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.