Before you see any images onscreen in Serpico (1973), you hear the urgent wail of a police siren. In case you didn’t already know, this lets you know that this is a film all about the police. Good cops (well one, possibly two) and bad cops (numerous).
The film opens with Pacino’s titular whistleblower cop being rushed to the hospital with a nasty gunshot wound to the face. The audience soon learns that Frank Serpico had very few friends on the force, casting suspicion on a fellow policeman being the perpetrator of the shooting. From this point, the film goes back and paints a picture of what led to Serpico’s shooting. One of the real achievements from director Sydney Lumet is that he is able to successfully portray the institutionalised corruption of the NYPD. Things start out small, free lunches and other tiny perks in return for the fuzz looking the other way. But increasingly, as Serpico spends more time on the force, the corruption seeps deeper and deeper. Pacino’s stand-up cop refuses to be a part of it, ironically drawing suspicion from his colleagues because he is too honest to take money on the side. Most of the film sees Serpico attempting to get the powers that be to act on the rampant corruption that is plaguing the force.
Serpico is shot with a gritty realism which enhances its impact. Early on Pacino’s young cop is an idealistic, clean cut rookie. He is immediately an outsider with his colleagues. In a workplace where everyone must conform, hence the uniform, Serpico stands out with his ever-growing beard and increasingly ‘hippyish’ interests. I mean he reads books – what a weirdo. This is a masculine world, and only what the folk of the NYPD consider ‘manly’ will be accepted. It is when shot with this realistic, at times confronting style (an early rape is especially stark in its rendering) that Serpico works best. A couple of regressions into sappy montage, a particularly bad one establishes his idealism with a longing gaze at the framed photo of the ‘Patrolman of the Month’, are not nearly as appreciated. The character of Serpico is an interesting one, he is not just a good cop trying to get the force back on track. His interest in philosophy and ballet are counteracted by a nasty temper, often directed harshly at the women in his life. These women, despite deserving better, always become secondary to Frank’s endless pursuit of bringing to light the corruption of the force. As such, Serpico pushes them, and his only true friend, away from him.
Despite being a relatively simple story (the story not really being the point), Serpico is a morally dense film, exploring amongst other things the nature of crime & punishment; and the relationship between the two. If you consider what is occurring onscreen, you can take a lot away from this film. It will make you reconsider the nature of the police force and the role that they have, and should have in a society. It will also cause you to ponder who should police the police (probably not “the coastguard” as Homer Simpson once suggested). As well as being all of these things, Serpico is also the tale of a man’s failed ambition. Serpico is a man who wants nothing more than to be a good, honest, successful policeman. The son of a shoe repairer, he has raised himself up to this honourable position and he yearns to raise himself to the level of detective. But all that occurs is that these ambitions are shot down by treachery and corruption, things that Serpico has no interest in.
Featuring a really good performance from Pacino, sans his patented histrionics, Serpico is a cop film well worth catching up with. It is a film that is to be both enjoyed, and thought about, including long after the final credits roll.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny