What happens to a good cop in a rotten system? Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) found out the hard way. Serpico is a classic 1970s film dealing with police corruption and it’s based on a true story. Beyond his hippy looks and rogue street tactics, Frank Serpico represents justice. He epitomises a brave and law-abiding person, standing up to a broken system. But here’s the interesting thing:
For others in popular culture, the name Serpico represents a “rat”, a man who turned on his fellow officers. Ethical dilemmas in criminal justice are explored in great detail in this iconic crime movie. Yes, it’s quite dated, but it’s important to look back at old stuff. There’s a lot of culture and wealth in old films. You can actually learn a great deal, so there’s no reason to devalue the classics in favour of modern movies. But anyway, back to Serpico…
How the movie unfolds is pretty straightforward. We see Serpico grow from a rookie to a skilled undercover cop. At the beginning, he’s determined to be everything a good police officer is meant to be. There’s a youthful innocence about the way he goes about his business in the early scenes. It’s only when he gets promoted to ‘plain clothes’ status, that he discovers things aren’t as black and white as they seem.
He realises there’s widespread corruption in the police force and refuses to accept it. Most cops are happy to dabble in schemes and bribes, but Serpico seeks to break the wall of silence. In his crusade against the NYPD, he makes himself very unpopular with the rest of the police officers. Threats are made and fights break out – Serpico finds himself in constant danger.
Serpico is an anti-conformist film as we’re given a misfit character who challenges the norm. Al Pacino is terrific as the bearded, hippie cop, who plays by his own rules. He combines strength and courage with the despair of someone up against the biggest villain of all: the establishment. This is an Al Pacino movie all the way through, as there’s not much of a supporting cast. Secondary characters, like Cheif Sidney Green (John Randolph) and Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), operate in the background.
If anything, the setting is more prominent than the likes of any supporting character. The streets of NYC look grimy and miserable, and there are no attractive features or flashy skyscrapers in view. Instead, run-down neighbourhoods and side streets make up the setting. It brings a rawness to the film while making Serpico’s situation feel more hopeless.
What’s most memorable is Serpico’s transformation from a principled man, to a troubled rebuke. He becomes a semi-vigilante, unable to keep a firm hold on his personal life. He withdraws into himself, appalled at the thought of not being able to change anything. The film gives Pacino’s character extra richness by flirting with the idea that perhaps he really is an awkward, misplaced hippie who can’t accept reality.
The final mood might not be one of traditional heroism, but a liberal view of America shines through. Serpico is a great film and was well-received by critics, earning Pacino an Oscar nomination.
The individual vs. the system never looked colder than in Serpico. If you want a break from the new releases and fancy going back to the ’70s, this is a must-watch. It’s a compelling study of the famous “whistleblower”, Frank Serpico and everything he stands for.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler
Stars: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Ed-Young
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 130 minutes