Prince of the City

(Sidney Lumet, USA, 1981)


What's fundamentally interesting about Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City – a project originally slated for Brian De Palma – whether one takes it as a model of organic coherence or of contradictory spillage, is the way it keeps worrying about, and trying to smash the seeming incommensurability of the private and the public, the interior and the exterior.

For let's grant, hypothetically at least, that the mainstream fiction film may never be particularly good at showing the intricacies of institutional power – that is must always at least begin with, as a protocol, the dramas of individuals. What becomes important, then, are those fictions (like Scarface) which work from the inside out to reach the unbearable and often pathetic limit of subjectivity and its illusions, gesturing to an 'outside' which can only be sketched, imagined, even hallucinated (hence the prevalence of paranoid fictions). How to think power? – a question that necessarily still assumes the existence of individual subjects who can and must think – but in a mode of thought that perhaps transcends the egotistic illusions of heroic sense-knowledge-power.

Prince of the City is all about a subjectivity which gets progressively more screwed-up, double-bound and unworkable. The film targets the illusions of a man who believes he can manage a field of absolute contradictions which extend far beyond him. His hopeful relations to both his 'self' (his honesty, integrity, goodness) and his projected family 'others' (the cop friends in his unit) are doomed from the word go. Both relations are premised on the belief that one can (with dexterity) contrive an exit from a prevailing system of power; that one can secure a 'haven' to protect oneself and one's chosen buddies while everyone and everything else topples catastrophically. But none of the hero's 'arrangements' with the system hold together.

In the first place, the cop-who-confesses believes he can simply become 'good' again, and erase his past (through a strategy of concealment). He confuses a dreamy category of moral goodness – which he believes he should be granted, like an absolution after penance – with the actual practices of law and order, which don't add up so much to a moral good as to a very precarious equilibrium of deals made with the criminal world (the 'stoolie' who squeals on the drug trade so that the cop will keep him supplied being here the great go-between and fatal confounder of categories). Disavowing the basis of his subject-place in a system of deals, the hero then misrecognises (and can subsequently only see, or guess, paranoically) the further system of interests that will – on a truly Foucaultian terrain of micro-powers – combat over what 'truths' can ever be brought into effect or circulated as such. The hero is then thrown without anchor from one vested and treacherous institutional 'interest' to another (all strongly and sometimes caricaturally 'embodied' by Lumet within character-types) clear across the fields of law, police, federal agencies, government and media.

Prince of the City zeroes in, as so many films in the gangster/crime/police constellation do, on the vexed question of trust, allegiances and loyalties. Trust is the bottom line of humanism and individualism; it's the indivisible handshake between a self and an other. 'Codes of honour' underwrite, again and again, the fanciful flights of the heroic ego. And the more that individualist-styled groups – bands of men, of angels, of outsiders, Hawks-Walsh-Coppola style – take upon, through history, a siege mentality (everyone else but you and I is lowdown scum), the more that a code of trust becomes a pact of secrecy, sometimes unto death. Another fatal contradiction then emerges: the crack team of cops works finally, in its heart, to smash and subvert the very system it feeds off – damning the system to hell and yet convincing itself it does so in the name of a necessary and moral purification. We are thick in the ricocheting contradictions of the modern individual's 'functioning schizophrenia'.

Trust amounts to nothing in this film. It is eroded from within and without – cajoled, pressured, compromised, even psychoanalysed by 'professionals'. The pact of trust between the cops says that none of them will ever implicate any other, will never squeal. But yet – as one stern advocate of the system persuades the hero – all cops are just dying to confess their sins, and what the hell do you think brought you here to begin with? This is the single pivotal moment of speech-acting which destabilises and catastrophises the 'haven' relation between the cops. And when the hero turns to the battle ground of the system itself for allegiance – constantly trying to individualise his co-workers, to conjure a bottom-line humanity where there is effectively none – all he encounters are the defections, disappearances, promotions and deals which keep robbing him of a stable one-to-one 'other'.

Lumet's film (like James Toback's Fingers, 1978) chooses to funnel itself, nominally, through the body and consciousness of its main character. But it does so cannily, not to individualise the drama or reduce the possibility of its explication in trans-individual terms, but to hollow, profoundly and insistently, the vessel of individual consciousness. There's a terror, an abjection in watching this film which is manifested in the eventual trajectory of its main characters under the siege of unbearable contradiction: the hero's trembling and convulsions; the cop who can only ultimately resort to blowing the brains out the back of his head. The hero who puffs up, emptily, on the hot air of his own illusions, and then explodes – the figure of impossible pressure – this is an emblematic image of an iconic cinematic figure: Mr Big.

MORE Lumet: Close to Eden, Fail-Safe, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, 12 Angry Men, The Morning After

© Adrian Martin 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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