By Marc S. Sanders
In the 1970’s Al Pacino had a slew of Oscar nominated roles. One of those revered performances was as Frank Serpico, the righteous cop working with a corrupt New York City police department, in Sidney Lumet’s gritty Serpico. The wardrobes and appearances of New York and its five boroughs seem unfamiliar nearly 50 years later, but the film can still maintain interest for a viewer because it’s astonishing how valid and true all the facts remain. Cops were happily taking handouts, while the politicians and commissioners took no issue with looking the other way. Whether it was disregarding a deli owner’s double-parking offenses for a free sandwich, or skimming some payouts from drug and prostitution rings, Serpico’s morals were always facing an insurmountable conflict.
Lumet’s film starts off with an interesting observation. Word gets out that Frank has been shot and is being rushed in an ambulance, and one police officer asks the other, if a cop did it (not who did it). If you never knew anything about this guy’s life or what he experienced, you know in just a small economy of words that Frank Serpico has become everyone’s enemy; not just to the hoods, pimps and drug pushers, but to those who are supposed to be his allies and support.
Long before Al Pacino inherited his gruff smoker’s voice that bellows like an angry lion with too much phlegm, he had the ear piercing outbursts with the same intensity to frighten his co-stars. His character is seemingly the one true blue cop in the entire squad who doesn’t befriend the local hoods. Serpico never accepts a bribe or hides a report. It’s a frustrating ordeal and Pacino goes to the limits with big outbursts while pacing back and forth and showing terrible fear and panic in his eyes. Lumet’s camera is quick enough to capture every tick that Pacino exudes. It’s not Al Pacino performing within the frame of the camera. It’s actually Sidney Lumet’s lens adjusting to how wild Pacino goes physically with his volume and body language.
Frank Serpico was a lone wolf. As the story progresses, the other cops find it hard to believe that he will not accept being part of the gang that is on the take. They grow concerned. Can they trust Frank to keep his mouth shut and let things be? No, they can’t count on Frank to toss a blind eye. He is persistent on getting this story out to the proper authorities. Naturally, it’s hard for these corrupt individuals to share a locker room or ride in the same car with him as a passenger. Frank’s limit though is that he is reluctant to testify. Get the investigation going and have the authorities uncover it for themselves, and then do something about it. That’s all. If he testifies, then his life is truly in danger as this all becomes official in a court of law.
Serpico is a good film because of Pacino and because of the concept of the story. It’s more compelling because arguably in the United States’ most well-known city, corruption actually abounds. Dirty cops in New York City? Why, that’s unheard of! It was sadly all true and justice was not being executed fairly.
However, Serpico is not Lumet’s best film, nor Pacino’s. Often it meanders. There’s not a lot of action. There’s quite a number of scenes where Pacino’s screaming paranoia takes over. It grows tired, honestly. Moreover, it gets repetitive. Many of Pacino’s outbursts feel like I just saw a scene like that, five minutes earlier.
What keeps me going through the film is the fact that one authority after another refuses to take this problem head on. The captains, the commissioner, the prosecutors and even the mayor of New York City never allow any chance of pursuing the wrongdoing that’s occurring. After all, if you prosecute everyone involved, who is going to be left and how would that make an elected official look in the eyes of his constituents?
There are subplots focusing on the relationship between Frank and a couple of his girlfriends played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe. I found these connections to exist as additional outlets for Pacino’s outbursts. I didn’t terribly mind this material. The acting is fine, but what did I gain from moments? I read that the actual Frank Serpico had four relationships during his time as a New York City cop. From a story perspective however, condensed into a film, I didn’t gain any new insight.
Serpico is worth watching. I just wouldn’t put this on the top of my Lumet or Pacino priorities for must see viewing. Still, it’s a true story that I’m satisfied was told. In 1974, Hollywood was taking risks to show the ugly side behind a uniform or face of nobility. This is where I consider film medium to be a necessary conduit of information and awareness for us. On that level, Serpico serves as an important treatment.