Sidney Lumet’s ‘Prince of the City’ and the Moral and Psychological Turmoil at the Heart of It

In a city corrupt to the bone, can a man at the same time be true to the law, to himself, to his colleagues and loved ones? It’s this that Sidney Lumet’s 1981 crime drama Prince of the City delves into with passion and intelligence. Written by Lumet and his collaborator, the famed screenwriter and producer Jay Presson Allen, based on a 1978 book of the same name by Robert Daley, this grueling examination of justice and morality introduces a police officer who decided to rat on his dirty colleagues, willing to expose the mechanism of NYPD corruption, but determined not to drown his closest partners in the process. Resolved to casting unproven names, Lumet offered Treat Williams a chance to shine, and he perfectly nails the troubled cop, torn apart by his impulse to do the right thing and his urge to protect the people he cares about. Stressed out in the middle of the turmoil he instigated himself by agreeing to cooperate with internal affairs, Williams’ character falls apart in front of us, pressed deeper, and further, and closer to the inevitable point where he will be forced to make the decision he dreads.

I remember we shot it all over the city, hundreds of locations. I have never paid so much attention directing a movie. New York always gives me back as much as I put into it. —Sidney Lumet: The King of New York

 
Lumet masterfully tells the multilayered story, determined to present a far more complex insight into police work than he’d done in Serpico, wanting to transform the subject of the film into a skillfully built metaphor for the effects that drugs have on the society. Working with the inexperienced, then 30-year-old Polish-born cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, Lumet cunningly and to great effect made use of zoom and wide angle lenses to produce the much needed atmosphere of corruption, dishonesty and deceit. Williams’ inspired performance was further helped with a nice role from Jerry Orbach, a brilliant character actor who would later star as a NYPD detective in Law and Order.

Sidney Lumet’s filmography contains some of the best examples of filmmaking we’ve ever digested, and Prince of the City, with the exhausting and stimulating moral and psychological turmoil at the heart of it, is no outsider in the master’s portfolio.

I love the writing process. It’s fairly new to me. And I don’t consider myself a full-fledged writer yet. A full-fledged writer is really someone who can invent people, who can get that individual sound of people. So far, I have been, again, very lucky in the sense that, because of my interests, I wind up dealing with cops, so I know how they sound. I’ve spent so much time with them—thirty years. And the three pictures I’ve written, the first one in a sense was even easier. The protagonist in that, who was based on a guy named Bob Lucie, I had all his tapes, because he was wearing a wire all those years. So we just transcribed exactly what was said into a lot of the scenes. —Sidney Lumet

 
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Jay Presson Allen & Sidney Lumet’s screenplay for Prince of the City [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

As you all know, most of the screenplays on C&B are among the most elusive and unattainable unicorns out there, just like Prince of the City’s script. It takes us a lot of blood, sweat and tears to find and digitize them so as to make them available to the general filmloving public. We’de be forever grateful if you could help us, however modestly, to buy the necessary equipment so we could continue our work. Thank you.

Steven Santos’ terrific piece on Prince of the City is split into two parts and can be viewed below. It is a visual analysis of Sidney Lumet’s so-called “NYPD films”: Prince of the City, Serpico, Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan.

The following essay was originally posted on hodah.net. A website created by Howard Davidson.

THE LUMET METHOD
By Martha Pinson

Director Sidney Lumet was a consummate filmmaker whose contribution to cinema in the 20th and 21st Centuries is indisputable. The preparation he undertook and executed for a film represents a kind of genius of method that is a pleasure to describe. I had the honor of being there for 8 films with him.

Mr. Lumet is perhaps one of few major directors who consistently utilized a two or three week, six-hour-per-day rehearsal period prior to Principal Photography in which he prepared his actors in terms of interpretation, staging, and blocking.

The rehearsal started with his address about the piece, a table reading, and a discussion. He often had the screenwriter present. He would show reference and location photographs. The rehearsals than moved on to a more detailed reading and analysis of each scene and sequence, and finally to “putting the film on its feet.” On one of the films I did as Mr. Lumet’s Script Supervisor, a popular movie star remarked off-handedly, “I’ve been in 28 films and this is the first time I’ve been in a rehearsal.” For the rehearsals the Assistant Directors would mark off the dimensions of the sets and locations with tape in a large hall, preferably the Ukrainian National Home, on the Lower East Side of New York City. With a few key props and assistants, Mr. Lumet persistently prepared the cast for a full run-through. Day One of Principal Photography was regarded more as an opening night on Broadway than a place to start.

Martha Pinson with Sidney Lumet on the set of ‘Night Falls on Manhattan.’ Photo Credit Adger Cowans

Martha Pinson with Sidney Lumet on the set of ‘Night Falls on Manhattan.’ Photo Credit Adger Cowans

Granted, all directors have their own methods of preparing with the cast. There are many private discussions between actors and the director which, of course, the Script Supervisor and other crew members would not be privy to.

I observed that Lumet’s approach cleared up uncertainty about the arc and pitch of an actor’s role, the tone of a performance, the intensity needed for any given scene in relation to what comes before and after. Sometimes on films there are unfortunate surprises and setbacks, such as when an actor comes prepared with an interpretation that is not in keeping with, or is contrary to, the vision of the director. But on a Lumet film the cast was able to run the “film” in pre-production rehearsal so the arcs could be worked out, invented,internalized. Each scene could be understood and shaped. The cast could be directed in a consistent interpretation of the director’s choosing. They had the opportunity to try things to find the character in a safe setting. Questions about historical context, lines, tone, motivation, and sub-text could be explored and/or answered. The actors and director had time to think, make suggestions, mull over what might be missing.

Dialogue changes could be made, ad-lbs and inventions incorporated. He would have them work for what he felt was the right pace once other qualities were in place. He remarked that he had a better sense of the whole, that he could make better decisions in the relatively “safe” rehearsal weeks than he could during shooting when he’d been up since 5am and under pressure to “make his day.” Minor characters had an opportunity to experience their part in relation to the whole and learn what they must do. He would tell the actors after a great run-through, “That’s a print!” In this way, he communicated to them where he wanted them to be in emotion and performance on the shoot day. He trusted them to be ready. There are many ways of preparing but this seems like a brilliant one.

Martha Pinson and Sidney Lumet. Photo By Kerry Hayes

Martha Pinson and Sidney Lumet. Photo By Kerry Hayes

The Director of Photography (and others) attended the final run-through on the last day of rehearsal and would then know the staging. It is important in the Lumet approach that the work of the actors came first—shots and lighting follow. The DP and Mr. Lumet could confer on the shots, the coverage, and equipment. Preparation of lighting could then be done with confidence. Rigging could proceed in advance of the shooting crew, which increased the speed of work during Principal Photography. The work done in rehearsal saved wear-and-tear, waiting around, and meant shorter hours for all involved. Other aesthetic and practical choices—props, costumes, etc.—were made and put into the works with relevant departments. I’d note the blocking, line changes, and timings established. I’d make a daily report to production with such notes as: Sc. 75 has been moved to the porch. In Sc. 150 they will be eating Chinese food.

There was an evolution of trust and friendship, the heading off of problems, the confronting of conflicts and the telling of jokes—all the unpredictable and intangible things that come out in a creative enterprise with a deadline approaching. Among other things, Mr. Lumet was an aficionado of Vaudeville and could be relied on to render some priceless bits. But mostly, everyone learned, he was “all about the work.” It goes without saying that his insights, knowledge and leadership qualities were in evidence.

In addition to the work with the cast, Mr. Lumet would have extensive planning meetings and scouts with his team. Elaborate plots and diagrams of camera positions (including lenses), action sequences, stunts, were designed, revised and published. The upshot of his planning was phenomenal. One day on Stranger Among Us we had a 7am call in the jewelry district to shoot a multiple camera action sequence including stunts. We did 48 setups to complete the work and wrapped before lunch!

Sidney Lumet and Martha Pinson on the set of ‘Prince of the City.’ Photo by Louis Goldman

Sidney Lumet and Martha Pinson on the set of ‘Prince of the City.’ Photo by Louis Goldman

Mr. Lumet’s brilliance and experience in cutting showed him what he needed for editing, so that decisions were made to obtain that goal, and less to carpet the cutting room floor. He seemed to be able, as is said of some great composers, to see the entire film in his mind. This is also controversial and perhaps at times he didn’t have as much coverage as would have been useful.

The method I’ve described is not of interest to all. Some directors and actors are not interested in rehearsing; they feel it detracts from the “freshness” of a performance.

I feel that directing a film is a high-wire act and no one wants to fall. I hope this essay has shed light on ways that work done in prep can prevent errors, improve the final result, and thus provide a net. —Martha Pinson

Sidney Lumet and Martha Pinson on the set of ‘Power,’ 1985. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

Sidney Lumet and Martha Pinson on the set of ‘Power,’ 1985. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City. Still photographer: Louis Goldman.

 
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