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One of Sidney Lumet's very best movies in an exemplary career, Serpico is a highly entertaining movie about grim police corruption in New York. It's a true story that shows how a highly-insulated institution resists reform, even when it comes from an idealist right at the center of the problem. Following up on his smash appearance in The Godfather the previous year, Al Pacino solidified his stardom here. His great acting, along with Lumet's talent for staging convincingly naturalistic drama, make this one of the best movies ever about cops.
1973 was a key year for cops 'n crime films of all stripes, with many interesting pictures portraying police and criminal activities using the gritty semi-docu look initiated by William Friedkin's The French Connection. Finally, New York detectives and hoods started talking on the screen as they do in real life; although usually stylized for violence or thrills, the genre lasted for several years at full tilt. Serpico epitomized the new cop film while transcending it. Although taken from a true story, there's enough ambiguity at the finish to allow one to assume that the whistle-blowing Frank Serpico accomplished little more than putting a few low-level cops behind bars. While championing the honest man's crusade for decency in what seems a totally compromised police force (every new division and precinct seems to have its own kind of racket going), Serpico also has the nerve to assert that the whole NYC city government, circa 1970, colluded to sweep the truth back under the carpet.
Covering a lot of territory over a lengthy period of time, Salt and Wexler's script sketches the episodic story in nice fragmented style. We find out that 2 years have passed when Serpico mentions it in passing, and we're given clever non-expository clues like a growing puppy to let us know years are going by.
Pacino is just as good playing a green academy graduate as he is a hardened undercover street detective. From the very beginning it's clear that Frank is applying himself to his job in a serious manner not shared by all of his comrades on the force. There's a built-in tension as Serpico's peers decide he's not a good cop, based on his refusal to be predictably uncouth, or greedily irresponsible. Frank reads Don Quixote and pays attention to things like ballet, even though he's a tough street operator not afraid to arrest two felons on his own, because his precinct is too lazy to send over some backup. Serpico really is a slap at the NYPD - after recklessly shooting at Frank without warning, another policeman has the nerve to ask for credit for the arrest Frank has made, so as not to lose face.
Like all institutionalized power structures, the first order of business is to perpetuate the security of its top staff. Serpico tries his best to go through proper channels, but is told to wait and stay silent. He admits he wants to advance, and wants a place of honor as a policeman - things which are impossible in a system that would rather endorse cops having illicit relationships with organized crime, than upset the applecart.
Serpico tells the tale of Frank's personal ordeal, while painting a vivid and credible portrait of the force at all levels. For a film that one would think the NYPD would never allow to be made on the city streets, all the settings and precincts look 100% authentic, from the fingerprint and file rooms to the grungy bathrooms. The show has an enormous cast of real-looking faces, and many small parts are played by names that would later become familiar - M. Emmet Walsh, James Tolkan, F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth McMillan, Judd Hirsch, even Tony Lo Bianco in a tiny bit. Look fast and you'll also spot unbilled Jaime Sanchez (The Wild Bunch) in a towel in the police gym.
Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe play two of Serpico's girlfriends. One exits after trying to force him into a marriage, while the second, a dedicated nurse, stands by him until the pressure of his dilemma makes him too miserable to live with.
Serpico ends with a public hearing that shows some kind of housecleaning taking place, but the very same bureaucrats who stonewalled the detective are in attendance, completely untouched. We don't even know if Frank's vice unit buddies, who more or less allowed him to be shot, were ever made to account for their actions. Brave enough not to wave a phony victory flag for a conclusion (a la older socially-conscious corruption films like The Phenix City Story), we find Frank literally having to leave the country in order to go on living.
Paramount's DVD of Serpico is a huge improvement over original prints and the later, greenish television prints Savant was used to seeing. The disc includes several short documentaries, kept that way to avoid SAG payments, produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Between director Lumet and producer Bregman, the shorts cover the production and Pacino's acting very well. A photo montage is backed by Lumet's memories of Mikis Theodorakis, who composed the score soon after being released from a political prison in Greece (see Z). As if including material that didn't fit in the short subjects, another brief entry lets Bregman and Lumet talk about their favorite scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Serpico rates:
Supplements: Several docu shorts, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 15, 2002