Al Pacino’s integrity costs him in the undercover-cop classic Serpico
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American cinema was so good in the early ’70s that even the undercover-cop movies were artful, character-driven slices of life. In 1973’s Serpico—based on Peter Maas’ biography of real-life NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico—a between-the-Godfathers Al Pacino plays the title character as a reluctant savior in a Jesus beard, quietly insisting that police should be required to stay connected to the people they serve and protect. A big part of that requirement? Not taking payoffs from criminals. Throughout Serpico, Pacino’s sunken eyes and slouching posture occasionally give way to stiffly quivering ferocity, and the contrast between the hero’s slumping inaction and periodic frenzies create its own unique kind of charisma. (That was yet another benefit to ’70s cinema: Someone as lumpen, intense, and deeply inquisitive as Pacino could become a star.)
The actual Frank Serpico story is a gripping one, marked by internal threats from his colleagues, a suspicious on-the-job shooting, and a courageous appearance on the witness stand at a police-corruption hearing. All of that makes it into the movie, though director Sidney Lumet (working from a screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler) chooses not to press the superheroic aspect of his protagonist. Serpico is more street-level, tracing a decade of NYPD changes—and refusal to change—through an episodic, often elliptical structure. As Pacino bounces from precinct to precinct, his integrity paradoxically costs him the trust of his fellow cops. Each segment of Serpico begins with the promise of a new start for the hero, followed by a series of incidents that again establish the bitter truth of life on the force. Meanwhile, Pacino’s all-consuming disgust sabotages his off-the-job relationships too, leaving him only his martyrdom to cling to.
Availability: Serpico is available on Netflix Watch Instantly (among other streaming services), for download from various online retailers, and on DVD from Paramount.