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Roger Ebert once said that “no good movie is too long, and no bad movie is too short.” He was wrong. I have a hard set of rules about film runtimes. 80–100 minutes is the sweet spot, the ideal scenario. Few movies wouldn’t be improved by shaving down to this runtime region. Two hours is usually fine, occasionally sluggish. 130 minutes feels like cheating. Anything over three hours probably has a good reason to run that long, so they get a pass from me. But the absolute worst runtime? The lowest of the low? That’s 150–160 minutes. A chill goes up my spine when I see this runtime. My mouth goes dry. I start to feel lightheaded. 160-minute movies are too cowardly to run over three hours, and too self-absorbed to cut down under two. This is where most big blockbusters run these days, your Avengers and Transformers, and it’s no surprise that most of them are terrible. Something about this specific range of time makes it difficult for a film to maintain a watchable pace.
Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City is 167 minutes long. It’s a testament to Lumet and his editor Jack Fitzstephens that I only kinda felt it.
Prince of the City came 8 years after Serpico, Lumet’s first (and far more iconic) film about police corruption. In between, he made two of his most successful films (Dog Day Afternoon and Network) and then his most disastrous failure (The Wiz). It’s hard to say why Lumet chose to make another film so superficially similar to Serpico, but perhaps there was some comfort in familiarity.
Supposedly, Lumet had since come to regard Serpico with some regret for the simplistic way he had portrayed police corruption. With this project, he wanted to depict the subject with more moral complexity. He succeeds there, but only by degrees. The main way he goes about this is by painting the Internal Affairs officers and prosecutors who go after corrupt cops as morally bankrupt in their own way. He also asks for some sympathy for the crooked police officers who get caught over the course of the film; two of them commit suicide.
It’s a weird way to introduce nuance, because it has the effect of making the cops almost look like the victims of an overzealous and vindictive prosecutorial force. Lumet wants us to take it for granted that these cops are bad people. He spends the entire opening chapter (an extremely well-edited montage section) showing how cool and slick their rapacious crime spree is. I’m not going to whine that Lumet doesn’t do enough to emphasize that the bad guys are bad, as I find that mode of criticism hollow and obnoxious. But I do think that he fails in his attempt to deepen the ethical complexity of the narrative. Even in movies purportedly about corrupt cops, it’s hard to stomach a story about a noble and righteous one.
Still, it’s a Lumet film, and that means an unpretentious but skillful filmmaking ethos. Lumet was just plain good at this, even in projects that didn’t deserve his ability. This is one of his odder efforts. Prince of the City is rife with strangely-lensed establishing shots and weirdly angular close-ups. It’s far from distracting and certainly not a bad thing. It undeniably helps pass the time. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but Lumet made films best described as eminently watchable. Even when he operated in the worst runtime zone.