For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – New York Films of the 70’s., here’s a review of Serpico (1973) by James of Blogging By Cinema Light
Thanks again to Paul of Silver Screen Classics for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Howard Casner of Ranting and Ravings and we will be reviewing our favorite French Film Noir.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Jul by sending them to email@example.com
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Howard!
Let’s see what James thought of this movie:
“A policeman’s first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves … The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.”
Based on Peter Maas’ best-seller (“Serpico: The Cop Who Defied The System” published 1973) about the Knapp Commission (1970-1972) and its star-witness, Frank Serpico, whose whistle-blowing on wide-spread systemic (there’s that word) corruption in the New York City Police Department (and his subsequent suffering of acts of reprisal within his department), led to the formation of the commission by the city government. Serpico testified to the common practice of bribes given to officers and shake-downs for protection which were so pervasive and so accepted that any one—like Serpico—who did not take money were considered untrustworthy among the rank and file, a culture that was so topsy-turvy as to be Orwellian.
But, Serpico lived it on a day-to-day basis, and despite threats and intimidation, lived to tell the tale.
Events happened so fast that a film utilizing Maas’ material was turned around very quickly for a December, 1973 release only a year after the commission had wrapped up its duties and made its recommendations. Director Sidney Lumet (a quick replacement for John G. Avildsen, who was originally attached) made short work making the film—4 1/2 months for shooting and post-production—utilizing locations in all five burroughs of New York City. It also had the benefit of new star Al Pacino, fresh off his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, providing a two film range where he could play both the extremes of both heroes and villains.
The film starts towards the end of events in 1971, with a thrumming drumbeat of windshield wipers as Detective Frank Serpico (Pacino) is being driven by car to the hospital after being shot in the face on a drug-bust. Police guards are stationed at his hospital room and he’s visited by Chief Sidney Green (John Randolph)—who has been working with Serpico on internal investigations and who suspects he’s been shot by one of his partners in the narcotics division.
It’s 1960 and Frank Serpico, the son of Italian immigrants, has made them proud graduating from the police academy, fulfilling a life-long dream of being one of the guys in blue who “know what’s going on.” But, he starts to become dissatisfied with how his fellow officers do their jobs and before long, he gets a plain clothes job with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. But, working the street in suits and ties seems a bit stupid to him, so he begins to grow his hair out, and dress in more funky clothes. The other cops think he’s crazy…or gay…but he gets results, even though one of his fellow officers might take a shot at him for not recognizing he’s a cop.
He draws the attention of Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), a detective with the Mayor’s Office of Investigations and the two make an unlikely friendship: Serpico knows the streets and Blair knows the politics and when the detective is given his share of split bribe money, he turns it back to his sergeant and informs Blair, who wants to do an official look into it, but Serpico won’t testify lest he become a target for fellow officers, so the two quietly drop it, but Serpico begins recording his phone calls and gets transferred to another division, one described as “clean as a hound’s tooth”.
It’s the first of many transfers, each more frustrating than the next because they all are taking bribes, pay-offs or letting well-connected criminals skate as long as they get their take. He’s told with some intimidation by his colleagues, that you can’t trust a cop who doesn’t take bribes, so he confides in the well-meaning Captain Inspector McClain (Biff McGuire), who tells him he’ll take his complaints to the commissioner if he’ll just be patient and continue gathering evidence on the inside. But, after a year and a half of “gathering evidence” nothing is done, while Serpico becomes increasingly afraid for his life. Blair is stymied by politics when he tries to take it to the office of the Mayor.
The two become convinced that the only way to solve the problem is to take what they know out of the PD, especially when they learn that, despite assurances, the matter has been deliberately buried in the department and never gone any higher. Even when the matter is taken up, finally, by a grand jury and Serpico exposes himself to danger and retribution by testifying, that the matter is limited to street cops and not the higher authorities who are tolerating it. Finally, with the the assistance of Chief Green and Blair, a reluctant Serpico takes his story to the New York Times, and he is re-assigned to a dangerous Brooklyn narcotics division. It is at that time that he is shot and hospitalized.
These days…these times…with extra attention on the way policing is done post-911 and their militarization in anticipating terrorist attacks in the worst case and calls for defunding the police and diverting funds to social services, the plight of Serpico paints a nightmare scenario. Today’s talk of the “one bad apple” coloring the whole of a police barrel is turned on its stem in his story where he is “the one good apple” under constant pressure to be rotten and “doing the right thing” is the exception rather than the systemic norm. One wants to think the best, but the reality is often a different story.
A lot of it has to do with culture. Most work environments I’ve seen and worked in lately seem to be more adversarial than service, although it is never talked about openly “on the floor.” Co-workers will gripe and kvetch about customers and their idiosyncracies (if not downright cravenness) in an environment where the myth of best practices is that the customer is always right. Peer pressure and tribe mentality exacerbates the tendency to create an “us against them” environment. In a job where one is armed and in “warrior-mode” that pressure might be one’s last line of defense in a dangerous situation and risking it by “rocking the boat” might not be in one’s best interest. One wonders if George Floyd would be alive if the three rookie cops who observed his arrest had spoken up, even if it was questioning the methods of a more veteran officer. Conscience may make cowards of us all, but it certainly doesn’t make us conscientious. Not when we’re constantly watching our backs.
Despite its production rush, Serpico is one of those paranoid thrillers that’s only enhanced by the nervous energy Lumet throws at it, and its a tour de force for Pacino, who appears in nearly every scene and shows how he can carry an entire film on his back with an on-point performance that veers from soulful to manic and is often a pain in the ass without losing an audience’s attention or patience.
“In these challenging times,” it is a film that resonates even more than the time it was made.
Lumet would make an unofficial “police corruption trilogy” with this film, 1981’s Prince of the City and 1990’s Q & A.