Saturday, January 28, 2017
(December 1973, U.S.)
Sometime between September 1976 and February 1977, I can recall watching a piece of a television crime drama called SERPICO. I was just a nine year-old kid, so this type of show did little for me (CHARLIE'S ANGELS the true exception!). Of course, I had no idea the show was based on a successful 1973 film and the book by Peter Maas that preceded that. I had much to learn. I knew nothing of the film's outstanding talent of Al Pacino, nor it's exceptional director Sidney Lumet. Hell, I knew nothing of its basis of truth and fact of the real Frank Serpico, the New York City polic officer who gained attention for blowing the whistle on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s (his actions prompting then NYC Mayor John Lindsay to establish the Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD. Serpico's fame really came after the film's success, however. I didn't actually see SERPICO until I was in college, and by then, I had long established myself as a serious admirer of Al Pacino's craft and Sidney Lumet's feel for the streets of New York City (think also DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY).
The film begins by introducing us to Frank Serpico as a simple uniformed patrolman, just having recently graduated from the police academy. Inexperienced and very "wet behind the ears", Frank has much to learn about the streets and the unspoken understandings and grafts between cops and those that pay them off, even with just free lunches. As a witness to acts of corruption that include violence and payoffs, Frank simply tries to live with these incidents without becoming directly involved. In the world of these cops, however, one who won't accept money is not to be trusted. Lack of trust turns to threats and harassment by his peers. When the pressure becomes too much to deal with, and repeated transfers don't work, Frank inevitably decides to expose what he's seen. But even that decision proves futile at first because it would seem the "higher-ups" don't want to hear about it or are simply too lazy to do anything about it. One good cop's dedication to law and justice can ultimately prove near fatal when Frank is shot in the face because his fellow officers simply would not come to his aid when he needed it in the face of a criminal's gun pointed at him. Frank is safe nowhere, not even in his hospital bed with two cops standing outside his room. After finally testifying before the Knapp Commission, Frank receives an NYC Police Department Medal of Honor for his bravery, but is forced to resign from the force and relocate his life (and his huge sheep dog) to Switzerland (the man himself is today an Italian citizen).
As with many other films, Al Pacino playing a cop rings true and hits home (keeping in mind that SERPICO is his first time in such a role). Pacino has always possessed a street smart and street wit (complete with the traditional Pacino yelling) about him that allows us to not only enter his world of crime and danger, but also the personal hell such a man experiences in his private life with women, children, etc. As Frank Serpico, Pacino knows how to effectively embody the rough side of police corruption and the consequences of being an outsider to it. But more than that, he can truly exploit himself as a man scared of what may be around the corner of his life in a world seemingly filled with too few honest cops. Frank knows, as do we, that it's not paranoia at work here. The dangers are real, as are the men who bring it into his life. Because at a time of urban life in New York City when crime was at its worst, there's a sense of dread in knowing that the cops were just as bad, and even a man like Frank Serpico could likely do little to truly bring it all to a positive resolution. In fact, there's a black and white image from the film that seems to perfectly spell it all out for me...
And yet, even with all of this fear and uncertainty around him, Pacino knows how to play Serpico as a man of playful silliness when the time is right. Kind of makes you wonder if the real Frank Serpico acted like such an occasional fruitcake, complete with ballet lessons and a small white mouse, at times.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Frank Serpico: "You stupid fuck! You didn't know me? You fired without a warning, without a fucking brain in your head? Oh, shit! If I buy one, motherfucker, I ain't buying it from you!"