★★★ / ★★★★
Ever since Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) was a child, he has wanted to be a cop. Fresh out of the academy, he is ready to begin his career in New York City, but he quickly discovers that what he envisions does not match the realities of being a cop. It seems that wherever he turns, cops are taking bribes from crooks. Haunted by the corruption being committed by his colleagues, he turns to his superiors (Biff McGuire, Charles White) who promise action but end up ignoring his claims. When his life is threatened by his angry co-workers, Serpico feels he has no choice but to go public.
Based on the book by Peter Mass, I was not won over by “Serpico” right away because it plays upon the hoary template of a good cop going through endless frustrations and anxieties as he tries to battle bad guys in order to set things right. I wondered at the point the picture is trying to get across. Does he strive to set things straight for the good of the common people or are the changes he wishes to see an attempt to match his adulthood realities with his childhood fantasies?
In its early stages, Sidney Lumet’s picture goes on seemingly desultory directions: some scenes are dedicated to Serpico’s experience with crooked cops and others involve Serpico meeting Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), a woman who just might be the love of his life. This bears mixed results. While the workplace and home life angles are interesting once in a while, they are almost never fascinating at the same time.
The romance did not do much for me; if it were taken out completely, the meat of the film—the conflict occurring in the workplace—would have been much leaner and more focused. A sense of immediacy and calamity within the police force would have been magnified if scenarios of the couple supporting each other and arguing were not there. It is clear that the weaker leg prevents the story from catapulting forward in a more consistent manner.
However, Pacino’s performance is so intense, he demands that we pay attention. Although the protagonist’s definition of what is right or wrong does not waver, there is an arc to the character—divorced from the kinds of facial hair he has at a particular point in time. As we have likely to have seen way too many times, movies with weaker and laughable screenplays would have relied on physical characteristics to create some semblance of an arc—shameless in trying to trick us with a sham journey.
Here, we feel the desperation in Pacino’s eyes and though his way of speaking when no one appears to be willing to listen. What matters most to just about everyone Serpico encounters is the money being accrued in one’s pocket. And when someone chooses to listen, like the well-connected Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) and Inspector Lombardo (Edward Grover), I found myself being very suspicious of them. We take on the way our lead character evaluates a situation.
The screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, which is based on a true story, takes advantage of the idea that, in real life, it is often very difficult, at times almost impossible, to discern between good guys from bad guys. A corrupt person in power might be holding a gold badge or a fancy title next to his last name, but no one can truly know what he or she will be willing to do in order to maintain the status quo or subvert it.
I realized that my suspicion toward well-meaning characters is a testament that I cared about Serpico’s mission even though some of the driving forces behind his motivations are not entirely clear. I wanted to see him get out alive and the venal individuals to get indicted for their crimes.