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.

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10 Responses

  1. I need to see more Lumet and Pacino films. The Jesus reference is obvious, I thought it was that at first. I never saw this one but Lumet is so here and there for me. I love Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and though his Long Day’s Journey into Night boasts four excellent performance I can’t forgive it for its slight unevenness. Any particular Lumet film you recommend?

  2. Serpico is a great film… if Ms Carter doesn’t mind me butting in re. Lumet recommendations then I’d say the essentials were 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, The Anderson Tapes, Running on Empty, Network and The Hill…

    …of course you should know that ‘it’s all about the Q & A’

    • I think Wynter beat me to the punch! I’d put “12 Angry Men” on the top of my list, Encore, because you’d think a film about 12 men in a room together would be terminally boring … and it’s so damn good!

  3. Lumet is one of the best director’s Hollywood has seen over the past…hmmm…..40, no, 50 years! 12 Angry Men is his best film and one of the finest ever made. I’d also recommend the golden trio he made between 1974 and 1976: Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, and Network. He also had another fabulous year in 1982 when he made both Deathtrap and The Verdict.

    Excellent review M., I’ve always felt this to be one of Pacino’s best performances – proabably this and Dog Day just ahead of The Godfather.

  4. Lumet really knows how to racket up the tension in his films.

  5. I remember when Pacino was just THAT good, before scenery chewing replaced talent. Remember the string of movies that this was part of during the seventies/eighties. Jeez, that was a hot streak.

    • @ Dan + Darren — I’ll admit I tend to think of Pacino as the scenery-gnawing ham from “Devil’s Advocate” and forget about his ealier performances, when he was still pretty low-key and reserved. In his old age he’s lost some of the fire; let’s hope he can Betty White his way to a new career!

      @ Fitz — Yeah, that scene with Pacino straining his way through the chained door just about took my head off.

      • Unlike Hoffman who can still deliver – De Niro is happy doing paraodies of his former hard men roles, while Pacino is just delighted to pick up a pay cheque. Their best is behind them.

  6. I went to his IMDB page and realised how many of his films I’ve seen without knowing they were his (Network, Murder on the Orient Express, 12 Angry Men). I don’t know, it’s weird because I think of directors of that time as more notable than the actors but for he always seems to fall through the cracks…I suppose that makes him better than he’s given credit for since so many directors (especially today) are more interested in their own agendas than serving their films.

    The man does have a way with casts, though…he really does.

  7. I’d call this Pacino’s signature role. He got to show his angry side before he ran it into the ground during his later roles. I love the way you feel so uneasy for Serpico throughout the film.

    Lumet is one of my favorite directors, but his catalog is so vast that it’s difficult to see a lot of it. I’d recommend “The Pawnbroker” as an under the radar Lumet gem.

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