Serpico (1973)


"What could be a more appropriate subject for a 1973 movie than the ordeal of Frank Serpico, the New York City policeman who became a pariah in the Department because he wouldn’t take bribes? Serpico, whose incorruptibility alienates him from his fellow-officers and turns him into a messianic hippie freak, is a perfect modern-movie hero."

Formed in 197In February 1971, Serpico (Al Pacino) is on his way to hospital after being hit in the face by a bullet during a drug raid in Brooklyn. “Guess who got shot?” asks one policeman of another: “Serpico.” “Think a cop did it?” the other asks. “I know six cops said they’d like to,” the first replies. In real life, as in the film, Serpico’s whistleblowing earned him the enmity of many colleagues. He was shot by the “perp” he was trying to arrest.

 The real Frank Serpico tells the story similarly to the way it is told in the film, though the film-makers replaced his modest revolver with a more dramatic-looking 9mm automatic. Serpico alleges that his fellow police officers left the scene and a local man called an ambulance for him.0, the Knapp commission discovered widespread and deep-rooted corruption in the New York police department. This followed a story given to the New York Times by two whistleblowers, sergeant David Durk and officer Frank Serpico.

The action flashes back to the beginning of Serpico’s career in the 1960s. He is a fine cop, but an outsider: he goes to Spanish literature classes and learns to dance ballet. His colleagues presume he is gay. When he is handed some cash in an envelope, he tries to report it, but is told to drop the subject. “Let’s face it, who can trust a cop who doesn’t take money?” asks one fellow cop. “I mean, you are a little weird.” He moves from precinct to precinct. Instead of fitting in, he finds more and more corruption.

Serpico tells friendly cop Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) about the corruption problems, and they try to take the story to the mayor’s office – but they’re snubbed again. Blair is a fictional character. He stands in for Serpico’s real-life friend David Durk, though he plays a smaller part in the story than Durk did. In 1971, after the story of NYPD corruption first broke, Sam Peckinpah wanted to make this movie as a two-hander, with Paul Newman as Durk and Robert Redford as Serpico. The version which made it to the screen followed Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico and wrote Durk out. Some of his contemporaries saw this as a historical injustice, and it’s certainly true that Frank Serpico is much more widely remembered than David Durk.

Al Pacino’s performance as the focused, hard-edged and yet hippie-ish Serpico is exceptional. Director Sidney Lumet’s knowledge of New York City locations was unsurpassed: the movie was filmed in four of the city’s five boroughs, leaving out only Staten Island. These days, though, the movie feels languorous and overlong – even though Waldo Salts original 240-page screenplay (one page corresponds to about a minute of screen time) was cut in half by co-screenwriter Norman Wexler. 

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