The most dangerous man alive: an honest cop.
Between his two star-making stints in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, red-hot Al Pacino was top-billed in a gritty drama whose storyline was, as Dick Wolf would later put it, "ripped from the headlines." In Serpico, Pacino portrayed a real-life New York City police detective who blew the lid off the pervasive corruption and graft in the NYPD, and became a pariah in his own department for his trouble.
Pacino's compelling presence would net the volatile actor his second of four consecutive Academy Award nominations (Dog Day Afternoon was the last in the streak) and his first Golden Globe trophy. The film itself captured an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay Adaptation.
Facts of the Case
"Guess who got shot? Serpico."
Who is Officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino, Insomnia, The Devil's Advocate), and why would other policemen want to shoot him? It's bad enough that Serpico cuts an unusual figure for a cop in the tumultuous 1960s: his hair down over his collar, shaggy Fu Manchu moustache on his face, sporting counterculture fashions on his undercover beat. He has un-coplike interests: he studies philosophy in night school, he attends the ballet, he reads and recites poetry, he associates with an artsy crowd in his off-hours. Serpico's more polite colleagues refer to him as a "weirdo." His captain is convinced Frank—"Paco" to his friends—is homosexual, despite the fact that he has plenty of attractive girlfriends, including Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe, The Adventures of Pluto Nash) and Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young, later in the Brian Dennehy TV version of Death of a Salesman). (Like another well-known Metropolitan hero, Serpico apparently had a thing for women whose names begin with "L.")
But it isn't his unorthodox hobbies and fey haberdashery that put Frank Serpico under the barrel of a service revolver. From the moment he graduates from the police academy, Serpico is appalled by what he sees: not only on the streets—where the neophyte patrolman thwarts a gang rape during his first duty shift—but in his fellow officers, who routinely accept payoffs from criminals, violate suspects' civil rights with brutal "interrogation" techniques, and have little regard for the public they have sworn to serve and protect. Serpico believes he, on the other hand, is closer to the citizenry because he wears their clothing and hairstyles and speaks their vernacular. "We're too isolated," he complains to his superiors, who turn a blind eye and deaf ear and return to counting their filthy lucre.
Serpico's refusal to hop on the bonanza bandwagon puts him at odds with his fellow officers. They don't trust him because, like Rudolph, he won't join in their merry reindeer games. "It's incredible," gripes Frank to girlfriend Laurie, "I feel like a criminal because I don't take money." Other officers for that very reason treat him like a suspect. He tries to blow the whistle to the higher-ups, none of whom are interested because they are either in the bag themselves, or empathize with the cops who are. Serpico's only ally in the department is Bob Blair (Tony Roberts, the poufy-haired fast-talker in practically every film Woody Allen ever made), a slick, politically connected social climber who doesn't have many friends in blue himself.
Ultimately, it's the classic battle of one man against The System. And you know what John Mellencamp used to say: "When I fight authority, authority always wins."
For today's audience, having witnessed three decades of morally ambiguous police dramas both in the cinema and on television, it's difficult to appreciate the new ground Serpico broke in 1973. But new ground it was, this portrait of pandemic corruption in one of the most revered law enforcement agencies in the nation. Most chilling for the viewer was the recognition, as Frank Serpico's battle with institutional graft unfolds onscreen, that this was no mere Hollywood fable. However dressed up for the movies it might have been, Serpico revealed a real man caught up in a real struggle, with real consequences. This wasn't what America wanted to see, even as the Watergate scandal crept to its denouement, but it was exactly what the country needed—and was ready—to see.
Serpico was perhaps the most influential film of its era and genre. In its wake followed a veritable horde of iconoclastic film and television cops. Imitators included a watered-down TV series version of Serpico himself, with David (Bridget Loves) Birney in the title role. In stark contrast to the contemporary Dirty Harry Callahan, Serpico is not a vigilante working outside the law. Rather, he is a man who loves the law and desperately seeks to uphold it, but feels betrayed by fellow policemen who subvert it at every turn. The film's still-timely message is that there is a thin line between the crimebusters and the criminals sometimes. When hard currency gets involved, it tends to blur that line until it becomes impossible to tell who's on which side.
Younger cineastes who only know Al Pacino as the crusty, craggy-faced verbal volcano from his movies of the past decade owe it to themselves and their film educations to check out some of his early work. If one was familiar with Pacino only from, say, Scent of a Woman and Any Given Sunday might never recognize him in Serpico, where he looks like a young Bruce Springsteen and speaks in the high-pitched nasal tones of Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back, Kotter. (Pacino acquired his more familiar haggard visage and raspy baritone during a prolonged bout with illness in the late 1970s.)
The voice and the face may have weathered with age, but the emotive power was there from the beginning. Pacino is that rare movie star who doesn't so much command the screen as he grabs it by the windpipe and throttles it into submission. His Frank Serpico, on camera for almost every scene, wrings from the viewer the attention he never receives from his police department superiors. He is a decent man trying to do the right thing, and is baffled that those around him—public servants with badges and guns—aren't at all inclined to do likewise. As Serpico's rage and frustration build toward the film's climax, Pacino simmers, seethes, and finally erupts as only he can.
Drawn from the best-selling biography by Peter Maas (The Valachi Papers), the award-winning script by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever) crackles with realistic dialogue (mostly Salt's contribution, according to the director) and agonizing desperation. Director Sidney Lumet, who has fashioned a lengthy and often brilliant career out of taut, grim dramas that eschew Hollywood endings (witness Fail Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network), draws us into Serpico's world and drags us through the wringer along with him, without resorting to cheap thrills (there's surprisingly little "action" in terms of car chases, gunplay, and the like) or excessive melodrama. Lumet's cast, without major stars aside from Pacino (still early in his career), delivers first-rate support, but this is really one man's picture, and that man is Big Al.
Paramount does a remarkable job bringing Serpico to DVD, especially in light of the age of the movie and the studio's notoriously laissez faire attitude toward the DVD medium in general. The film throbs with lifelike color—muted tones, but rendered superbly here—and clarity. Though a good deal of the picture takes place in poorly lit rooms and shadowy spaces, even the darkest scene shows pristine detail. As is predictable in a 30-year-old print, we spot occasional damage and flaws here and there. However, the defects are far fewer than one might expect. The digital transfer is mostly error (and, thankfully, edge enhancement) free, with only isolated occurrences of pixelation.
Two soundtrack options are included: the original mono mix, digitally remastered, and a fresh Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Both are acceptable; neither is noteworthy. The surround track is "surround" in name only, but adds some fullness to the lower end and pushes the soundfield outward just slightly. For these latter reasons I preferred it to the original. Despite the fact that it won or was nominated for several awards (and despite the fact that director Lumet remains enamored with it to this day), Mikis Theodorakis's score detracts from the film: it's horribly dated, shrill, and more often than not inappropriate for what's unfolding on the screen.
Despite the disappointing lack of an audio commentary, Paramount covers with a handful of attractive featurettes. It's not clear to me why Paramount opted not to record a commentary, given the apparently enthusiastic participation of producer Martin Bregman and director Sidney Lumet in these documentary shorts. For that matter, I can't figure out why the DVD producers decided to divide what is essentially a single featurette—Bregman and Lumet are the only interview subjects in all the behind-the-scenes material—into four related components that must be accessed individually. Oh well.
Serpico: From Real to Reel is a 10-minute look at the development of the film, beginning with Peter Maas's book. Martin Bregman—at the time, Al Pacino's agent—reveals how he saw the story as his personal springboard into film production, and as a star vehicle for client Pacino, who had been overshadowed by both co-star Marlon Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola on his previous film, The Godfather. Director Lumet discusses his arrival on the film (John Avildsen, later of Rocky fame, had begun the project, but was dismissed before rehearsals began due to creative differences with Bregman) and his and Pacino's interactions with the real-life Frank Serpico.
Inside Serpico (13 minutes) shifts to the shooting and production of the film, again with Bregman and Lumet providing the comments in interview clips. Lumet reveals that shooting was accomplished on a breakneck schedule to accommodate a December release. As a result, many scenes were captured in minimal takes with little or no extra camera coverage. Editor Dede Allen (John Q) was forced to edit each day's celluloid on the fly, which makes the movie's cohesion and pacing all the more incredible.
Serpico: Favorite Moments is a brief additional interview segment (two and one-half minutes), with the director and producer each noting his favorite moments (what a surprise) from the movie.
Finally, we get a four-minute series of production stills accompanied by Lumet's remarks about the score of the film. This last piece is quite interesting, given that the composer had just been released from prison in Greece when Lumet hired him, and wrote the score during a whirlwind U.S. tour. I didn't care for the score, but it makes for a terrific story. (The pictures have nothing to do with the music, really, but someone apparently thought this would be a clever use of the photos and the audio clip.) Add the theatrical trailer—a nicely edited piece for this era—and that's what you get for the money.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Serpico is old-school, character-driven crime drama, not an action picture. Viewers expecting a thriller may find the film talky and slow. It's neither talky nor slow in my opinion, but you know how kids are these days.
Watch Al Pacino become a major star right before your very eyes. Serpico is an undisputed classic, well worth seeing not only for its electric, unflinching account of an honorable man's fight to cling to his personal ethics, but also as a chance to see Pacino coming into his own, before he began to caricature himself. (He's still got the chops, as anyone who's seen the recent Insomnia can attest.)
Lesser filmmakers are still stealing from this movie. Don't you steal it—buy it. It's a keeper.
The Court finds Frank Serpico innocent of all charges, and commends him for his heroism. He and his doppelganger Al Pacino are free to go. We're adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Serpico: From Real to Reel
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.