Heroes are in short supply these days. A recent article in the New York Times made me take another look at one real life hero from my own younger days. Sidney Lumet’s 1973 work, “Serpico”, based on Peter Maas’ bestselling non-fiction book of New York City detective Frank Serpico, who along with fellow officer David Durk, confronted wide spread police corruption placing their lives on the line in the face of a closed culture that best considered to leave things status quo. Maas’ book focuses on Serpico’s story reducing Durk to a supporting player, though one suspects he had to be more involved that the film lets on. In the film, Anthony Roberts portray Bob Blair supposedly Durk, under a fictional name.
Serpico is a young Italian-American who seems is alone in his position as an honest cop. Surrounded by a closed society, the blue wall, that consents to police officers getting a free lunch, literary, receiving payoffs to look the other way, and extorting money from criminal elements allowing to “do their business” without interference from the law.
An oddball within the police department, not just for his honesty and refusing to accept favors, but also in his rather bohemian lifestyle, at least bohemian for a police department filled with “straights” versus a “hippie” mentality. Serpico lives in the Village; he reads biographies of artists like Isadora Duncan. His girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) is a dancer with a seemingly waspish background. Serpico is the antithesis of your typical police officer wearing long hair and a beard in a time when the style was considered radical.
We first see Serpico graduating from the police academy with his proud immigrant parents at his side. As a rookie, Serpico just observes his fellow officers, saying nothing preserving his own code of ethics though every other cop seems to be accepting favors, even if it is just donuts from a local coffee shop. When he eventually expresses his objections to his superiors, he is placated by superiors who promise an investigation but do nothing. He soon builds a reputation as someone who cannot be “trusted” because he’s honest. He is transferred from one precinct to another. No one wants him around; the honest cop cannot be relied upon. His continuous accusations are met with false promises that there will be an investigation. His life is in danger; the threats come from his fellow officers, not from the criminal elements he faces in the streets every day.
Realizing the department will not clean up itself, Serpico and Blair leak the story to a major newspaper and the internal corruption becomes front-page news. Frank becomes a star witness in Mayor’s commission to investigate corruption within the police department. Transferred to a narcotics squad in Brooklyn, it all come to a tragic eruption when during a drug bust, two fellow officer’s stand by and watch Serpico be shot in the face. The film concludes with Serpico sitting at a pier with his dog as the final words on the screen tell us he is now living somewhere in Switzerland.
Al Pacino gives a tense but controlled performance as Serpico, an intelligent and idealistic man who refuses to accept the status quo. At this early stage in his career, Pacino gave us some of his best work in a series of films that could not be sustained for long, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “The Godfather 1& 2”, “Scarecrow” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, it was one heck of a ride. “Serpico” also gives us a rarity in American film, a heroic Italian-American instead of the usual portrayal of Italian-Americans as underworld figures or stereotyped as lower-class goomba’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx. Still the film plays down Frank’s Italian-Americanism, we do not see much of Frank’s background, his parents are shown only when he graduates from the academy and in the hospital when he is shot, other than that, Frank lifestyle is free of ethnicity. He moved out of the old neighborhood and into the more bohemian Greenwich Village, his girlfriends are non-ethnic and or artistic types.
Sidney Lumet has a feel for New York rivaled by only a few other directors (Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen are others that come to mind) and during his career Lumet has had a special affinity for looking at corruption and the relationships between good cops and bad cops within the New York City police department. He has address this subject in at least four movies, “Prince of the City”, “Night Falls on Manhattan”, “Q&A” and “Serpico” with varying degrees of success.
More than 35 years later “Serpico” remains a powerful and unsettling film. It’s not perfect, ii is marred specifically by an annoying soundtrack, and unlike, “All the President’s Men” a film made a few year later, by having to have use fictitious names for most of it real life characters. The film also gives the impression that practically the entire police department, except for two or three individuals, were corrupt, a fact that is hard to believe. That said the corruption that did exist at that time had to be wide spread enough that the true life Knapp Commission, formed by then Mayor John Lindsay did investigate police corruption and reform soon followed.