Director : Sidney Lumet
Screenplay : Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler (based on the book by Peter Maas)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1973
Stars : Al Pacino (Frank Serpico), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Captain Inspector McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie Lane), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), John Medici (Pasquale), Allan Rich (District Attorney Herman Tauber), Norman Ornellas (Don Rubello)
In Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, Al Pacino solidified his A-list status playing the titular character, a real-life New York City cop named Frank Serpico who, for 12 years, refused the rampant corruption that had infiltrated the police force and was eventually responsible for blowing the whistle and forcing reform through the formation of the Knapp Commission.
Based on the biography by Peter Maas, Serpico was clearly a movie-bound story from the start, focusing as it does on one lone protagonist fighting the good fight against the system. Yet, Pacino’s performance, Lumet’s gritty direction, and the fine screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Joe) ensured that it would not become a simplistic morality tale of good versus evil and honesty versus corruption. Those elements are certainly there, but it is tempered by the complexities of Serpico’s character and the ambiguous conclusion that, while reform was accomplished, it was hardly enough to right all the wrongs that had been committed. In typical early ’70s fashion, Serpico has the overhanging air of disillusionment despite the small victories.
Early in the film, we see Serpico graduating from the police academy, a fresh-faced young man full of good intentions and a sturdy, naïve belief in the righteousness of his cause. His early days on the police force are a series of small disappointments: He finds that the cops turn a blind eye to the local deli owner’s traffic infractions if he gives them a free lunch everyday, he witnesses a brutal “interrogation” of a rape suspect, and he is denied any credit for an arrest when it threatens those in a position above him. The problems within the police force only get worse from there, to the point that Serpico begins to risk his own safety by not taking part in elaborating bribes and kickbacks enjoyed by the other plain-clothes police officers with whom he works. Because he never takes money, the other officers don’t trust him, and that puts him in danger—not direct physical danger, as one cop tells him, but in the sense that a partner might “fail to help him out” when needed. The fact that the opening shot of the film is a flashforward of Serpico being driven to the hospital after having been shot in the face underscores the enormity of the threat to his safety—we know something happens at some point and it’s just a matter of when.
Because the subject of deeply rooted police corruption is much larger and more intricate than a 130-minute movie could hope to explore, Lumet and his screenwriters chose to focus on the character of Serpico, tracing his development from idealist rookie to hardened and cynical veteran. Thus, much of the film rests on Al Pacino’s shoulders (he was fresh off The Godfather), and he delivers a powerful performance of a larger-than-life character. Long-haired, fully bearded, and definitely removed from the conservatively dressed and groomed mainstream of his profession, Serpico was always an outsider, physically and ideologically. He was something of a martyr, willing to take on a great deal of abuse in order to uphold his ideals.
However, as the film clearly points out, Serpico was no saint. Given to violent outbursts and self-pity, Serpico destroyed much of his own personal life in standing up for himself professionally. This is most clearly seen in his relationship with Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), a dedicated nurse with whom he lives and on whom he dumps most of his personal anger and resentment. A strong and resilient woman, Laurie still has her limits, and the scenes between her and Serpico when things are coming to an end are painfully true to life, suggesting the heartbreak of loving someone, but at the same time knowing you can’t live with him.
It is not surprising that Serpico was very much a product of its era. Released in 1973 during an era in which crime and violence were regular headlines, it spoke to an audience steeped in social turmoil and looking for answers. Serpico is certainly the most benign of the cinematic responses to real-life crime in the late 1960s and early ’70s, considering the others were vigilantes such as Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971), Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall (1973), and Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974). Serpico, on the other hand, didn’t employ violence outside the system to solve the problems he saw, but rather tried to work from the inside out. That his experience was long, grueling, and ultimately limited in its success is testament to both the severity of the problems with the New York police department in the 1960s and the deeply rooted nature of corruption in general.
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||December 3, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic)|
Serpico is presented in a clean new anamorphic transfer that maintains the film’s rough, gritty feel. Shot almost entirely on location in New York City, the film’s color palette is intentionally muted (lots of grays and browns) and the image is somewhat soft with noticeable grain in the image. This is all part of the film’s look, and the transfer on this disc represents it very well.
| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
This disc features both a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack and a restored monaural soundtrack. The 5.1 surround track does not expand significantly on the mono track, as there is very little music in the film and most of the dialogue and sound effects are rendered on the center soundstage. There are a few brief moments of subtle surround activity, but it is limited and not particularly noticeable (which is probably good, since some of the worst 5.1 soundtracks are monaural remixes that force the surround effects too much). Both soundtracks are clean and clear, maintaining good fidelity with no ambient hiss or distortion.
| Serpico: Real to Reel|
Running less than 10 minutes in length, this is not a particularly illuminating featurette. The title would seem to suggest a comparison of Frank Serpico’s real-life story to how it was ultimately portrayed on film, but it is actually little more than a production retrospective, including new video interviews with producer Martin Bregman and director Sidney Lumet. Presented in 1.33:1.
Photo gallery with commentary by director Sidney Lumet
Original theatrical trailer
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick