Why I Love… #54: Serpico

54Year: 1973

Director: Sidney Lumet

Stars: Al Pacino (Frank Serpico), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie Lane), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough)

Genre: Crime Drama / Biopic

There are many reasons for Sidney Lumet’s Serpico to appear in this series. So many, in fact, that it’s difficult to know where to start. Which strand to pull at first? It’s always tricky when it’s like that. From a writing perspective you want to start off strong, grab the reader, pull them in. Indecision like this is not the way to do it. But in the case of Serpico there is no one aspect to lead from. No highlight. Because, you see, it’s all highlight. Serpico is one of those films that has no bad about it.

First off, then, let’s talk about 70’s cinema a little bit. After the pristine show business and glamour of much of Hollywood’s output in the 50’s and early 60’s, the renaissance in American filmmaking that occurred in the late 60’s and early 70’s is difficult to underplay. Young upstarts were taking the rule book and throwing it in the muck, playing it fast and loose. Men like William Friedkin were bringing a grittiness and ‘street’ realism to the movies with pictures like The French Connection, whilst the likes of Bullitt and Dirty Harry had shown how a dying genre like the Western could be transplanted into the urban landscape. Life in the modern world was tough. It meant getting your hands dirty, and Hollywood had to adapt for fear of losing their edge to the B-pictures and the exploitation movies. Easy Rider‘s free-wheeling hand-made feel had been derided… but the people liked it, they wanted more of it.

Sidney Lumet, hardly a newcomer, clearly didn’t want to be left behind, and more than that, it feels, wanted to show the new kids on the block that their established counterparts weren’t ready to be shepherded into retirement just yet. So Serpico feels like one of the quintessential movies of its time. It’s a biopic, a police procedural, a whistle-blower story, but at the same time it feels stripped to the bones, dirty and up-close. The layers of Hollywood facade feel torn away here, despite the film being a classically structured true story writ large. Lumet took the hard edge of the new wave and applied it to a trusted formula. The result is one of cinema’s finest biographical dramas, and one of the great films about inner city corruption that you’ll find.

The Wire of its day, Serpico documents how idealist police officer Frank Serpico passionately pursued a detective badge, only to discover the NYPD to be a rat’s nest of bribes and back-handers. Moving to Narcotics only revealed further corruption. Afraid for his life, Serpico refused to cave, instead striving to bring justice and integrity to a department that he could no longer rely on for back-up. He is brought to the screen in one of Al Pacino’s finest performances. Pacino inhabits this character. He owns him. Phrases like ‘second skin’ feel hackneyed, but they really do apply here. Pacino was on such a hot streak barely anyone could touch him. His Frank Serpico deserves column inches as much as his Michael Corleone.

Serpico’s descent, his loss of naivety almost feels kindred to Hollywood’s at the time; burrowing into the dirt, peeling away the layers, becoming hardened, toughened by resolve. The performance is all the more respectable when you consider that Lumet shot the film in reverse order. Pacino had his beard trimmed away bit by bit until he was the clean-shaven rookie cop of the film’s beginning. Reverse-engineering a character arc like this and making it seem so easy? It’s phenomenal work, really.

Waldo Salt’s screenplay is a smart piece of work also. Wisely excising the urge to paint a ‘whole’ life as so many biopics do, Salt focuses on the portion of Serpico’s life pertinent to the curve of the story being told. We don’t need cliff notes of his childhood. But brief touches here and there (a nice scene near the top with his brother, the allusions to friends who call him Paco) speak of the man behind the badge. Likewise, when Frank buys a puppy from a girl out on the stoop, it isn’t necessary to the larger story, but it adds economic colour and warmth to the man. It’s not overplayed, but it places Frank in context. With his scruffy style and street-smarts, Serpico is set apart from his fellow officers even before his crusade takes over the picture.

Sure, we jump years and cut corners, but it all feels natural. Fluid. Lumet’s movie presses forward confidently. Building it’s initially episodic nature on the hook of it’s flashback framework – How does Frank end up shot? Why is his name so notorious? – Lumet uses this intrigue to lure us into the meat of the matter; the bribes, the intimidation, the quest for clean air. Underpinning it all is a luxurious jazz-inflected score from Mikis Theodorakis. Serpico might be anchored in a specific time and specific place (it’s one of the great New York movies), but it’s universal sensibilities mean it seems to have barely aged a day.

All too frequently it seems as though the big studios are no longer interested in this kind of filmmaking, but maybe that’s the wrong perspective. Maybe the truth is that Serpico is simply a unique creature; an auteur’s piece. I have a special fondness for the American New Wave of the 70’s. Lumet’s film is an important part of that time. It has the investigative veracity and cynical paranoia of All The President’s Men mixed up with the world-weary skepticism and urban rot of Taxi Driver or the aforementioned The French Connection, yet even when set beside these big hitters, it retains it’s own distinct voice.

I may only watch it every few years or so, but I do keep coming back. Watching Serpico is like breathing in the fresh smell of rain, hot on the air. Bittersweet, evocative and utterly distinct. It’s one of the greats, plain and simple.

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