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History And The Imagination

July 2024
4min read

Every man is the prisoner of his own experience; and no artistic production can escape the impress of its time. That is why works of art, properly utilized, can be valuable historical sources—as, oddly enough, Marx and Engels were more prepared than academic historians to recognize. Dickens and Thackeray, Marx wrote, “have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” Engels said he had learned more from Balzac about post-Revolutionary France “than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.”

Conventional historians, as noted, have been traditionally reluctant to admit works of the imagination to the domain of acceptable evidence—a reluctance strengthened these days by the vogue of quantitative history. Yet it would be an imprudent historian of the American city who would not read, for example, Howells on Boston and New York or Jack London and Frank Norris on San Francisco or Farrell and Algren on Chicago or Faulkner on the Southern town or Sinclair Lewis on the Midwest. The problem of utilizing such “impressionistic” data will be intensified for future historians by the addition in our own time of visual to literary evidence. Imaginative urban historians like Richard Wade have made effective use of still photographs to illustrate the evolving structure of the American city. But what are historians to make of the moving picture?

The historian’s instinctive reaction would doubtless be to admit the documentary and to reject the fiction film. But this would represent, I believe, a superficial judgment. For the documentary is quite as susceptible to manipulation and bias as the fiction film, and the result may be more insidious because of the pretense to objectivity. On the other hand, fiction films do live as much by cumulative dramatic convention as they do by fidelity to fact, and addiction to stereotypes dilutes their value as historical evidence. Veteran filmgoers cannot easily disentangle the reality of Berlin under the Weimar Republic from half a century of familiar cinematic images.

Such thoughts ran through my mind the other night after I saw Sidney Lumet’s new movie Prince of the City . Lumet is a distinctive figure in the contemporary American film. He is a director of prodigious efficiency and dispatch, and he has been especially admired for his skill in dealing with actors; no surprise perhaps, because he began as an actor himself. But though individual Lumet films have won critical praise, he has not been a favored object for sustained critical analysis.

One reason for this, I imagine, is that Lumet has not chosen to develop an easily identifiable directorial style. One cannot talk about a Lumet film, as one would talk about a Hitchcock or Lubitsch or Altaian or Coppola film. His films, as they say, have no signature. Lumet’s unwillingness to impose a continuing personal vision on his material baffles those habituated to the auteur approach to critical judgment. Like those actors who bury their personalities in their roles, Lumet adapts his directorial techniques to what he sees as the particular requirements of a particular story.

The unifying theme in Lumet’s work is consequently less a matter of style than of substance. Of his twenty-seven movies, he shot twenty-one in New York City—a unique record among directors. From his first movie- Twelve Angry Men , made a quarter century ago—he began to paint, in effect, a panorama of the great metropolis. A shrewd and generally unsentimental social intelligence combined with an immense feel for the sights, sounds, and rhythms of New York streets has made him the vivid chronicler of the varieties of New York experience. He has shown us the dizzy world of the high media (in Network and Just Tell Me What You Want ), the melancholy, death-haunted comedy of the middle-class Jewish intellectual (in Bye Bye Braverman , his exquisite rendition of Wallace Markfeld’s novel To an Early Grave ), the fate of ethnic minorities on the edge of survival (in A View From the Bridge and The Pawnbroker ) and, most arrestingly perhaps, the sub-world of corruption, violence, and criminal pathology (in Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico , and now Prince of the City ). When his day is done, he may have compiled as comprehensive a sociology of New York City as Balzac or Zola did of Paris.

Prince of the City is a brilliant and shattering movie. As everyone knows, it is drawn from the story of Robert Leuci, a detective in the Special Investigation Unit of the Narcotics Division, an elite group whose freedom and dash made them, in the words of a New York judge, princes of the city. Partly because they could not resist easy cash, partly because breaking the law in small ways helped them do their job, some among them succumbed to corruption. Leuci decided to be an honest cop and agreed in 1971 to collaborate with the Knapp Commission in its investigation of police venality. He stipulated that he would not betray his own partners; but momentum carried him into situations he could not control, and he ended up by wreaking havoc in the lives of those closest to him.

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.

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