MANY OF HIS FELLOW OFFICERS CONSIDERED HIM THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE – AN HONEST COP.
One of director Sidney Lumet’s best movies has topics he would return to more than once in his career. There’s the truth-teller played by Al Pacino who would reappear in the guises of Peter Finch in Network (1976) and Treat Williams in Prince of the City (1981), and there’s also the concept of one man fighting a system he considers unfair even though a victory looks unlikely. But this film is also based on reality and what emerges is a rather shocking saga of police corruption on an epic scale.
The story begins with Frank Serpico (Pacino), a detective with the New York Police Department, being rushed to the hospital after being shot in the face. Every cop we see hearing about it is far from surprised or particularly outraged. The sentiment is that Serpico basically deserves anything coming to him. We are then taken back in time to the days when Frank was a rookie cop, a fresh-faced kid who was immediately introduced to the facts of life – if you’re a cop in New York it is OK to beat confessions out of suspects, and you had better be on the take or else you can’t be trusted.
Frank is disgusted with the lack of morals among his colleagues, but tries to ignore it as he focuses on his career, eventually making detective and showing his superiors that undercover cops need to improve their skills and take what you might call a Method approach to their “acting”. However, the corruption within the NYPD is so rampant that Frank feels a compulsion to end it at any cost.
Principled but inexperienced
This is one of Pacino’s most moving performances. When we first meet him he’s a principled but inexperienced young man who just tries to do his job. He meets a girl in his spare time and cultivates hobbies that few other cops would and he knows how to speak the language of the street in ways that many of his seemingly clean-cut but corrupt peers can’t. Over time they get used to his impressive record as well as the disguises he uses when working undercover and hippie clothes he prefers when off duty). He’s so creative there’s even a scene where he shows up at the station as a bearded orthodox Jew. But the pressure exercised on him by the other cops is taking a toll.
Pacino lets his hair and beard grow, but it’s the way he acts, his eyes looking tired and his attitude becoming increasingly irritated and confrontational that makes you understand what he’s going through. He’s hard to like sometimes, but his integrity is untouchable. Pacino’s surrounded by a terrific supporting cast of older men who all either patronize or harass him. The New York locations are all convincingly seedy, almost as a symbol of the dire state of the police force at the time, and it sure is a riveting story.
The only part of it that seems unsatisfactory is the romance between Frank and Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), his girlfriend, that ends up right where we expect it – in shambles because of his growing obsession. But perhaps the love affair (and the taste of life with normal civilians) is needed as a contrast in the film to all the macho bullshit on the force.
Pacino did this movie shortly after The Godfather. His character is very different from Michael Corleone, but it is fascinating to watch the police department in one of the greatest cities on earth being run as one of New York’s five Mafia families. As long as you join its criminal activities you’re safe. The filmmakers make it clear that what Serpico essentially is breaching is trust, one of the strongest human bonds. No wonder that he ended up fearing for his life.
Serpico 1973-U.S. 129 min. Color. Produced by Martin Bregman. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler. Novel: Peter Maas. Music: Mikis Thedorakis. Cast: Al Pacino (Frank Serpico), John Randolph (Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe… F. Murray Abraham.
Trivia: Judd Hirsch has a bit part. John G. Avildsen was allegedly first slated to direct the film. Followed by a TV movie and a TV series in 1976.
Golden Globe: Best Actor (Pacino).
Last word: “‘Serpico’, just physically and in terms of logistics, gives you the problem of keeping your emotional theme work in perspective. You have to ask yourself not only ‘Where am I physically?’ but ‘Where am I emotionally?’ I think I was more tired after finishing ‘Serpico’ than almost any movie I’ve ever done. There was also the obligation to the real Frank Serpico to be honest with his life and not exploit it.” (Lumet, TCM)