely as a good one. The achievement isn't what it first promises to be, but it's exciting and impressive all the same."[13]

The film was not commercially successful in its theatrical release, earning only $8.1 million of its $8.6 million cost.


Behind the Scenes



  1. After he quit the job, Leuci turned novelist and wrote the gritty police dramas Snitch, Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly.
  2. DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981) by Steven Santos
  3. McGilligan, Patrick (1986), Backstory: interviews with screen writers of Hollywood's golden age, Berkeley: University of California Press; ISBN 0-520-05689-2.
  4. Crist, Judith (1984), Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking (New York: Viking), pp 282-311.
  5. Crist, Op. cit., pp 282-311.
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  12. Roger Ebert review
  13. Janet Maslin review

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Other sources

  • Prince of the City: The Real Story (2006), 30-minute featurette on the main film's DVD

External links

Template:Sidney Lumet

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