Serpico (1973) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
|If you're at all interested in the history of movies, you already know what Serpico is, the first of the famous biographical whistle-blower movies. Filmed in between the two Godfather movies, it established Pacino's versatility. He not only played an eccentric cop, but the character happened to be an undercover cop, requiring Pacino to play a quirky man who disguised himself as other non-conformists and atypical citizens, including a conservative Rabbi!|
|Serpico is based on the true story of New York police officer Frank Serpico, as detailed in a best seller written by Peter Maas. Serpico had been a good kid from the New York streets who dreamed of being an honest cop. His dream turned into a nightmare when he found corruption through every bureau of every precinct of NYPD - bribes, kickbacks, comps, shake-downs, stolen evidence - all without any attempt to hide it from the rookies, as if it were understood as the privilege of position.||
|The film details Serpico's path through the
ranks from cadet, to uniformed cop, to undercover work. He reported the
problems he saw through all levels of the police chain of command, and
then through the city chain of command, all to no avail for a decade.
Failing to find any satisfaction at any level of municipal government, Frank Serpico took his story to The New York Times. When that paper broke Serpico's revelations of police misconduct, it forced then-mayor John Lindsay to create an independent oversight committee, the Knapp Commission, to investigate police corruption in the NYPD. On June 18th, 1971, Serpico testified against a former partner. Death threats ensued. It all came to a denouement when he was shot in the face at point blank range while making a drug bust in Brooklyn. His colleagues did not call for help.
It's a terrific movie, although we will never be able to enjoy now it as we did then. Some films don't age as well as others, not because they aren't good, but because they belong to their time, and require their original context to make their original impact.
Ignoring the ways in which the cultural and artistic climates have changed since 1973, the biggest flaw of the film is repetition. Serpico is assigned to one precinct in one department where he's ostracized for his unwillingness to play by the rules. They switch him to another department. Repeat. Another precinct. Repeat. Downtown. Repeat. Go to the captain. Stonewalled. Commissioner. Stonewalled. Mayor. Well, you get the picture.
On the other side of the coin, one has to admire this film for having the moral courage of a Serpico himself. It would have been very easy to portray Serpico as a saint and to star Robert Redford or somebody similar in the part, but the script told it like it was. Yes, he was morally in the right, but in many ways Serpico is the least likeable person in the film. He was generally disliked for other reasons besides his incorruptibility. He was a strident, whiny individual who always made people feel that he thought he was on a higher moral and intellectual plane. He liked to work undercover so he could wear long hair and a scruffy beard all the time. He favored opera and ballet. Obviously, he never did fit in to police culture at all. To its credit, the film never backed away from Serpico's eccentricities, going so far as to show that he was not just odd, but could be downright creepy. By handling all of this with humor, the film manages to present the unvarnished reality without alienating the audience from the Serpico character.
I like so many things about the film, that the draggy, repetitive pace didn't seem that important. I enjoyed the realistic look at New York's politics, and the location photography throughout the boroughs. I got a kick out of the quirky details the script brought to Pacino's confrontational, deliberately non-conformist character, and I laughed at his silly disguises.
I also got sucked in by the struggle of a single individual against a complete system, in which it seemed he was without allies. In presenting the situation as similar to that of Kafka's Joseph K, a sole honest man living in terror in the midst of an inherently criminal bureaucracy, the film was quite successful at getting the audience to identify with and feel Serpico's sense of paranoia, or whatever word one is supposed to use for "paranoia" when it is justified.
|Brian Koller of epinions.com, summed it up as follows:
The movie had a very innovative approach to music. Contrary to the contemporary fashion, it had only 14 minutes of background score, and even that was some offbeat zither music written by the guy who did "Never on Sunday" and "Zorba the Greek". Personally, I didn't really find the Greek-sounding music very appropriate to the action, but it was generally unobtrusive and, viewed from a distance, seemed to reinforce the overall sense that we were watching the life of an impassioned, noble, but truly eccentric man.
Tuna's thoughts in yellow:
Serpico (1973) is the true story about the New York police officer who refused to accept graft. All he wanted was to be allowed to do his job fighting crime, and remain honest. Unfortunately, his stand was a threat to most of the force, who felt they couldn't trust him because he put morality above loyalty to other cops. Al Pacino, fresh off The Godfather, absolutely nailed the role. Set in the five boroughs of New York, the locations were amazing, creating the correct mood for this film.
They had four months from start of
principal photography to opening. Director Lumet likes a rapid shooting
schedule for several reasons. On his first day of shooting, he shoots lots
of easy scenes (like a character entering a doorway) one after another,
often in several locations, and, if he and the camera man agree, only do
one take. He feels the actors don't have to stretch much for these simple
scenes, it announces immediately to the crew that this is not going to be
a laid back, take lots of insurance shots experience. It also lets Lumet
find weak spots in the crew before they become a problem. This was a
culture shock for Pacino after Godfather, but he liked it because he could
stay in character from one scene to the next.
Return to the Movie House home page