Prince of the City

Danny Ciello is a detective in the NYPD’s Special Investigations Unit, a special division given free rein to handle narcotics cases. The SIU have a rather loose approach to the law, frequently dealing drugs and skimming cash for their own purposes. But when Danny’s conscience gets the better of him, he decides to become an FBI informant – on the condition that he will never be asked to turn against his fellow SIU detectives.

Anyone who has watched more than the most cursory amount of the original Law & Order will be aware that one of the best things about the show is Lenny Briscoe – a wisecracking NYPD detective expertly portrayed by Jerry Orbach for over half of the show’s twenty-year run. What fewer people may be aware of is that the character of Briscoe was somewhat based on Orbach’s role in the 1981 film Prince of the City. Of course, as true Orbach fans, once my viewing companion and I found out about this, it was only a matter of time before we gave Prince of the City a watch.

At 2h47m long, Prince of the City is not a commitment to be made lightly. Despite not being a fan of longer films, I wouldn’t say that this one drags – instead, it feels somewhat like a series of arcs mashed together to produce a single feature. In more modern times, it would probably have been realised as a Netflix miniseries, with different episodes covering the main plot developments.

The film hits the ground running, showing us the SIU playing fast and loose with the rules, and Danny in particular confiscating heroin only to use it to pay off his contacts on the streets. When his conscience gets the better of him, he decides to turn informant, but it’s immediately clear that this may not end well. Danny’s reckless behaviour and emotional outbursts often lead him into danger, and it’s clear that his luck is unlikely to hold out for long.

In fact, what ends up getting to Danny is his own conscience, leading to him blurting out a confession to his fellow detectives. Of course, no good comes of this, and Danny is soon under scrutiny in the courtroom, with his own past misdeeds threatening to undo any good he has done. When you add in Danny’s increasingly futile attempts not to betray the his former partners in the SIU, there’s plenty of tension to be had, with lawyers, cops and tense courtroom scenes all in abundance.

But what, I hear you ask, of the inimitable Mr Orbach? Is his role worth the price of admission? Despite the length of the film, he isn’t actually in it all that much, appearing in only a handful of scenes. Nonetheless, if, like us, you’re here to see the Lenny Briscoe origin story, you’ll definitely see that here.

As you might expect from a 1981 detective movie, women are also few and far between. Danny’s wife gets a couple of lines of dialogue, but other than that there is at most one other named woman in the film. This is a story bursting at the seams with masculinity, and it’s not just that the women are there to be set dressing or supporting characters – they simply aren’t there at all.

Final Thoughts

Despite its lengthy runtime and paucity of Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City is not a bad movie. There’s enough plot packed in to keep a viewer’s attention for the entire runtime, and even though none of the characters are particularly likeable, you can at least appreciate the story they have to tell. If you like hardboiled detective stories, then you could do a lot worse than give this one a go.

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