Movies We Like
Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed.
Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast.
Frank Serpico started out as a clean-cut rookie who still lived with his Italian-speaking mother back in the old neighborhood, but he was always a little different. He was open to new ideas, didn't want to beat on the perps, wasn't overtly racist, dressed differently (even dons a man-purse); frankly he was his own man, with integrity. His colleagues accuse him of being gay and are more concerned with collecting their pay-offs than fighting crime. He hangs with artists instead of cops, has a couple of girlfriends, but like most cops the pressure of the job tends to hurt his relationships. Instead of butting head with the creeps on the streets it’s the creeps he has to work with who are turning him nasty.
Serpico does find a friend on the force in Bob Blair (Tony Roberts of Play It Again, Sam and Annie Hall), who in some ways is an outsider too. But because he’s politically connected, he's found ways to bypass all the crap. Blair tries to help Serpico issue complaints against the corruption he is seeing, but they are met with red tape and cronyism at every turn. After being the source for a big New York Times article it looks like action is finally going to be taken to clean up the force. As Serpico suspected, they are only willing to punish the small potato cops, not the big boys upstairs who turn a blind eye to the huge sums of cash being earned illegally by the cops. Eventually Serpico is shot in the face, survives, and bravely testifies against the force. Although he has a major impact on cleaning up police corruption, he is forced to move to Switzerland for his own safety.
For Pacino, Serpico was his post-The Godfather coming out party; it confirmed he was a major talent and could carry a movie without playing a gangster. Now, looking back, it was part of that one-two-three-four punch, along with the two Godfather films and his reteaming with Lumet for the best performance of his career in Dog Day Afternoon, that cemented his reputation as an all-time great actor. He's ridden that reputation ever since, even while most of the films have not lived up to his talent and his own acting style has moved away from that Serpico realistic intensity into a more hammy and bombastic territory.
Less than ten years later Lumet would revisit the territory with Prince of the City, another film based on a true story of a New York cop bringing down a corrupt police force (with Treat Williams giving a stunning performance). The two films together are the gold standard for "cops informing against the system" movies. There was even a short lived Serpico TV series starring David Birney following the success of the film. Frank Serpico didn’t set out to be a hero or even a martyr, he just wanted to do his job, and even when higher-ups sympathized with him, they were still more concerned with covering their own butts than doing anything. Serpico almost paid the ultimate price, with his life. Instead he just got ostracized to the highest degree, but by bringing down the system he got the last laugh.
Serpico was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actor (Pacino) and Best Adapted Screenplay.