- Historic Sites
History and The Imagination
Films like Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City add a human dimension to the sense of the past.
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Lumet and Jay Presson Alien, who together adapted Robert Daley’s book about Leuci, display the moral dilemmas, the conflict of codes of behavior, with unrelenting objectivity as well as with acute sensitivity to class distinctions and resentments. “I know what you guys think of us,” the detective cries to the representatives of the Knapp Commission. “But we are the only thing between you and the jungle.” The film is especially strong in its portrayal of the difference between those for whom the exposure of corruption was a stepping stone in a career and those for whom it involved the totality of their existence. “You guys say,’This is your life and I’ll take care of it,’” the detective says as his own life crashes down around him, “and then you move on.”
It is a movie of almost unbearable moral tension, devoid of stereotypes and of pat answers and it remains to the end faithful to the vision of existential ambiguity. Some reviewers have objected because Lumet leaves the burden of final judgment to the audience. But where else should that burden rest? Like the realistic novelists, Lumet forces us to confront the ethical dilemmas of contemporary life and refrains from providing cheap ways out. “My strongest effort,” George Eliot wrote in Adam Bede, “is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind.”
What will the historian of the twenty-first century make of Lumet’s panorama of life in New York City in the last quarter of the twentieth century? Obviously he would not rely on Prince of the City for specific facts about police corruption in 1971. Lumet’s version has already provoked argument on details; and the historian would turn to the records of the Knapp Commission and to the transcripts of the trials. But history requires atmosphere and context as well as facts. As the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, and Balzac sharpened the insights of Marx and Engels into early capitalist society, as Faulkner enlarged our comprehension of the modern South, so films like Prince of the City should enrich the future historian’s sense of the idioms, the pressures, the anguish of life in metropolitan America today.
Most of all, one remembers the faces. There are 126 speaking parts in Prince of the City; some of the performers are non-pros, most are unknowns; and Lumet has an instinct as precise as Fellini’s (and less grotesque) for the imprint of hard experience on the human face. As Lorenzo Carcaterra put it in a perceptive piece in New York’s great populist paper, the Daily News , Lumet’s faces are “alive, vibrant and full of the elements of life—both the good and the evil.” Films like Prince of the City offer the kind of evidence that can help historians of the future restore the human dimension to the travail of the past.