“What's this for? For bein' an honest cop? Hmm? Or for being stupid enough to get shot in the face? You tell them that they can shove it.”
If you were alive during the 70’s then there is no question in my mind that your favorite actor was Al Pacino. He ruled during that decade. His performance in Serpico playing the title character, an honest cop who refused to participate in the corruptive system that surrounded the NY police department, is considered by many to be his best work, which is saying a lot when you take into account his other films during that four year span: both Godfather films, Dog Day Afternoon, and Scarecrow. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performances during four straight years and surprisingly came out empty handed. It wouldn’t be until his eight nomination in 1993 for his lead performance in Scent of a Woman that he would finally receive his dues (a category in which he was also nominated for Glengarry Glen Ross). It’s astonishing to look back at his career and see how many great performances he delivered over time, but especially during the early 70’s. Serpico is a film that must be seen primarily for his energetic performance, which foretold what an illustrious career he would have ahead of him. It didn’t hurt that the great Sidney Lumet was directing this true story based on the biographical book written by Peter Maas. His choices for location all over the different NY boroughs gave the film a sense of authenticity for this genre film. Lumet was interested in focusing on this character and portraying the emotional effect that the corruptive system had on him in the most realistic way possible and he succeeded. It’s been more than 40 years since Serpico has been released and its themes remain relevant to this day.
The film opens with a bloodied officer being rushed to a hospital in the back of a police car. We find out that he’s an undercover cop named Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) and he has been shot in the face. When one of the police inspector’s receives the news his immediate reaction is that a fellow officer must have shot him. The next scene is a close-up shot of Serpico’s eyes that are still moving and then the film takes us to the 60’s where we see a younger version of him graduating as a police officer from the Academy. From the very beginning we can tell that Serpico is self motivated and honest. He aspires to become a detective, but his idealistic world comes crumbling down when he witnesses his fellow officers accepting bribes from gamblers and drug dealers. They offer him money, but he doesn’t accept, which in turns makes him new enemies. His next move is to enlist the help of a trusted officer named Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) who sets him up with higher ranked officers to whom he can report his partners’ corruptive behavior, but all they end up doing is transferring him to new divisions. Their promises of cleaning up the department go nowhere and Frank’s increasing frustration begins to take a toll on his relationship with his fiancee Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) as several years go by with the same results. With very few friends and a lot of enemies, Frank knows that his days as a police officer are numbered, but he remains hopeful that someday the truth will be revealed.
Lumet expertly manages to portray the passage of time in a rather convincing manner here without resorting to spoon feeding the audience. The editing is handled in superb fashion and Al Pacino’s physical transformation is a great indicator of how distrusting of the system he’s becoming. He is the driving force of the movie and the main reason why the film succeeds. He gets to shine in the subtle and quiet moments such as when he’s simply enjoying his back yard listening to opera and starting a conversation with his next door neighbor, or during the powerful emotional scenes where he takes all his anger and frustration out on his fiancee or a criminal he just busted in the streets. Serpico shaped the genre and the way some action films were being handled by delivering a more authentic and true to life film that added resonance to the subject that was being handled. The material was handled seriously by the screenwriters who delivered an honest adaptation and weren’t there simply to entertain audiences, but to deliver a message. That is what has made this such a memorable and thought provoking film to this date. Al Pacino is the only actor who really gets to stand out here because the entire focus is on him and as time passes the rest of the characters come in and out of his life, but he is reason enough to check the film out.