VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]


nullDavid Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly would have been a shoo-in for a theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. What makes it truly special is its empathy for its arrogant scientist hero, Seth Brundle, who tests his revolutionary new matter transporter on himself and becomes genetically fused with a fly that was not supposed to be in the telepod with him. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is a nexus point for all the film’s creative elements: direction, writing, acting, makeup, optical effects, miniatures and puppetry. Goldblum’s work here brings everything together. It’s kind of a thespian telepod.

The original The Fly is a triumph of visual effects and special makeup. But these aspects of filmmaking are, for the most part, separate from the acting.  
This is the other one.

Where the subtext of the original was deformity, the remake is about mortality and decay. It’s a tragic love story about the fragility of flesh. And that requires a more ambitious, and subtler, merger of special effects, makeup and acting.

Seth Brundle impulsively enters his invention, the telepod, because he’s despondent over a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believes that his lover, reporter Veronica Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is still in love her previous boyfriend. For a while after, Seth thinks he’s superhuman — an outwardly normal-looking person with extraordinary physical powers, which the movie sells through old-school filmmaking tricks. These include a gymnastic stunt double … and a rotating set.
Unfortunately for Seth, the merger of human DNA and fly DNA isn’t quite done yet. With each passing hour, Seth becomes less of a man and more of an insect. And Jeff Goldblum’s performance becomes incrementally submerged beneath ever-more-unsettling layers of gruesome makeup.

nullThe effects are layered on incrementally, scene by scene, and they are showcased almost entirely through a single character, Seth Brundle, and a single performance, Jeff Goldblum’s.  

But it’s the very last scene in the film that makes The Fly qualify, beyond any doubt, for our theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. When Seth tries to disentangle his DNA from the fly’s by bringing a third teleporter into the mix, Goldblum is nowhere to be seen, and the resulting, even more repulsive creature is played by a puppet. This is one of the saddest endings in all of horror, and it’s not just because of the writing, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, or that magnificent puppet. It’s because when we look at this pitiful creature, we’re remembering Seth as played by Jeff Goldblum.  

Makeup masters Chris Walas and Stephen Doo Pwah deservedly won an academy award for their makeup effects on The Fly, and they graciously remembered to thank the film’s star.

But that moment also underlined a persistent problem in genre films that showcase nonhuman, or partly-human, characters. Whether it’s the acting, the makeup, the sets or the special visual effects that are being honored, the acclaim always has an implied asterisk next to it.  Would the makeup and visual effects in The Fly have been as effective without Goldblum’s brilliant performance? No. And would Goldblum have been as magnificent and terrifying without the effects and makeup? Of course not. This was a collective effort that resulted in a singular achievement.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In this series of video essays, Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz argues for the creation of a new Academy Awards category: Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor memorable characters created by mixing performance with CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry, or other behind-the-scenes craft. Part 1 — a piece the motion capture performances of Andy Serkis, edited by Press Play contributor Steven Santos — is embedded above; to view the piece on an Apple mobile device, click here. David Cronenberg's make up and effects team in The Fly (1986) certainly would have garnered this award had it existed at the time. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Click on the links!]

Why hasn't Andy Serkis won an Oscar? Should he win one? Is Serkis an actor, or is his physical performance in a CGI-assisted role just a guide for digital effects?

Press Play's staff kicked these questions around last summer following the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie dominated by Serkis' magnetic performance as the rebellious ape Caesar. We discussed them again when Serkis co-starred as Capt. Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. It was not a new conversation. It's been happening among moviegoers all over the world for long time. And it's the subject of a new series of four Press Play video essays titled "Collaborative Performance."

nullThis series argues for a new Oscar category that would honor characters brought to life through a combination of acting and behind-scenes-craft. This new category would not just acknowledge the important role that motion capture plays in modern cinema; it would open the door for honoring other forms of performance that have traditionally gotten snubbed by awards groups, including puppetry and acting under very heavy makeup.

Some background: In late 2001, Peter Jackson's first Lord of the Rings picture The Fellowship of the Ring merged special effects and acting with a new cleverness. That film and its sequels, The Two Towers and Return of the King, were populated by CGI characters whose movements were based on human actors. The performances were later merged with CGI brushwork — basically digital costumes and makeup. Earlier movies had attempted similar CGI trickery, notably 1999's Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and the practice itself was descended from Rotoscoping, a cel animation process that traced over live-action performers. (For historical context, read James Clarke's article here.) But the crew at Jackson's New Zealand-based special effects shop Weta Digital raised the bar, especially in scenes featuring Gollum, a character portrayed by Serkis.

Each time a new chapter of the Rings saga came out, there was a buzz about Serkis being nominated as an Oscar as best supporting actor, or perhaps getting a special award.

It never happened.

nullIt also didn't happen for Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, who played multiple roles in Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol respectively, or Crispin Glover, who was brilliant as Grendel in Zemeckis' Beowulf; all three films used motion capture technology.

Collaborative performance has a long history of greatness, and an equally long history of being snubbed by awards groups. That's a shame, because the best collaborative performances have a huge number of moving parts, yet result in characters that seem as real as any created by solo actors.  Back in 1981, fans of The Empire Strikes Back floated the idea of giving Frank Oz a special award for his masterful puppetry in the role of Yoda, but in the end Oz had to be content with being implicitly honored as part of a team that also created tauntauns, walkers, TIE fighters, asteroids and space worms. There was talk of Jeff Goldbum getting nominated as Best Actor for playing Seth Brundle in The Fly — one of the most moving performances in all of horrror — but he got snubbed; when Chris Walas and Stephen DuPuis won a special makeup Oscar for their work on the film, they thanked Goldblum for making their victory possible. The irony, of course, is that, like many genre films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Fly were hugely dependent on the intuitive genius of performers.

Yes, it's true; these films and others won awards for their special effects. But the specific characterizations — the performances — that gave the films their magic were never given their due. To be fair to the Academy and other awards groups, there's no established method for judging the kinds of performances that somebody like Andy Serkis gives. What Serkls is doing in Apes and Tintin counts as acting, but not in exactly the same way as, say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball. In the latter, Pitt is playing a regular person in real surroundings. We can look at Moneyball and say, "That's Brad Pitt playing Billy Bean," and judge the performance's quality apart from other aspects of filmmaking that surround and/or support it. We can't really do that with Serkis' motion-capture performances because we can't see Serkis. He's wrapped in digital skin.

nullHowever, Serkis' motion capture acting can be compared, sort of, to Brad Pitt's work in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the star played a man who ages backward. Pitt's performance generated the expressions and body language that CGI artists needed to create Button's gnarled-old-man physique in early scenes, as well as the "youthful" face and body that he acquired later. Pitt earned an Oscar nod as Best Actor for Button but did not win; I would not be surprised to learn that the special effects disqualified him in voters' minds. Some people consider this kind of performance to be "cheating," and think the same of performances given under immersive makeup. John Hurt's makeup-submerged performance as the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) was nominated as Best Actor that year, but didn't win, maybe for similar reasons. That year's eventual Best Actor winner Robert DeNiro sported heavy makeup in the fat-middle-aged scenes of Raging Bull, but you could always tell it was DeNiro; he wasn't swallowed up like Hurt in The Elephant Man, Pitt in most of Button, and Jeff Goldblum in the second half of The Fly.

The devil's advocate might argue, "The Oscars already have categories honoring visual effects and makeup. Why should they add yet another category? When E.T. won an award for its visual effects, that basically counted as an award for creating the charater of E.T."  Such objections miss the point of my proposal, and betray a prejudce against anything but the most plain-vanilla types of performance. E.T. is the result of a collaborative performance among many dedicated professionals who are tasked with a single purpose: to make us believe that this character is real.  He is not one more special effect among many. The character is a singular achievement that deserves recognition apart from other accolades bestowed on the movie, just as Marlon Brando's performance in On the Waterfront deserved to be cited apart from that film's script, direction and photography.

The current method for judging collaborative performances factors makeup and special effects out of the equation. Why not change our way of thinking, and factor them in?

All the existing Oscars categories would still exist. We'd just add a new one: Outstanding Collaborative Performance.

Collaborative Performance would be a character-based category. It would be distinct from actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. It would also be distinct from special effects and special makeup, which honor excellence in design and technique for whole films, not just a particular character.

The actor and the heads of any relevant filmmaking departments would be cited in a Collaborative Performance nomination. The actor's name would come first.

nullFor example: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 1980 goes to: Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Frank Oz, performance and voice; Jim Henson's Creature Shop, fabrication; Industrial Light and Magic, motion control."

Or: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 2011 goes to Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis, performance and voice; Weta Digital, motion capture and computer-generated imagery."

I don't know precisely how a Collaborative Performance category might be administered, which branches of the Academy would choose it or vote for it, or which individuals or groups might be eligible to win it. I don't know how many nominees there should be, either — although considering the large number of special-effects driven movies being made every year, I bet you could find at least three characters worthy of nomination.

What I do know is that awards groups should find a way to honor one of the most potent sources of magic throughout movie history: the Collaborative Performance.


Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based who has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet.



[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 5 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.

Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here.  To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 3: Communication, click here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 4: Evil & Authority, click here.]


Steven Spielberg is the product of The Greatest Generation — a Baby Boomer raised on idealized images of the nuclear family, progress, and American might. He is also a child of divorce — a dreamer from a broken home. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile these two biographical facts—the mythic ideal of the family, and the reality of its dismantling—has been at the heart of many of his films. Spielberg’s movies often focus on a real or makeshift family unit, banding together to fight an outside force that threatens to tear it apart. At the head of this makeshift family, there is often a father figure imparting wisdom to his charges, or being forced to confront his shortcomings as a protector. Often both.

nullIn Jaws Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is the father figure to a tightly-knit summer community being terrorized by a Great White Shark. The scene where his son mimics his gestures tells us he’s a loving, good father who will do anything to keep his family – and his community – safe.

The film’s second half shows Brody becoming part of a makeshift family of shark hunters, with World War II veteran Quint taking over as protector of the landlubber police chief and the rich-kid, know-it-all oceanographer, Hooper.

The trio of Quint, Brody and Hooper  feels like a makeshift family unit: an impetuous, sarcastic younger brother, a tougher, wiser older brother, and their boozing, cantankerous, tinpot dictator dad.

At first, Brody and Hooper question Quint’s methods as well as his manner. The old sea captain is a gruff taskmaster. He’s slobblish, domineering and rude. He is also quite mad.

nullBut when the men sit around drinking and talking we learn the source of Quint’s insanity. He tells them of how he survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the naval vessel that an atomic bomb that helped the United States defeat Japan in World War II. They were ultimately successful — but the mission is famous mainly for having its crew picked off by ravenous sharks.

Quint’s ordeal trumps anything Brody or Hooper will ever experience. And it seems to make a deep impression on them. Although they never stop resenting Quint’s sourness or fearing his craziness, they appreciate his toughness, and learn to work with him. They are members of the younger generation learning to respect a seasoned elder because they are, so to speak, all on the same boat.

And when the father dies horribly — leaving the boat adrift at sea, and the mission figuratively adrift – it is up to the sons to complete the mission.

In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is an unofficial father figure to a mostly young group of Army Rangers. He’s given the public relations-burnishing task of finding and extracting the last surviving member of a group of brothers who were all killed fighting the Germans. Miller wonders if this mission is worth the price. For every man he’s lost in his command, Miller figures he’s saved maybe 10, 20. Now he’s been asked to put his entire platoon—his family—in harm’s way to save just one.

Miller hopes that Ryan is worth it – that he goes home and invents a longer-lasting light bulb or cures cancer. But he puts the thought aside for the same reason that parents try not to think about whether the incredible effort they’ve invested in their own, flesh-and-blood children will yield a saint, a felon, or something in between. One cannot know such things — and the end result of parenting isn’t the point of the exercise. You do it out of love. And duty. And you hope for the best.

When the men finally find Private Ryan he doesn’t want to go home. Why? Not out of some abstract sense of patriotism, but for immediate, personal reasons. Ryan doesn’t want to leave HIS surrogate family – his fellow soldiers.

Miller and the rest of the rescue team decide to stay and help Ryan secure a tower. It’s  practically a suicide mission. And it ends with Miller making the ultimate sacrifice.

nullThe Spielberg who made Saving Private Ryan in the late 1990s was a family man in his 50s. Detractors questioned Miller’s final admonition — asking, in effect, “Well, what if Private Ryan went home and DIDN’T accomplish anything special?” But that’s really not the point of that moment. It is a purely personal, human moment between Miller and Ryan that transcends war or even politics. In Spielberg’s films, every life is worth saving, provided that the saved person goes on to continue to be – or to BECOME — a decent person, and do the best he can with the gift he’s been given.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the Spielberg who directed “Saving Private Ryan” was a different person from the wunderkind of the 1970s. He was no longer the ambitious, single, childless twentysomething who directed Jaws, and who placed his sympathies with the brother figures that were caught between a bad father and a hungry shark.

The late’90s Spielberg is convinced that a son must earn his place in the world — and that it is the father’s responsibility to teach him that lesson. The weight of that conviction gives Saving Private Ryan a momentous quality, as well as a certain dour heaviness. It imparts a sense that a grave lesson was learned in World War II, and that this movie exists to teach it again — for the benefit of people who weren’t around to hear it the first time.

Whether in his serious movies or his pop fantasies, Spielberg often pivots the story on the father figure, be it real or surrogate. It’s not something as trite as Spielberg having Daddy Issues. More likely he is still uncovering something new about the nature of being a father.

For Spielberg, the presence and goodness of the mother is, with very few exceptions, a given. She will always protect and nurture. Fathers do that too. But they can also abandon the child, or be inexpressive when trying to impart knowledge. In Spielberg’s world, mothers are usually instinctive caregivers, healers, and teachers. They know what to do. Fathers are eternal students. They must learn, and keep learning.

null In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg shows a father driven to near madness in the pursuit of his dream. Roy Neary exhibits the behavior of a young artist who’ll stop at nothing to make the vision in his head a reality.  

The movie contrasts Roy Neary’s destructive obsession against the plight of Jillian Guiler, a single mom. Like Roy, she has been implanted with a vision of extraterrestrial contact. But her motive in going to Devil’s Tower is quite different. Where Roy wants to make his dreams come true – expressing the selfish drive of an artist — Jillian wants only to rescue her kidnapped son.

 The contrast between the two storylines is striking. We watch a mother desperately try to hold her family together. Meanwhile, a father abandons his own family to answer a higher calling.  Close Encounters is clearly the work of a young artist. Spielberg has said on several occasions that he made the movie today, he would not have had Roy Neary abandon his family to pursue his vision. Whether that’s indicative of deeper wisdom or a sort of creeping personal and artistic softness is impossible to say. But it’s definitely a change that came with age, and that is reflected in Spielberg’s attitude toward parents and their children – and grandchildren.

In any event, the film’s narrative momentum and sense of craft are so overwhelming that we do not judge Roy for what he does. Instead, we root for him – or at the very least, live vicariously through him, as he does something that most of us would not be brave enough – or obsessed enough – to do.

The image of Roy walking into the mothership to be a part of a new family could stand in for Spielberg in the mid-seventies: A young man leaving home to become a part of a filmmaking family, ascending from relative obscurity to become the most popular storyteller of his time.

But it’s a bittersweet moment, thanks to our awareness of what Roy has given up, and what his children have lost. He has chosen visionary fulfillment over personal responsibility.

nullSpielberg’s 1982 blockbuster E.T. feels like a continuation of Close Encounters – and not just because the story originated in Spielberg’s daydreaming about what might have happened if one of the aliens from Close Encounters got left behind. The film’s hero, Elliott, is the middle child in a bustling suburban home guided by a single mother. The absence of the father is conspicuous, and important. At time it feels as if we’re seeing what happened to the Neary family in Close Encounters after Roy lost his mind and ran off to Devil’s Tower.

In E.T. Spielberg uses the fanciful story of a boy and his friendship with an alien creature as his way of dealing directly with the trauma of divorce. The absence of Elliott’s father, the fact that his family will never be whole, permeates every scene of E.T. Elliott learns the hard lesson early that nothing can last forever.  

When Eliott befriends E.T., it’s as if he’s found an equal – a pet that reveals himself as a playmate. But really their friendship is compacted account of how all children will eventually be asked one day to look after those who nurtured and protected them. The relationship between the boy and his alien illustrates the phrase “the child is father to the man.” And as the tale unfolds, both E.T. and Elliott learn it.   E.T., like Elliott, feels abandoned by his family. But E.T. quickly assumes the role of friend of protector – and in some strange way, a mentor — of Elliott.

By the end of the story, the roles have switched. Elliott takes on the responsibility of reuniting E.T. with his family at the landing site. But at the same time, though, E.T. also reveals a depth of maturity and wisdom that we might not have suspected earlier. The crowd-pleasing shot of the rescued alien appearing in the back of the hijacked government van suggests an almost mythic power and wisdom. E.T.’s pose is vaguely Christlike. But the wrinkled visage and tattered robe suggest confident, loving grandfather who’s seen it all.

The final scene shows Elliott re-experiencing the heartbreak that comes when a family must separate. But he seems better able to handle it. It’s an intensely sad moment, but also resigned and mature.  Elliott seems tougher now. And wiser.

nullThroughout his films you can track Spielberg’s evolving feelings about the terrors, pleasures and responsibilities of fatherhood. In Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, the preteen hero Jim is wrenched from his family as violently as any Spielberg hero, and must learn to survive on his own. He finds an unexpected ally – a sort of Humphrey Bogart-like, scoundrel-mentor – in Basie, an American steward stranded in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The film’s title is a bit of a pun: Son, S-U-N, is a reference to the sun on the flag of Imperial Japan. But it also describes the suddenly parentless hero’s empire – an immense, splendid, and very dangerous backyard for him to play in, and grow in. Empire of the son … S-O-N.

Even in Hook we are treated to the sight of the eternal child Peter Pan coming to grips with being a father, and learning to nurture the child within the man, but without neglecting his adult responsibilities.

Later films show Spielberg to be impatient, even resentful, at the sight of fathers neglecting their duties. You can sense his anger in wanting deadbeat dads to get a clue — a comeuppance.

In War of the Worlds divorced dad Ray Ferrier can hardly be bothered to look after his kids for a weekend.

When an alien invasion occurs, he is confronted for the first time in his life with the prospect of caring for others. Ray has never been reliable. Now, he must reunite his children with their mother. If he can do that then maybe he will earn the right to be a father.

In Minority Report Chief Anderton is a far cry from Chief Brody. This gifted cop watches over the people of D.C. not out of concern, but suspicion.

But there is a reason for his wanting to know the whereabouts of everyone under his authority. It stems from his failing as a protective father, which led to the kidnapping and murder of his only son.

Anderton was a good husband and dad, but a moment of distraction led to the loss of his family, and deep depression, and then to drug addiction.

In Jurassic Park, the childless hero’s discomfort with children is a running joke throughout the film’s first half. In an early scene of paleontologist Alan Grant lecturing about how dinosaurs evolved from birds, he even seems to take pleasure in terrifying the youngest members of his audience.

Alan is awkward and hesitant – fearful, even — when he suddenly finds himself the protector of two kids.

But by the end of the film, his parental instincts are in full bloom and he seems at peace with his responsibilities.

The film’s screenplay has an extremely conservative point-of-view on the matter. Parenting is depicted not just as an important job that perpetuates the species, but a symbol of evolution.

This is driven home in the film’s final shot, which shows the hero, his girlfriend and the two children being airlifted away from an island of primordial terror. The movie cuts from shots of this makeshift nuclear family, safe at last and relaxing, to shots of pelicans soaring through the sky. The meaning is clear: the willingness to take responsibility for a child, even one who’s not your own, is a marker of true maturity.  Alan Grant began the film as a dinosaur. By the end he has evolved into a bird.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play, the staff TV columnist for and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish new portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents. San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. He has cut docu-series for MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet. His work can be found at He also writes about films at his blog, The Fine Cut.






Press Play's first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  Beginning Dec. 15, 2011 at Press Play, this series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.

Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. For a taste of Magic and Light, check out the chapters above. The trailer for this series is here. Chapter 1 of the series is here. — Editors





MAGIC & LIGHT: THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG premieres Dec. 15 at Press Play. Check out these eye-popping title cards. As they used to say of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS trading cards back in the '70s, collect them all!

[Editor's note: These are graphics designed by Boke Yuzgen to promote the Press Play original video essay series Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, which will premiere Dec. 15 on this site. The series is produced by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ali Arikan and narrated by Arikan. It brings the talents of many Press Play contributors together on a single project.  The individual chapters are written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and edited by Steven Santos, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz, Kevin B. Lee and Serena Bramble.]

DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is proud to premiere this video essay by New York based critic-filmmaker Steven Santos. His piece on Prince of the City is split into two parts and can be viewed above. 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.

by Steven Santos
Press Play Contributor


Prince of the City was released on August 19, 1981. Like so many of Sidney Lumet‘s movies, this one lives and breathes New York City, showing us everything from tenements to court rooms and everyone from drug addicts to district attorneys. The film has well over a hundred speaking roles and what I would consider one of the best casting of authentic New Yorkers in film, mixing professional and non-professional actors throughout. The look and feel of the movie would influence many films and television shows in subsequent decades, ones that strove for realism and a more procedural approach to the cop genre. One of those shows, Law & Order, even used one of the film’s most prominent cast members, Jerry Orbach.

Prince is a complex tale of police corruption in the 1970’s adapted from the book by Robert Daley and based on the life of narcotics detective Robert Leuci. Danny Ciello, played in a towering performance by Treat Williams, is an over-confident narcotics detective has skimmed money from criminals for years without it weighing on his conscience. The film’s title refers to his ability to make cases while working mostly unsupervised.

But from the opening scene, you begin to see the cracks in this prince’s facade. An argument with his drug addicted brother shows that there is someone unwilling to continue the charade that Ciello and his partners are somehow upstanding officers of the law. In a key scene, Ciello is forced to rob a drug addict to supply heroin to his informant. He begins to take pity on him, perhaps recognizing his own addicted brother. More importantly, he begins to witness firsthand the consequences his illegal acts as a cop have on others.Ciello remembers why he wanted to become a detective, and makes an effort to change because he can no longer see much of a difference between the cops and the criminals no matter how much he tries to justify his actions by blaming the way the criminal justice system works. Perhaps you would think that this film will be a simple tale of redemption, where a man acknowledges his wrongdoings and then helps to put the remorseless criminals behind bars.

But as we all know, but rarely care to admit, doing the right thing is quite a messy process. While Prince of the City may be a sprawling epic about how deep corruption runs in the New York City police department, it is as much about how we never can quite wash the slate clean of our own past corruptions, big or small.


Prince was not the first or last time that Sidney Lumet examined this subject. 1973’s “Serpico”, based on the real-life detective Frank Serpico, is the only one of his films about police corruption in New York City that he did not write or co-write. In real life, Robert Leuci was an acquaintance of Frank Serpico. Serpico begins with its main character graduating from the police academy and follows him from precinct to precinct, as he seems to run into a citywide problem of outwardly corrupt police officers. In interviews, Lumet has said that he made Prince because he was not satisfied with the way he portrayed cops in his earlier film. Watching Serpico today, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. While it features a terrific performance by Al Pacino, the film refuses to examine this real-life figure beyond making him a martyr. It’s not about a man struggling with doing the right thing, it’s about a man resented by the world for being a tortured saint. While both Serpico’s and Leuci’s stories occurred during the same time frame, the films about them seem to take place in different worlds.

The key difference between Serpico and Ciello is that Ciello does not necessarily stop lying when he decides to come clean, for fear of incriminating himself or ratting out his partners. Lumet’s Serpico does not necessarily challenge its main character’s righteousness, nor does it bring many shades of gray to its exploration of why the rest of the police department seems completely corrupt. Prince raises questions about morality and loyalty; unlike Serpico, it doesn’t make it easy for us to decide who the bad people are. Police corruption was the subject matter that Lumet kept revisiting and exploring, perhaps to find new shades that could not be contained in just one film.


In addition to Serpico and Prince of the City, Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption twice more in the 1990’s with Q & A (1990) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997). Of the four films, Q & A is the one that plays most like a crime thriller, as we watch a fairly degenerate cop (Nick Nolte) target drug dealers who had ripped him off at the same time that he’s is being investigated by an assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton). Without a doubt, you can call Nolte’s character the villain of the film. But even so, Lumet allows this corrupt cop to explain his logic, almost daring you to empathize with someone who you know from the very first scene has committed the murder he is being investigated for.

In 1997’s Night Falls on Manhattan, also based on a book by Robert Daley, corruption extends to family members. The film centers on an assistant district attorney (Andy Garcia) whose rise in that office coincides with an investigation into police corruption that may involve his own father (Ian Holm). While the father’s partner (James Gandolfini) is clearly on the take, his own corruption involves fudging an arrest warrant to put away a drug dealer that he had been targeting for a long time.

Lumet is fascinated by the logic behind corruption. What is the thought process that causes people to lose their way? The key to Lumet’s success in exploring this theme is the degree to which he does not pass black and white judgment on his characters. The more we see ourselves reflected in people who justify their amoral actions, the more Lumet has made these people human. While Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan admirably try to explore the gray zone of morality and corruption, it is Prince of the City that is Sidney Lumet’s masterwork on that theme.


While we may understand what drives Danny Ciello to help the special attorney task force make cases against corrupt cops, we are less sure how we feel about him. Much of what drives this man is his loyalty to his partners. As he puts it, “The first thing a cop learns is that he can’t trust anybody but his partners. I’ll tell you something right now. I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners.”

Prince of the City takes the time to show us why that is. Even when Ciello finally admits to his partners that he is working to take down corrupt cops, they gather to not necessarily support him, but show concern for his well being. There is a loyalty among these detectives that Ciello will never have with all the attorneys he works for. The film further blurs the line between moral and amoral by showing Ciello’s mob-connected cousin as someone more reliable than the often ambitious attorneys. In one scene where a crooked cop and bondsman threaten to kill Ciello, it’s his cousin who vouches for him, saving his life.

Prince of the City is the Lumet film that truly makes you understand corruption by showing us this expansive group of people and the degrees they are willing to live with their consciences. Ciello’s final confessions lead to the destruction of people he considered family, people who loved him in a way that he will probably never experience again in his life. That is why you can see and understand the regret in his face when his partners eventually shun him. Doing the right thing is quite a messy process.

While Prince of the City has many admirers, the film has not gotten its due for its influence on the genre or the complexity with which it presents its subject matter. I consider it to be the Sidney Lumet film to watch to fully understand who he is as a director, a summation of all his work. With its large cast, the film creates a detailed world with communities of lawyers, gangsters, drug addicts and cops. At the center of it all is a performance by Treat Williams that ranks among the best, comparable to the greatest work of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, actors originally considered for the role.

What makes “Prince” essential is its universal and complicated take on how each of us cope with the moral choices we make. If we try to understand who Detective Ciello and how we feel about him, we begin to understand ourselves.


This video essay has been in the works for a while. By coincidence, while I was editing it near the end of July, Prince of the City was given a rare screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with both Treat Williams and Robert Leuci in attendance. It was shown as part of the Film Society’s tribute to Sidney Lumet.

Williams and Leuci had a fascinating Q & A after the film in which they mostly talked about working with Lumet. Williams in particular showed pride in this film. It is clearly the highlight of his career. But it was odd to see the man the film was based on talk about it in the flesh, considering that film does not portray him heroically. Leuci had not even seen the film from beginning to end until that night, probably because reliving that experience could not have been easy. While he admits the film takes some dramatic license, Leuci lauded how Lumet had stayed true to his story.

As this was a tribute to Lumet, Williams and Leuci told stories about the making of Prince, talking about the long audition process Williams went through and how Lumet did not want Leuci around set due to the not-very-happy experience of having Frank Serpico on set all the time during the production of Serpico. Although Lumet is not acknowledged as a significant auteur by cinephiles because his almost invisible direction served the story rather than himself, the Williams/Leuci Q & A re-asserted that Lumet was a filmmaker with a true vision, and highlighted the choices he made that enabled Prince to be so effective.

According to Scott Foundas, who introduced the screening, Prince of the City was the hardest film of the tribute to locate a 35mm print for. Apparently, this print was borrowed from the Harvard Archives. In essence, on its 30th anniversary, Prince almost feels like a lost film. It wasn’t even released on DVD until about four years ago. I hope this video essay will shine a light on Prince of the City as well as Lumet, acknowledge its masterful filmmaking and storytelling, and perhaps help prevent the film from being lost in the coming years.

Steven Santos is a freelance television editor/filmmaker based in New York. He has cut docu-series for MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut). You can also follow him on Twitter.