Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? A classic gritty NYC movie from the 1970s.
What did I get? Along with The French Connection and Sidney Lumet’s own Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico stands as one of the canonical glories of the gritty New York-based cinema of the 1970s. Frank Serpico became one of the great Pacino roles, even as it offered a preview of the actor’s outsize mannerisms. For his part, Lumet miraculously wrung out of the historical Serpico’s messy and complex story something like an urban fairy tale.
Arguably moviedom’s most thoroughly fleshed-out expression of the slippery slope, Serpico is about one officer’s stand against the ubiquitous payoffs eating away at the New York Police Department. Frank’s first encounter with the well-greased ways of the local constabulary comes during his very first shift, when, visiting a diner on his beat, he is discouraged from requesting his preferred sandwich (or even registering a small complaint about the sandwich he does get), as it is on the house, in exchange for the proprietor’s right to double-park during deliveries. His partner’s entitled grimace of queasy acquiescence is far from the last we’ll see in the movie.
From such small perks greater graft comes. The story becomes its most Kafkaesque when Frank is informed that his latest heroic arrest may lead not to a collar but potentially to a reprimand. The second half of Serpico lurches into grim, inadvertent comedy every time his superiors’ repeated assurances that a given unit is “clean” are proven inaccurate by the NYPD’s kudzu-like ability to be corrupt. The palpable sense of menace emanating from the otherwise ordinary rank and file is perhaps the movie’s most enduring achievement.
Released just two weeks after the emergence of the mysterious 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes, Serpico seems symptomatic of the same generational shift in accepted public morality that Watergate exposed. Every inch the liberal’s surrogate, Frank lets his unruly beard grow, dons all manner of shapeless sun hats, takes up with a dancer (indeed, signs up for ballet lessons), undertakes to learn Spanish, and is totally cool about the casual drug use he witnesses among his girlfriend’s artistic scenesters. (It’s no coincidence that he is today considered a bit of a proto-hipster.) Having “gone native,” his fellow officers habitually mistake him for street trash of the collegiate type.
That purism is Frank’s defining trait is telegraphed by his scarcely motivated decision to distance himself from his own cop-friendly family. Instead Frank takes up residence in a sweet West Village studio, improbably celebrating his move with the purchase of an adorable puppy from the urchin on his stoop. The two sides of Pacino’s Frank — the fearless truth-teller and the bearded nonconformist — are yoked by self-indulgence, a trait that Pacino eventually became famous for exemplifying. The sturdy realism of the movie allows Pacino to get away with his trademark overacting — and if you don’t believe me, check out the scene in which Frank manhandles smug local kingpin Rudy Corsaro. Truth be told, while he may be lovable and admirable, Frank is pretty annoying too. (One cannot help but wonder if Frank’s understanding of what the police do was cribbed from the pages of Richard Scarry.)
I’ve been having some fun at Serpico‘s expense, but that’s mainly a reaction to the movie’s impressive rep, which is a trifle inflated. Truly, the skill of Lumet and Pacino and the rest can’t be faulted. The verisimilitude of the New York street scenes is staggering; there’s a reason the movie is cited as a classic of the era’s cinematic realism. (It would be hard to find a more delicious supporting cast of New York types.) Serpico may be a little pat but in its tone, it achieves a more lived-in moral complexity than many of its precursors ever bothered to attempt. Lumet’s feat was to give us a supremely simple story, even as every frame was insisting on a realism viewers would be incapable of dismissing.
What here smacks of 1973? There are few more authentic documents of the maturation of the counterculture.
IMDB score: 7.8
My score: 8
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler
Starring: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Tony Roberts, John Medici, Allan Rich, Ed Grover, F. Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsch, Tony Lo Bianco, Kenneth McMillan, Stephen Pearlman, Richard Foronjy, Lewis J. Stadlen
IMDB synopsis: Serpico is a cop in the early 1970s. Unlike all his colleagues, he refuses a share of the money that the cops routinely extort from local criminals. Nobody wants to work with Serpico, and he’s in constant danger of being placed in life threatening positions by his “partners”. Nothing seems to get done even when he goes to the highest of authorities. Despite the dangers he finds himself in, he still refuses to ‘go with the flow’, in the hope that one day, the truth will be known.