Sidney Lumet’s Q & A works as a piece of drama whether a viewer, having seen the first half-hour, thinks that the protagonist is every bit the a choirboy he seems to be, or if they are convinced that he couldn’t be as free of prejudice and bias as all that. Either way, his character arc toward learning about and acknowledging his own guilt works, as does Lumet’s decision not to give him the prize he seeks just for making the effort.
The same cannot be said for Lumet’s more highly regarded 1981 film Prince of the City, starring Treat Williams. Williams plays Danny Ciello, a detective in the deeply rotten Special Investigative Unit of the New York Police Department’s Narcotics Division. The movie quickly shows him making difficult decisions in a number of potentially corrupting circumstances, but always gives just enough context to suggest that there might be no better way around. Ciello is approached by federal investigators looking into police corruption and hems and haws for a while before committing, saying that he won’t implicate any of his four partners, but otherwise will help, especially if it means revealing corruption in other parts of the criminal justice system, thus demonstrating that the police are not uniquely dirty. He’s asked to come clean about any of his own past misdeeds, and details three instances of clear-cut, indictable impropriety over the course of his eleven-year career.
The movie then follows him as he wears a wire and helps establish cases against corrupt officers and lawyers at much risk to himself. He becomes a target for criminals, the mafia, and dishonest police officers and his mental health deteriorates, but he is able to help secure convictions even as he needs to go into hiding with round-the-clock protection by a team of eighteen federal agents. Meanwhile, the prosecuting bureaucracy around him moves through a constant churn of personnel. The men he accuses try to pin various allegations of corruption on him in return, hoping to to discredit him, but nothing can stick. One day, however, a drug dealer fallen on hard times decides to inform on Ciello, who is forced to come clean regarding a breathtaking variety of illegal practices, implicating his former partners in the process. The prosecutor’s office must decide whether to present him for indictment to a grand jury or to stand by him, at the same time as the earliest convictions he helped secure start going up for appeal. The prosecutors win one appeal when the judge decides Ciello’s own corruption is immaterial, and the prosecutors decline to prosecute him, saying that his decision to inform on departmental rot was part of a moral change that is admirable. Detective Ciello goes to teach at the police academy, where a cadet tells him the inverse of the film’s premise. The cadet says, “I don’t think I have anything to learn from you.”
The crux of Prince comes in the late meeting of prosecutors deciding whether to indict Ciello. One argues that the signs of Ciello’s own corruption had been there all along, but they had chosen to overlook them in their zeal to secure convictions of other rotten cops and reform the system in the process. In a way, he’s describing the movie as a whole. Though Lumet’s camera never shows Ciello soliciting or accepting bribes, we saw him and his partners celebrate a drug bust with cigars, whiskey, and new clothes early on. Throughout the runtime, Ciello wears a very nice leather jacket he first bought after a raid. In one scene, he shouts himself hoarse in a harangue at the feds about how they are the source of all systemic corruption while foisting risk off on poorly-paid police officers who must live in low-rent housing among criminals in Spanish Harlem. In the next, we see him in the kitchen of his very pleasant home in the outer boroughs. He and his partners are constantly manicuring lawns, fixing fences, feeding horses, painting porches, and planning vacations to properties on Long Island.
If you fall for the film’s misdirection, as its prosecutors did within the film itself, then what results is a very neatly composed chamber piece on social pressures, human morals, and the individual capacity for both self-deception and personal reinvention. If you don’t, however, it ends up being a long and overwrought hand-wringing tale about that stock character, the Hooker With A Heart Of Gold. I’ve never seen a movie that wagers so much on its audience not being able to immediately understand the significance of its protagonist’s obvious social ascendancy. Ciello, when he shows up for his first day of work with the feds who live in apartments overlooking the park, is wearing a suit as nice as their own.
Prince’s police repeatedly say, unchallenged, that their bribes function as profit-confiscation or the imposition of fines on criminals against whom convictions could never be secured. We don’t see anyone imprisoned unjustly or killed in pointless police violence. If we were to see such things, it would be much harder to come away seeing Ciello and his partner Gus Levy as heroes. We’re left with the criminal justice system as a self-correcting machine whose worst corruption is itself a collection of victimless crimes.
If Lumet’s Serpico seemed to say that even in the most corrupt police departments there were individuals of supreme morality, Prince insists on seeing the good side of even the dirtiest cops. When it comes to the importance of interpersonal empathy, it is a noble and accurate argument. When it comes to discussing police corruption, it is almost irrelevant. And this is where Q & A is a better movie, showing as it does, in simple outlines: corrupt lawyers and officers; the honorable colleagues who enable them based on moral and utilitarian calculations; and people whose implicit bias corrodes their capacity to behave appropriately. It does all this while also having time for the victims of police brutality, some of whom are guilty of their own crimes, and others, guilty of nothing at all.
One thing, though: no director has ever been as good at filming board meetings as Sidney Lumet, whose feature-film debut was Twelve Angry Men (this may sound like a slight, but those are brutally difficult things from which to draw entertainment). Prince’s late quasi-trial-in-absentia of Ciello is a masterclass, with each argument rooted in the character of the person making it, and those characters developed incidentally and with perfect economy over the earlier course of the movie’s runtime as it appeared to be doing other things. You can contrast it with the comparatively clunky set-up and execution of the board meetings in Batman Begins, whose director, Christopher Nolan, is himself bound to go down as one of the finest of all time. Prince may be a morally misapplied piece of prestige fluff, but it is superlatively well-tailored fluff for all that.