What does it mean to “do the right thing?” Who’s to say what “the right thing” is? In Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 classic, the “right thing” has many connotations. Are Mookie’s actions correct when he incites a riot by smashing the windows of Sal’s Pizzeria? That question could garner any number of responses. In more recent memory, the big bad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos, wishes to bring balance to the universe by exterminating half the population. While he’s clearly the villain, ethical questions were raised on both sides of the fan spectrum. Is he a maniac with delusions of grandeur? Or is he some kind of godlike savior/prophet making a tough call? In the case of real-life cop/whistleblower Frank Serpico, his metaphorical soul was on the line. Lives were destroyed when he made his decision and he suffered the consequences.
Al Pacino was initially reluctant to play the divisive former police officer. In fact, a more superstitious actor may have jumped ship before they’d even begun boarding. Although his former agent Martin Bregman (whose long-lasting relationship with the Godfather actor would result in Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Sea of Love, and Carlito’s Way) was using Serpico (1973) to transition into movie producing, Pacino’s meeting with master director Sidney Lumet was odd, to say the least. Things got even more strange when he met with Frank Serpico himself. Serpico is a unique and singular individual who would often arrive at meetings and get-togethers in a wildly diverse array of outfits and even “disguises.” It’s probable that his work as an undercover cop became an extension of his own personality, or vice versa. Pacino didn’t believe he could portray this man accurately, yet something in his eyes gave him an understanding of the type of man Serpico was. The famous exchange between them followed, wherein Pacino asked the simple question: “Why didn’t you take the money?” To which Serpico replied, “If I took the money, what kind of man would I be when I listen to Beethoven?” Al Pacino is known for his intense acting style and while Serpico certainly gives him plenty of opportunities to indulge, it’s also one of the most charming and funny performances he ever gave.
The biopic is usually associated with figures of some cultural significance, particularly musicians. Perhaps if all major biographical films were made as mini-series, it could be possible to accurately track the life and times of an individual or a group. Instead, we often get a mish-mash of resultant feature films. Some take a stab at telling the entire story, but with few exceptions (like The Last Emperor), those movies can come off as greatest hits compilations (The Aviator). In other cases, a biopic may choose to revolve around one specific event or a pivotal moment in the life of its subject, wherein the main characters or supporting cast get mighty reflexive about the past (Steve Jobs). To use a corny line: Life is a journey. Serpico may be episodic in nature, but Lumet, Pacino, and Oscar-nominated writers Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust) and Norman Wexler (Joe, Saturday Night Fever) take Frank Serpico on an honest-to-goodness journey. There’s real character development and the film takes a carefully measured and patient approach to show how the fresh-faced cadet went from an idealist to a supposed rebel, praised by some and reviled by others.
“Everything conspires to crush your individuality.” Sidney Lumet, like Robert Wise, may be one of the most versatile directors who ever lived. This quote, pulled from the 2015 documentary By Sidney Lumet, is spoken while footage from The Hill and 12 Angry Men plays. The doc immediately hard cuts to a scene, described by the real Serpico as a “Bronx courthouse,” where Frank (Pacino) approaches, in broad daylight, a large group (who come off as a gang) of cops to address a betrayal by one of their fellow officers. Serpico’s partner absconded with the bribe money they’d all been receiving, but this isn’t even the main problem. These guys can’t seem to understand why Frank won’t take any kickbacks. From a viewer’s perspective, it’s mind-blowing that these men can’t see the hypocrisy of being an officer of the law who’s constantly engaging in illegal activity.
To an outsider, Serpico would be seen as an “honest cop” who won’t compromise his integrity to get by in life. To the NYPD, he’s a scumbag who won’t get with the program. A rebel. Lumet’s astonishing career includes everything from The Verdict to The Wiz and The Pawnbroker to Equus, yet his fascination with the rebellious nature of the human spirit remained consistent throughout his work. In films like Network, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, and later Find Me Guilty, he’d follow various individuals who dared to step out of their societal norms and shake things up.
Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen tend to be classified as the premier New York-based filmmakers, but the very credible argument could be made that Sidney Lumet’s vision of The Big Apple is just as important, even vital. Lumet’s visual talent doesn’t get nearly enough credit, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s due to his reputation as one of the finest directors of actors in history. A former actor himself, his love of both theatre and the acting craft spurred him on to take a unique approach that pretty much every actor who ever worked with him appreciated. The film would be rehearsed as a play, with time set aside to work on both character and blocking. This also explains why Lumet was often able to come in under-budget and on-time thanks to his commitment to preparation. While Serpico does feature two fine performances by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe (the great Venom - 1981, and who would later marry Martin Bregman), this is definitely a man’s world. And what a cast Lumet and casting director Shirley Rich (Three Days of the Condor) surrounded Pacino with.
Thanks to Serpico’s constant transfers and various interactions with both cops and elected officials, a veritable who’s who of great character actors show up; some very briefly and others to play larger, more important roles. There’s Woody Allen favorite Tony Roberts, playing one of the few men Serpico can actually trust, Bob Blair. Their scenes are among the best in film, both for their humor and the relief one gets from seeing someone not giving Serpico shit for being a forthright man. The heads of the precinct, very much like Mr. Mackey would do on South Park to more disastrous results, passes around a tray of joints so officers will be familiar with the taste and smell of the demon weed. Blair comments: “This is real good shit.” He’s a real mover-and-shaker in the mayor’s office and “knows people,” including Inspector Kellogg (John McQuade), who tells Serpico, over an extravagant lobster lunch, to forget it, lest he ends up “face-down in the East River.” Another “contact” is a mayor’s aide, Jerry Berman, played by Tony-nominee Lewis J. Stadlen (The Verdict, and a production of The Producers which I attended). In a fun visual gag, the excited and positive Berman wears a bright pink shirt as he promises Serpico everything will work out, only to be seen later in a dour grey suit while he explains the difficulties of making formal charges against the police force, what with summer coming up. Perhaps in the fall?
The movie opens perfectly, with spare credits hard cutting to a severely wounded Serpico, barely conscious and bleeding from a gunshot wound to his face. Serpico is essentially a flashback film, although thanks to a lack of narration or clear timeline, it always feels present and alert. The only way to gauge any passage of time is by looking at Serpico’s increasing scruffiness and the size of his sheepdog, Alfie. The first man to visit him in the hospital is Police Chief Sidney Green, played by Tony-winner John Randolph (Broadway Bound, Prizzi’s Honor). When Frank speaks of his isolation within the department, Green hilariously responds with, “I've been putting cops away for thirty years. My name's an obscenity to every shithouse wall in every precinct in the city.”
Another authority figure who Serpico severely stresses out is Captain Inspector McClain (Tony nominee Biff McGuire, The Thomas Crown Affair), who does Serpico a favor by transferring him due to a little misunderstanding between Frank and James Tolkan (Back to the Future), here to play, what else? An asshole. He thinks Frank was blowing another officer in the bathroom because the lights were turned out, even though the only reason for the darkness was because the officer in question didn’t want to be caught spying on naked women. McClain makes broken promises and voices one of the more famous lines: “We wash our own laundry around here!” He storms off, prompting an apoplectic Serpico to shout: “It’s my life, you fuck!!”
Only one other authority figure truly seems to understand Serpico and his attitude toward policing. Frank is transferred to a new precinct, where he’s accosted by a knife-wielding co-worker within about 10 seconds, but manages to defend himself with a little kung fu (the real Serpico was a black belt) and a newly-acquired personal handgun. Inspector Lombardo (Edward Grover, Death Wish) is a decent family man who risks his livelihood to do right by Serpico. When no one in the precinct will partner-up with Frank, Lombardo volunteers. In another standout scene, the two raid a building and the little weasel (Tom Signorelli, Thief, Dick Tracy) in charge shouts that he “just paid the borough this morning.” It turns out the corruption is deep. Very deep. In order to keep things hush-hush, retired policemen are making the pickups so as not to arouse suspicion. Lombardo corroborates Serpico and Bob’s story to The New York Times, but the NYPD vehemently denies any wrongdoings and issues denial after denial.
The most fun roles belong to the cornucopia of corrupt cops on the take. A standout is Tom (Jack Kehoe, The Sting, Midnight Run), the unofficial ringleader of the cabal of crooked cops. He likes Frank and tries to keep things civil, but Serpico rubs everyone the wrong way, whether he means to or not. One of his rotating-door partners is Rubello (Norman Ornellas), a wacko who chases one of his marks in reverse, nearly crashing into anyone or anything in his path. He’s so dirty that he keeps a second apartment for “extracurricular activities.” He’s one of the many fellas who make it clear to Serpico that not taking the money is just as bad, if not worse, than accepting the kickback. Frank doesn’t exactly make things easy for himself, showing up looking like a junkie and/or a tramp and carrying around a white mouse, whom he sarcastically claims can “sniff out heroin.”
Various familiar faces show up as Frank tries to navigate this insular and frustrating universe. Nathan George (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Short Eyes) playfully frisks Serpico before slamming him into his locker. Alan North (Police Squad!, See No Evil, Hear No Evil) moseys in to let him know how things work at one of the many precincts he serves. Classic villain actor Kenneth McMillan (Ragtime, Cat’s Eye, Dune) is a diner owner who gives Serpico a fatty roast beef sandwich for not playing the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” game. M. Emmett Walsh plays a cold-hearted bureaucrat. Allan Rich, one of the finest character actors ever (Amistad, The Entity), appears as a District Attorney who promises Serpico a gold detective shield, which he dramatically receives after his shooting. In reality, Serpico was handed his shield over-the-counter, “like buying a pack of cigarettes” he said. Judd Hirsch and Tony LoBianco appear as cops at the hospital. The list goes on...
Hank Garrett (Car 54, Where Are You?) does your standard police abuse scene by beating a rapist with a phone book. The rapist is played by Damien Leake (Sea of Love, Highlander) and his presence leads to a few fine scenes. While it’s very stereotypical, Frank and his partner bust up three black men raping a woman. A chase follows, with the three scattering and Serpico taking a giant leap over a fence to pounce on Leake.
Later, after his beating, Serpico treats him to a cup of coffee in order to ascertain the identities of the two other rapists. A YMCA instructor points them out and due to the ridiculous fact that the detective working the case has a day off, Serpico either has to let the perps go or arrest two men single-handedly. He does it, but the cops (one of which is played by Frank Gio - Arty Clay in King of New York) assigned to the case steal the collar from under him. And, of course, future Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham has a small but vital role as a shifty-eyed narcotics officer who may or may not have let Serpico get a bullet to the face during an especially tense scene where Frank gets stuck inside the doorway of a drug dealer’s apartment.
Still, this is a showcase for Pacino and he nails it in an Oscar-nominated performance. He’d work with Sidney Lumet again in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and while that film is probably the more famous and successful of the two collaborations, Serpico may be the most complex role he played for the director. He finds just the right balance between being self-righteous and uncompromising. In the wrong hands, the part could either have been whiny or he could’ve come off as “goody two-shoes.” When he’s invited to beat one of the rapists, he claims it’s “not my kind of fun.” He’s frequently hilarious, taking the piss out of people by pretending to be a ballet dancer and charming his girlfriend when he claims his gun is for taming lions at the circus. Even when hippy-dippy artsy types shy away from him at a party after finding out he’s a cop, he ends up endearing himself to them anyways. Also, he likes dogs, which is fine by me.
A frequently-played scene takes place when he’s fully immersed himself in his undercover guise and a couple of cops nearly shoot him, mistaking Frank for a street thug. He screams at the top of his lungs that he’s a police officer and has an impressive freak-out as he desperately yanks out his badge to stop the beat cops from shooting him. His anger at them is very satisfying. “You stupid fuck! I’m not gonna buy it from you!” Sadly, this scene remains relevant as the issue of police “shooting first and asking questions later” still persists to this day. When he drags in a mobbed-up bag man to be booked, the other cops call him “good people.” Pacino brings an edge and a roughness to his character that makes him almost dangerous. He tears the man’s clothes apart and throws him into a holding cell, after which he destroys a couple of chairs. Frank figures out that the man did fifteen years for killing a cop and the other men in the precinct can’t even look up. Frank’s outrage at being dubbed “untrustworthy” due to his non-compliance with bribe-taking is hilariously ironic. “I feel like a criminal because I don’t take money.” What the film gets right is including scenes where Frank occasionally resigns himself to the way it is, as well as moments where we hear the cop's side of it, indicating how little they’re being paid for putting their lives in danger. These aspects are especially important since films depicting good men in bad situations often eschew depictions of the hero having to compromise his/her principles in order to simply make it from one day to another.
The brilliant editor Dede Allen had to meet a tight deadline to get the film finished, with the entire production taking a mere four-and-a-half months from pre-production to completion. Although it’s expertly edited, one can see why the film didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination despite the presence of a big-name star and director. Lumet felt a deep obligation to get Serpico’s story right and in doing so, possibly sacrificed the big screen thrills that tended to push films of the time over-the-top in terms of award season success. As always, 1970’s New York is captured in all its grimy glory, this time by Arthur J Ornitz (Requiem for a Heavyweight, An Unmarried Woman). The music by Mikis Theodorakis has a melancholic quality at times which gives the film a level of sadness within Serpico’s plight. Fortunately, executive producer Dino DeLaurentiis was still making quality films, or a giant orca and/or ape might have tried to eat Frank.
Sidney Lumet stepped into the project at extremely late notice due to John G. Avildsen’s abrupt exit, but you’d never know it from his handling of the material. As another entry in Lumet’s rogue's gallery of rebels, Serpico is a real winner.