A biography that strives for realism and not airbrushed, non-fiction escapism, Serpico tells the fascinating story of New York police officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), a man of unquestionable morals who will not let his sense of right and wrong be compromised, despite being the subject of ridicule and threats within a police force which only wants to save face and not pursue justice.
The movie begins with Serpico rushed to hospital after being shot in the face by a suspected police officer. It then flashes back to his graduation day from the Police Academy. A cop in touch with what is happening on the street, Serpico comes into his own adopting a cool cat/hippie look and setting up a residence in Greenwich Village.
His ability to blend in with the criminal element leads to a career as a plain clothes cop, but also leads to him being despised by the blue collar officers who view him as queer. Unhappy with the treatment he is receiving, he asks for and granted a transfer to another precinct where he receives his first of many attempted payoffs which he refuses but his fellow officers gladly accept.
Seen as a threat for not taking money, Serpico is isolated and threatened on a daily basis, the corruption and stress of his work life crossing over to his personal life. After he is urged to report his findings to agencies outside of the Police Department, the District Attorney gets wind of Serpico’s allegations and sets up a grand jury hearing with a defiant Serpico as his star witness. Afterwards he becomes a marked man within the Police Department and is alienated by the Police Commissioner and the Mayor who want nothing to do with him.
Frank Serpico is one of cinemas best remembered and most revered hero’s, played well by Al Pacino with the type of naturalism, emotional depth and charisma that only a movie god like Pacino could muster. He is in a class of his own in terms of transformation on screen. His performance in The Godfather has been critically applauded for such a feat, and Serpico is no different as the viewer bears witness to Pacino change through the years from a fresh faced rookie cop to a grizzled outcast.
The range in his acting is incredible. Two key scenes point this out; the first is the Hell’s Gate bridge confrontation between Serpico and Police Captain McClain (Biff McGuire), where Pacino unleashes his now trademark intensity. The second scene is Serpico’s moving breakdown while he is recovering from his gunshot wound in hospital. Both scenes are delivered with the upmost sincerity and heart breaking humanity. The Godfather gave Pacino his big break, but Serpico made him a star.
Outside of Martin Scorsese, no one capture’s New York City quite like Sidney Lumet. From the closed in walls of the films various police precincts to the bohemian streets of Greenwich Village, Lumet and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz capture the city and use it to their advantage, transforming it into a living, breathing thing and - outside of Serpico – it is the movies most important character.
Yet perhaps the most memorable image is the films final shot of Serpico sitting alone with only his sheep dog by his side. It is a moving and telling image which sums up the man perfectly; alone in a world without a friend in sight, and only his will to fight the good fight to keep him going.
Serpico is a marvellous, engrossing movie. And yet the most amazing thing about it is how little it is mentioned whenever the conversation of the greatest films of the 1970’s, no, of all time are discussed. An essential viewing experience for Pacino’s performance alone.