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I just want to lie on a beach and eat hot dogs…

…so that’s exactly what I’m planning to do the rest of this week. That, and drink margaritas and frolic in the waves and build sandcastles and collect seashells. And drink margaritas. Did I mention that one already?

Yours truly is flitting off for a four-day vacation to the sunny beaches of the Carolinas (it pays to have rich relatives), but I’ll give you some food for thoughts later this week, and possibly even a review if the mood strikes. In between the margaritas, of course.

Review: “The Door in the Floor” (2004)

When Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), a fledgling writer, lands a job as the assistant to acclaimed children’s book author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), he takes it as a harbinger of good things to come. He couldn’t be more wrong. We perceive this to be so because of a sentence, one single line, that Bridges utters: “I want to thank you for being a good friend to Marion.” There’s a thrashing undercurrent of menace in these words; Bridges and Bridges alone could block the surge and still offer a peek at what’s to come. He’ll explode the dam only when he’s good and ready.

Such is the beauty of Bridges’ performance in “The Door in the Floor,” based on John Irving’s expansive novel “A Widow for One Year”: He has the ability to maintain an air of predatory control in the face of shocking circumstances. It’s as if whatever happens is a predicted outcome of the plan of attack he’s devised. His calm allows him to disarm nearly everyone around him, like the women who act as models for his sketches — all of whom he puts through a ringer of emotions, beginning with reverence and ending with disgust and disdain — or the young and impressionable Eddie. The only woman he can’t fool is his wife Marion (Kim Basinger, haunting and heartbreaking). She remains with him because they have suffered the same tragedy, even if both emerged on the other side completely different people. If not for Ted, Marion might cease to exist, so far from the land of the living has she drifted. Their mangled bond provides both with a strange sort of sustenance. Maybe neither could surve without it.

Director Tod Williams takes his time unraveling the reasons behind the dissintegration of Marion and Ted’s marriage. Williams’ methods typify T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on poetry, which he described in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” “The Door in the Floor,” which deals with the first 1/3 of Irving’s novel, fits this definition. Though the film tells an emotional story, there are no shrieking fits of weeping, no histrionics. Marion and Ted’s story begins with their trial separation. After the deaths of their teen-aged sons Tom and Tim in a grisly car accident, they’ve grown so far apart they’re essentially strangers. Grief has turned her into a wisp of a woman, while Ted numbs his pain with alcohol and bedding his nude models. The tragedy aside, their only link is their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), who makes a nightly ritual of looking at the photographic shrine built to brothers she never knew. Into this dysfunctional environment walks Eddie, who believes he has much to learn from Ted. He does, but what he learns has nothing to do with writing; instead, he has an affair with Marion. Only when Ruth catches her mother and Eddie in bed together do Ted’s plans come to fruition.

In a slow-burning character study like “The Door in the Floor,” everything depends on the performances and the director’s knack for capturing the small, telling details within the performances. Basinger is not terribly expressive; here, that’s an advantage. She has a bruised quality, a rawness that Williams, unlike so many other directors, intuits how to film. Her final scene with Bridges consists of no words. As she silently and gently strokes Ted’s face, it’s clear that words in this moment are unnecessary. Bridges, too, never hits a sour note. He is the only choice to play a man like Ted Cole, who can make you smile and shred your heart even while he’s pulling the knife across your throat.  He’s a monster, alright, but he’s also a fascinating enigma. In fact, at the film’s conclusion, he is the unanswered question. Did staggering tragedy create the Ted Cole we see, or did his sons’ deaths merely force his dark side into the light? Bridges is too shrewd and skilled an actor to summarize his character so methodically. There is no explanation for Ted Cole, and because of Bridges we almost don’t need one.

Grade: A

(A special thanks goes out to Pompous Film Snob for this recommendation.)

The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Some thinkings

(My sincerest apologies for the lack of reviews on here this week, scribble readers — I promise I’m not resting on my laurels, fluffy and happy as they may be! Days have been crazy and I’m experiencing a system review backup that I’ll set about fixing next week. On Monday I’ve got an extensive b-day — blergh! — post based on an idea the Fandango Groover had some time back, plus a few reviews scheduled for the week I’ll be on vacation. But for now, here’s something to entertain you…)

 

Review: “Out of the Past” (1947)

The men of film noir never can resist doe eyes and a pair of getaway sticks. It’s an unspoken rule that the more mysterious or dangerous a woman is, the more pull she has over the leading man, even if he won’t admit he’s hooked. Former private detective Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is no exception. Years gone from the business, he’s carved out an unremarkable existence in nowhere California. He thinks he has moved on. Then his past comes sniffing around, and Jeff realizes everyone, no matter how skilled at hiding, leaves a trail.

This inevitability may be the thing that captivates noir junkies more than the cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca’s is marvelous in “Out of the Past”) or the music (the film’s score, created by Roy Webb, is both foreboding and romantic) or the aforementioned getaway sticks (Jane Greer has a fetching set for sure). There’s something strangely comforting about seeing the plight of an antihero, a good soul for all his cynicism and one-liners and walled-off emotions. Jeff has seen the worst in people, has every reason to become a villain himself, and he doesn’t. He wants happiness, a quiet life, a chance to start over. He wants to be a new man, and still he’s down in the gutter with the rest of us; for that, he commands sympathy. While Mitchum plays this hard case as more glib than most, the flip comments are anything but. Jeff Markham is damaged goods.

Now the owner of a small gas station in Bridgeport, Jeff has settled into his new life. Still, there’s a reluctance about him. Even relaxing lakeside with Ann (Virginia Huston), the local girl he plans to marry, he holds back part of himself. Mitchum communicates this through half-lidded eyes, pocketed hands. His employs cigarettes as shields and weapons alternately. Jeff has learned to be very good at this so he can make people believe what they see is what they get. However, he can’t con Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), who shows up in Bridgeport to relay a message: Jeff’s last client, well-to-do gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), wants a meeting with him. Accepting his past has found him, Jeff decides not to run; instead, he’ll come clean to Ann about his history. Through flashbacks (a noir staple), Ann learns Jeff purposely botched his job — finding Whit’s dame Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot him and ran off with $40,000 — after he fell in love with her. Jeff and Kathie’s story doesn’t end there, and as “Out of the Past” spirals toward a violent, almost poetic conclusion the webs of deceit get stickier and more knotted.

No more needs to be said of where “Out of the Past” goes or how it gets there; in truth, it may not be possible to say more — by the end, even the most astute viewers need a flow chart to keep up with the rotten tricks in the screenplay (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel). The film employs the sort of snappy dialogue that makes entries in this genre such a treat. Line for line, “Out of the Past” nearly stacks up to “The Maltese Falcon,” no little job considering Bogart’s skill for slinging wisecracks like flapjacks. Mitchum, however, has a slightly different way of delivery: he dials down the bite, leans hard on the sardonic weariness. He knows he’s in for it when Kathie tells him she’s only person left to make deals with: “Build my gallows high, baby.” That’s acceptance tinged with humor, regret and passion. This is where the incessant smoking comes in handy. It acts as a shield — Whit and Jeff use their cigarettes like dueling pistols — and tool for connection. The smoke, shot almost tenderly by Musuraca, which Jeff uses as a barrier, also tells us more about him than he’d want us to know. It tells us he’s hiding himself, and the cracks are starting to show.

In the end, it’s Douglas, menacing as the put-upon lover, gets to the cold point of the film: “My feelings? About 10 years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” Life for Jeff would be so much easier if he could say the same.

Grade: A

Review: “The Birds” (1963)

The idea that some large part of the natural world could turn on humankind is more frightening than the coup d’état itself. (M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” is a prime example.) When the man telling the tale, however, happens to be Alfred Hitchcock, this is not the case. Hitchcock intuits, in that masterful way he has, that the terror lives not in the takeover but in the moments of quiet before that shift of power happens. Fear thrives on the silence, feeds on it, and so does Hitchcock. He uses the calm to make us dread the storm.

To understand exactly how Hitchcock, the master of suspense, plays his audience like piano keys, look beyond the storyline — a half-hearted, ill-conceived romance played well by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor — to the way the director uses the camera. Too often the camera is a silent observer, meant only to record this conversation and that embrace, this right hook or that teardrop. Hitchcock imagines other uses for the camera; he allows it to act as a soothsayer, something capable of foreshadowing gingerly but unmistakably the host of bad happenings down the road out of our sightline. Imagine a scene where a nervous woman walks into a house expecting to find an old friend. She needs to talk to him. How could that be suspenseful? Take that camera and zero sharply in on her face right before she steps into the long hallway (movie law: nothing good awaits at the end of a long hallway). That shot mimics a sharp, sudden intake a breath, the preparation for a terrible, inevitable shock. Thus, without so much as a peep, Hitchcock has wrested control of our deepest-buried fears, and even in the final moments of “The Birds” he does not give them back. Especially not then.

“The Birds” isn’t about the characters, really, so much as it is what happens to them when they are thrown together for the purposes of the plot. These people, possessed of mysterious pasts, give the story the human element necessary for Hitchcock to manipulate his audience. The film centers on Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a socialite with a scandalous past who meets a lawyer, Mitch (Rod Taylor), in a San Francisco pet shop. He’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), and Melanie pretends to be an employee. But he reveals that he knows her from an encounter years before. His smug grin intrigues her enough to prompt Melanie to buy the birds, track down Mitch’s address and drive out to Bodega Bay to surprise him. By way of schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Melanie discovers Mitch is a womanizer, yet she stays for dinner with him and his family. His mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a widow, has met enough women not to trust this one will stay. A leery matriarch turns out to be the least of everyone’s problems when the birds — every kind — begin launching eerily calculated attacks on the townspeople. No one can explain this change in behavior, though an ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) offers some ominous thoughts: “I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance!”

Griffies puts to words the roundly unnerving  theme of the film, a work of suspense that flirts at times with the horror genre. Certainly the nature vs. man concept isn’t revolutionary, but Hitchcock brings such a level of sophistication in “The Birds” that the idea seems new. He shifts the focus from the attacks — which are frightening, particularly the one near the Bodega Bay diner that leads to massive explosions and chaos — to the people’s anticipation. The most famous shots, the ones of birds slowly and almost silently gathering on monkey bars while Melanie, oblivious, nervously smokes a cigarette, raise the tension to near unbearable levels. These are quick cuts, but they are lethally effective. Everything converges during Mitch, Lydia, Cathy and Melanie’s self-imposed quarantine in the house. Holed up in the board-covered house, they are powerless to stop what’s about to happen. All they can do is wait. The waiting is what kills you.

Grade: A-

My thought on today

Alright for now*

Ever have one of those days so good you want to wake up the next day and relive it? That was my yesterday … though Lee Pace and Colin Hanks weren’t waiting on the stoop to battle for a spot in my heart (and, OK, other areas). So it came damn close to being perfect.

Since my blogging machine is on the fritz, this is a brief post to say “thanks” for all the votes, readers and friends, that helped me win the LAMMY for Best Blog and tie for Best New LAMB and Best Movie Reviewer. The competition was fierce, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Kudos to all the fellow bloggers out there, many of whom took home awards of their own, including Heather at Movie Mobsters, Aiden R. at Cut the Crap Reviews, Ryan at The Dark of the Matinee (who cleaned house) and Andy at Fandango Groovers — just to name a few.

For everyone who supports these movie scribbles … you rock. You really do. And you make my heart of hearts very full.

*The fabulous album closer on Tom Petty’s “Live Anthology”

Review: “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the heroines in 95 percent (a frugal estimate) of romantic comedies are not normal. They are, alternately: a) gorgeous stick insects who, for reasons known only to the writers, can’t find a man or b) gorgeous stick insects “uglied up” with glasses and frumpish clothes and — if the stylist’s really feeling saucy — dyed, frizzy hair. Is there no medium? There is with Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger). She’s pretty and funny, but she’s also awkward, self-conscious and lonely. Bridget Jones is the woman Shakespeare wrote about in “Sonnet 130.”

In real life Zellwegger is not Bridget Jones, not even close, and that’s why the Brits raised such a right stink about her playing author Helen Fielding’s beloved single gal diary keeper. She’s not plump (“tapeworm thin” is more accurate) and she’s not rumpled and — here’s the kicker — she’s not British (bugger all, she’s from Texas). None of that makes one lick of difference in Sharon Maguire’s witty adaptation, though, because Zellwegger pours herself into the part and doesn’t spill one drop. She wears the slightly larger frame well and lets her clumsy girl flag fly without shame; gone is the poise and grace she radiates on the red carpet. Even more striking is Zellwegger’s accent, which never falters. (The Brits, I’ve read, described it as “too studiedly posh.” That’s about as close to praise as an American actress could hope to get.) In the whole of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” there’s nary a scene to be found where Zellwegger doesn’t endear the character to our hearts. She brings a written character to vibrant life in ways that will impress fans of the book and win over new ones.

Had an American director laid hands to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” it’s likely this would be an entirely different movie not unlike the one described earlier. But Maguire is UK-born, so she has an ear for that dry brand of English humor. She’s also quite good at tempering humiliation humor — Bridget’s book launch speech is mortifying — and pratfalls with shrewd insights into the issues 30something single women face. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” opens straight away with a peer into Bridget’s major problems: She’s still single at 32 and has a mother, Pam (Gemma Jones, brightly outrageous), who views being single as a difficult but treatable medical condition. Mum stages a set up with haughty barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, wink wink), who commits the offense of actually wearing the reindeer sweaters his mother buys him. The man Bridget really lusts after is her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant because he’s, well, Hugh Grant), whose picture can be seen in the OED underneath “incorrigible.” Her “urban family” — Tom (James Callis), Shazza (Sally Phillips) and Jude (Shirley Henderson) — offers no helpful advice. Getting entangled with both men leads to a host of comical snafus and one ludicrously entertaining brawl set to Ginger Spice’s cover of “It’s Raining Men” (hallelujah).

Patterned after Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Maguire’s film follows a well-trod path to get to the expectedly pleasing resolution. The formula might seem stale if not for the formidable charms of the three main characters. Firth offers more than “Mr. Darcy: Redux,” dishing out insults and compliments in that perfectly clipped manner of his. He is a national treasure. Hugh Grant, who excels most at being himself, is a swell foil for Firth’s halting suitor; where Firth is nervous and inept, Grant is smooth and charming, always ready with a quip to distract from his loutish behavior. As both men have chemistry with Zellwegger, it’s not grating to watch her waffle between the two … even though Austen chose the winner almost 200 years ago. There’s some sentimentality, perhaps more than in Fielding’s book, but it’s offset by frank sex talk, Bridget’s droll observations — her mum is “a strange creature from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication”; she dreads dinner parties full of “smug married couples” — and Zellwegger’s witty, endearing performance. Because of her Bridget’s expectations aren’t wafting with the clouds. They are right down on Earth, just as she is, much as Shakespeare would have liked: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground….”

Grade: B+

Review: “Serpico” (1973)

The theatrical release poster of Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico” poster looks to be a simple close-up shot of the young star, Al Pacino. Look again, this time recalling images of Jesus Christ you’ve seen in books, paintings, altars, church offices. Suddenly this cover portrait isn’t quite so cut-and-dry, is it? The shaggy beard, the loose clothing, those soulful, weary, tortured eyes, the ethereal light adorning the top of his head — all these elements shape the image of this man as a good man forced to bear an enormous burden. This is too calculated to be a coincidence.

Pacino, mind you, does not play legendary whistleblower Frank Serpico, the New York City cop who testified against NYPD’s widespread corruption in 1971, as a savior. Like most real heroes, he has no desire to live in infamy, or have his name become a reverant utterance for some, a curse for others. Frank, who grew up wanting to be a cop, wants to clean up New York’s streets. He wants to work hard; more than that, he wants to work honest. His refusal to compromise his principles marks him as untrustworthy, a do-gooder who could rat out cops on the take (which, in 1970s New York, describes 98 percent of the police force). Pacino couldn’t be a better fit for the role. He’s an actor who tends to hold more of himself in than he ever lets out. Frank Serpico learned very early that he’d better be the same way if he hoped to survive his job.

Since Pacino is the clear frontrunner in “Serpico,” Lumet builds the film as a series of episodes — all beginning with Frank hopeful and trusting, all ending with him beaten down and wary — around his character. (Lumet employs this fragmented timeline strategy in other films, including 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”) The film starts not at the beginning but at the end, with Frank bleeding in the back of a police cruiser. Buzz surrounding his injury suggests the shooting could have been friendly fire. Interspersed in this opening sequence we get flashbacks to Frank’s academy graduation and his first days on the job. Immediately he realizes the job won’t be what he thought. His long hair and beard and hippie garb set him apart from his fellow cops and make him the target of coworkers like Barto (Ed Crowley). When Frank refuses to shake down gambling organizations and drug rings or take their money, he becomes a pariah. His superiors, like Capt. Insp. McClain (Biff McGuire), urge him to keep quiet about the seedy politics, not to go outside the department: “Frank, we wash our own laundry here!” Frank, however, has a conscience that won’t stop reminding him he can’t trust the department and never could: “The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry — it just gets dirtier.”

Lumet’s directing style, based on fast-and-loose shots and pavement-level action, supplies a nice contrast to Pacino’s measured performance. Lumet gets right in the grit and the grime, training the camera on small details that slam the truth of Frank Serpico’s predicament in our faces. During the pivotal shootout finale, there’s plenty of shouting and confusion and mayhem, but peel your eyes for Pacino’s hand straining its way underneath a chained door, the door ripping the skin, his face forcing its way through. There’s an unspoken symbolism here, the same kind evident in the movie poster: Frank Serpico is the foreign element that won’t adapt to his environment. He will force his environment to adapt to him. The director’s shots, which famously rattled a post-“Godfather” Pacino, give the lead actor space to up the ante in his performance. And though he’s an inward-leaning actor, Pacino finds the intensity — quiet and explosive — that fuels “Serpico” for 130 minutes. Whether he’s watching his long-term relationship with Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) go up in flames or confronting crooked cops, you can’t look away.

Although there are thrilling shootouts and escapes, that’s the real story of “Serpico,” the one with emotional impact: the collision of expectation and reality. Even as adults living in what we expect to be an adult world, it’s a crash we experience not once, but over and over again.