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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.

No. 14: “12 Angry Men” (1957)

“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know.”
~~Juror #8

For some men, it’s disturbingly simple to dismiss the full, oppressive weight a possibly innocent/possibly guilty defendant’s fate in the pursuit of fast, easy Jiffy Lube justice. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), however, finds himself unwilling and unable to unload a “guilty” verdict because he’s got a pair of Yankees tickets in his pocket or dinner congealing on the table at home. His firm refusal to take facts at face value makes him the unwelcome voice of reason in Sidney Lumet’s taut, phenomenally acted “12 Angry Men,” a courtroom thriller that zeroes in on the ways petty grudges and prejudice cloud human judgment.

Perhaps, though, “courtroom thriller” isn’t quite the right phrase to describe “12 Angry Men,” since playwright/scriptwriter Reginald Rose sets nearly all the action outside the courtroom and inside the jury’s quarters.  This is a brilliantly strategic move, since it narrows our focus and enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere, forcing us inside a cramped room bursting with big egos, smart mouths and short tempers. These close quarters offer unusually, and often uncomfortably, intimate glimpses into the jurors’ lives — their professions, their children, even their thoughts, beliefs, hangups. Director Sidney Lumet’s close camera angles enhance the tension immeasurably, literally backing his actors (and us) into corners that offer no escape route. Lumet, it seems, understands that true human nature reveals itself best when suffocated by four walls.

Indeed, “12 Angry Men” is as much a character study as it is a legal procedural, and it’s a credit to the actors that there are no throwaway characters or forgettable ones. Their personalities emerge slowly inside the jury room, where they sit deliberating what seems to be a slam-dunk case: a disadvantaged teen (John Savoca) is accused of murdering his father. There are two witnesses, a knife wiped clean of fingerprints. The teen has an alibi he can’t back up with details, a long rap sheet and a volatile relationship with his old man. Then the 12-man jury retires to deliberate, and things get heated. Juror 8 dissents, urging his peers to question the case’s basis on circumstantial evidence. The remaining jurors, all convinced this young hood deserves the chair, include: 1 (Martin Balsam), the impatient foreman; 2 (John Fiedler), a shy bank clerk; 3 (Lee J. Cobb), a belligerent businessman with a runaway son; 4 (E.G. Marshall), a cool, impersonal stockbroker; 5 (Jack Klugman), who grew up in the same slums as the accused murderer; 6 (Edward Binns), a blue-collar man who abides his own moral code; 7 (Jack Warden), a slick, vain salesman; 9 (Joseph Sweeney), an elderly man who’s a keen observer of human behavior; confrontational bigot 10 (Ed Begley), a garage owner; 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who designs watches; and 12 (Robert Webber), a fickle ad exec. Initially united in their commitment to Jiffy Lube justice, they resist Juror 8’s arguments until his logic starts to make too much sense to ignore. Slowly, very slowly, they all — excluding 3 and 10 — begin to listen, reason out the prosecution’s points. They also begin to care about what they’re doing more than what they’re missing sitting in the jury chambers.

If this exposition makes “12 Angry Men” sound like a film that’s all talk and no action, that’s because it is. But with acting this accomplished and a script this polished, that’s hardly a criticism. Lumet’s direction is virtually perfect, both invasive and remarkably detached; his camera becomes a character itself, elevating the tension, then abating it, pushing the actors into corners, then letting them wriggle free. This approach lets us know the characters, and it coaxes, too, amazing and emotional performances from each of the 12 actors. Voskovec and Fiedler offer light comic relief, while Sweeney finds an unexpected shrewdness in elderly Juror 9. Fonda underplays Juror 8 to great effect, never overacting or aiming for melodrama. But nobody matches Cobb in terms of purely frightening intensity; as Juror 3, he holds back nothing. He lets us feel the knife twist of his disappointment — in his son, in himself. He is the voice that reminds us that life renders objectivity impossible.

Review: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Here’s the plain truth: Sidney Lumet’s grim, gripping “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t so much wear you down as break you down … hard. In frame after frame, Lumet uses his disjointed, objective direction to build the momentum, and he never hesitates or shrinks back. Neither do the actors. So the hits — emotional and physical — keep coming until the film steamrolls into a conclusion that’s profoundly unsettling. “Devil” is as draining as it is invigorating to behold.

Part of that energy has to do with the way the story (epic in scope) unfolds. The narrative is nonlinear, so the characters are introduced in jarring flashbacks and meta-flashbacks. This a multi-layered story, with plots and subplots weaving in and out, but there is a common thread: Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who believes money will rebuild his broken life. Andy convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect crime: Rob their parents’ jewelry store, pawn the merchandise and walk away with $60,000 each. It’s a win-win, since Hank is months behind on his child support and Andy’s living light years beyond his means (thanks to his money-hungry wife, played by Marisa Tomei). But Murphy’s law (or karma?) mucks up Andy’s scheme from minute one, and nothing about the robbery goes as planned. Things go very, very wrong, leaving Andy and a shell-shocked Hank with blood on their hands and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), hell-bent on finding out who planned the robbery.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin the experience of watching “Devil.” There are grueling twists and surprises aplenty. In fact, the film feels much like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together wrong, with sharp edges jutting out and pieces shoved into nooks where they don’t really fit. But that’s why “Devil” is so absorbing — the pieces are all there; it’s up to viewers to put them in order. In Lumet’s mind, it seems, the viewers are the detectives. He makes us work for it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for injecting even more energy into “Devil.” The supporting cast is large, but the players make their performances singularly unforgettable. Finney is quietly effective as Charles, a man reeling from the fallout of a crime he can’t fathom. But his is not a one-note performance, for Charles isn’t an ideal father, and Finney isn’t afraid to let the cracks show. Hawke, too, plays it subtle; it might be the best work he’s ever done. Known for playing fake-charming womanizers, he shrinks himself to portray Hank, an emotional cripple whose coddled upbringing didn’t prep him to deal with reality. He cowers when things go wrong. Tomei, who just keeps getting better, is impressive as Gina. Essentially, Gina’s a trophy wife; she spends more time romancing Andy’s platinum card than Andy. But watch what Tomei does with her eyes, particularly in the scene where Andy breaks down. There are hints of depth there. Gina may be one of the film’s few female characters, but Tomei makes her more than just a party favor.

As for Hoffman, this may be his best performance — and he won an Oscar for “Capote.” In “Devil,” Hoffman gets another meaty role, and he does not disappoint. On one level, he exceeds at demonstrating Andy’s many flaws. Here is a man who craves money and success, a preternaturally calm control freak who refuses to admit he’s sinking too fast to pull himself up. He steals and lies, then wonders why the parts of his life “don’t add up.” But leave it to Hoffman to find beauty where there is none. When Andy finally lets loose, Hoffman rips into the pain like a man possessed. He shows that Andy is an insecure man who has numbed his feelings to the point where he believed they no longer existed. It’s the exhausting, awe-inspiring lit fuse that fires Lumet’s exquisitely crafted and tumultuous Greek tragedy character study.  

Grade: A+