Serpico occupies such a significant place in film history that it’s difficult to discuss the film without reaching for superlatives so grandiose they lack real meaning. Among other things, Serpico is one of the greatest police movies ever made, Al Pacino’s leading performance stands among the finest accomplishments in ’70s screen acting, and Sidney Lumet’s meticulous direction demonstrates why every other subsequent filmmaker telling a New York-based crime story owes him a huge stylistic debt. Furthermore, the story—which was drawn from a famous real-life saga—perfectly encapsulates the ambivalent attitude Americans had toward cops and criminals in the ’70s. The fact that Serpico is essential cinema on myriad levels creates a challenge when trying to articulate its strengths and weaknesses—the strengths are familiar to most movie fans because the picture has been seen so widely, and the weaknesses don’t matter all that much. Nonetheless, any survey of ’70s cinema is absurdly incomplete without Serpico, so here goes.
Pacino, in the full bloom of his early-’70s breakout period, brings all of his intellectualized Method intensity to the role of Frank Serpico, a real-life NYPD detective who became a controversial figure by testifying publicly about widespread police corruption; this adaptation of Peter Maas’ best-selling book portrays the hero as an everyman with high principles who finds it harder and harder to survive in an environment rife with officially sanctioned illegality. The picture begins with Serpico’s early days as a uniformed beat cop, when he alienates coworkers by refusing to accept protection money and by refusing to pinch cash that’s taken from crooks. As Serpico’s career continues, he evolves into a longhaired detective adept at undercover work, earning a steady stream of commendations and promotions for his bravery and investigative skill. Alas, Serpico’s rise coincides with a cancerous spread of police corruption, so his unwillingness to play dirty provokes widespread enmity. This culminates with a showdown that the real Serpico claims was an assassination attempt engineered by bad cops who were afraid that Serpico was going to blow the lid on corruption. And, indeed, the finale of the story, as in real life, is Serpico’s public testimony.
The narrative is fantastically interesting from start to finish, and Pacino’s investment in his work is unquestionable—he’s a live wire in every scene. By the time the actor fidgets and struts through undercover scenes while he’s hidden behind long hair, a shaggy beard, and a floppy hat, his performance has reached the level of incarnation, because the emotional and physical reality Pacino creates by occupying space in a naturalistic way is utterly persuasive. Furthermore, Lumet captures the gritty rhythms of New York life so perfectly that much of Serpico feels like a documentary. If there’s a noteworthy flaw to Serpico, it’s that Lumet and Pacino focus too closely on the details of the main character’s journey through the shadowy world of the NYPD. With the movie covering such a large stretch of time and including so many incidents, supporting characters inevitably seem incidental and interchangeable. As noted earlier, however, criticizing Serpico is a fool’s game, because one could easily counter-argue that the personal nature of Serpico is exactly what makes the film uniquely powerful. (After all, the story’s about one man against the world.) FYI, the movie’s success inspired a short-lived 1976-1977 TV series starring David Birney, though the deeper influence of Serpico can be seen in countless subsequent movies that attempted, with varying degrees of success, to imitate the film’s hyper-realistic texture.
Serpico: RIGHT ON