There's a category of movie greatness for moving counter to every cheap trick, every easy thrill, every pat conclusion, relentlessly over a long space, and Prince of the City is one of the few movies that gets this particular Oscar. The story: a dirty cop can't take it any more, tries to clean up the drug units in New York City. Only, he promises not to ever betray his partners. But the prosecutorial engine he starts moving soon rolls over his partners, and he ends up losing everything that mattered to him, for an ideal he finds harder and harder to grasp: a clean police force, a clear conscience, real drug enforcement -- nothing seems to justify the pain he causes to a bunch of guys who adhered to a code, and then woke up one day to find that the rules had changed. There's no movie on the planet that makes it so clear how hard it is to be good, or even to see what being good might amount to.
I thought of Prince of the City last night when I got sucked into a Homeland Security thriller called Time Bomb, about a bomb under a football stadium, set to go off at the end of the game, or whenever the crowd panics. It's a cheap movie, with lots of twists and turns and chases and threats and little mysteries. Along the way, the detective who can do no wrong takes charge and takes charge and then for variety takes charge again, over-riding police and FBI and security and janitors and all sorts of normally in-charge people. When he finds an alleged bad guy, he shoots him a little at a time or dislocates his shoulder, as a way of getting the next piece of informaton. The message is something like, "Our best hope lies with the people who are in charge." The message of Prince of the City is "Our best hope lies with the people who have a conscience."