“Many of his fellow officers considered him the most dangerous man alive – An honest cop.”
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe
Synopsis: The true story about an honest New York cop who blew the whistle on rampant corruption in the force only to have his comrades turn against him.
Only recently established as a major star following his turn as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1971), Al Pacino cemented his position with an altogether different role as the real-life cop Serpico, the man who exposed widespread corruption in the New York Police Department in the early 1970s. It was something of a showpiece role for Pacino, an opportunity for him to show more of his range than the buttoned-down personality of Michael Corleone permitted, and he grasped it with both hands, delivering an intense and forceful performance that would earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and win him a Golden Globe.
The movie opens with the piercing shrill of a police siren and a shot of Serpico lying, shocked, in the back of a police car, his face bloody from a gunshot wound. His face is gaunt behind a full beard and his hair is long and unkempt, a fitting contrast to the fresh-faced police academy graduate we later see, and the news of his shooting is met with a variety of emotions by his colleagues, ranging from sincere concern to grim-faced satisfaction. Serpico is an unconventional cop, mistrusted by his colleagues from his earliest days on the force due to his scruffy appearance and mildly eccentric ways (a brief interest in ballet when he begins a relationship with a ballerina is met with predictable disdain by workmates), but it is his involvement in exposing the corruption that thrives in the police force that isolates him from all but a handful of equally honest colleagues.
Witnessing evidence of corruption at all levels – from the free meals doled out to the uniformed patrolman in return for a blind eye turned to double parking, to police bagmen collecting hundreds of dollars from both legal and illicit businesses – Serpico initially does nothing, allowing his partner to ‘keep’ his share of the illicit takings for him, but it’s not long before his conscience compels him to take action. It’s a decision that takes a heavy toll on his personal life, destroying his relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend (Barbara Eda-Young), and almost costing him his life.
It would have been easy for screenwriter Waldo Salt to portray Serpico as some kind of knight in shining armour, an incorruptible force for good, unwavering in his determination to rid New York of the evils of police corruption. But, working from the book by Peter Maas, he creates a more complex character, a seething mass of nervous energy with, as one character notes, ’a tendency for self-pity.’ When things get torrid, Serpico treats his girlfriend like dirt and turns on his only friend (Tony Roberts), a cop with connections that lead only to increasingly frustrating dead ends. In fact, Serpico comes across as something of a jerk for much of the time but, in his more relaxed moments and his affinity with animals (dogs, mice, birds) the audience sees his true character, untarnished by the incredible pressure under which he was forced to work. This candid portrayal gives the film a depth that raises it above the status of a straightforward cop thriller.
Serpico’s victory was something of a pyrrhic one. He left the force shortly after testifying, and moved to Switzerland before finally returning to the States in the early 1980s. The final shot reflects the hollowness of his victory. Sitting on the street in front of a docked ship on the street, gazing uncertainly off-screen, and accompanied only by his shaggy St. Bernard. His efforts only temporarily stemmed the tide of corruption in the NYPD, and the downbeat ending leaves you wondering whether the results were really adequate reward for the heavy price he paid.
(Reviewed 11th June 2012)