(1973, Sidney Lumet)
“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier”
Corruption in the police isn’t a novel concept in film, and despite the 1001 Movies book asserting that it was new at the time of this film’s making, it really wasn’t (film noir was already a thing, and covered this ground several times). But the fact that this is a true story exposing real corruption, that’s something that Serpico has going for it. As a result, I was very excited to see this. Did it live up to my expectations?
Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a police officer with good morals and ideals, with the desire to help people and achieve justice through his position. After excelling in uniform, Serpico is eventually raised through the ranks to plainclothes, and then it all goes wrong from there, as it slowly becomes apparent that his colleagues aren’t as honest as he is. And so begins an attempt to expose the corruption and improve standards in the force, at the expense of his own happiness and success.
Serpico opens dramatically, with the titular cop bleeding after being shot in the face and being rushed to hospital as various people are informed about the incident and there’s a general sense of foreboding and action and shouting down phones and it’s all very exciting.
Imagine my disappointment that this is about as interesting as the film gets for much of its running time. After this, the movie flashes back to his days in uniform, and begins to steadily take us through his career. The problem is, the movie seems unsure of how to shove several years into the space of an hour, so does do by rushing through what it feels to be key points. The problem is, it’s not always clear that scenes have gaps of months and even years between them, and sometimes it struggles to stay focused on things that are important to the central plot.
The point where I realised things were rushing and playing wildly with timeframes was a scene where Serpico is informed that he’ll get to work in plainclothes, and the very next scene having a character say to him, “you’ve been with us two years now” and making me wonder what the hell just happened.
As for the extraneous things that don’t help, there is a lot of focus on Serpico’s personal life, as he goes on dates with women. From what I can tell, these scenes were supposed to flesh out his character and make us aware of how much he identified with the 1960s counterculture, which helped fuel the conflict in his life, but generally, everything felt rushed and poorly constructed, leaving the viewer feeling like these scenes were a distraction. In fact, I only found out that Frank Serpico identified with the counterculture movement through independent research for this review, and only then realised that’s what the film was going for.
When the movie remembers what it’s about and maintains a focus on his drive to expose corruption, there’s quite a bit to like here, but it’s so bogged down in external stuff that sometimes it made me wonder why I was bothering watching. It felt like there was ambition to tell a story about Serpico, but it wasn’t sure what to focus on.
It also didn’t help that often the corrupt cops were more of a faceless mass as opposed to individual characters, presented as Serpico and Those Other Guys. This made it harder to connect with Serpico’s plight. This made it harder to understand the corruption. We know the cops are on the take, we know they’re using impounded drugs, but the extent of all of this feels vague and almost imagined in Serpico’s eyes. The other cops felt like pantomime villains, not real people, and this is where I had a problem.
In addition, while Al Pacino did a generally good job of portraying the lead character, there were times when he veered far too much into silliness, especially as he got angrier, and as the movie progressed, while I recognised his goals as noble, I could no longer connect with him as a character.
Basically, all of this can be summed up by me stating that Serpico was a massive disappointment. I expected more. I wanted an exciting cop drama. I wanted a tense thriller. I did not want a lumbering, confused mess of a movie that consistently forgot what it was trying to do.
Starring Al Pacino
Written by Peter Maas (book) and Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Roger M. Rothstein & Martin Bregman
Music by Mikis Theodorakis & Giacomo Puccini
Cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz
Edited by Dede Allen, Richard Marks, Ronald Roose & Angelo Corrao
Favourite Scene: Any time the movie actually got on with what it was supposed to be doing.
Scene That Bugged Me: Al Pacino slams a chair against the floor repeatedly in a rage. This was silly and unnecessary.
Watch it if: You like rambling stories about cops
Avoid it if: You want a clear account of Frank Serpico’s life