Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
For a few years, Serpico kept showing up on my radar. Nothing big, just little blips here and there. A couple spots on a few of AFI’s more minor lists (Cheers and Heroes). Discussions on just what films Al Pacino should have won an Academy Award for, and whether his award for Scent of a Woman was a “make it up to him” award for not getting it for this film. (I should note I still can’t participate in those discussions myself, having not seen the latter film.) Discussions on the filmography of Sidney Lumet, who also directed the terrific Dog Day Afternoon (also starring Pacino) and Network, one of my all time favorite films. But there was little pointing me directly to Serpico itself; it was always just a tangential part of some other discussion. But it kept coming up, and so it worked its way onto my watch list. Sometimes the best films are the ones that people don’t make a big to-do over.
Serpico is based on the career of Frank Serpico, a New York police officer who exposed widespread corruption in the department. Before watching the film, I had little idea of what it was about. I was unfamiliar with the case, as it was before my time and on the opposite end of the country (although just between you, me and the wall, I think most people over here think NYC is corrupt by default anyway.) But a background in the events isn’t necessary to enjoy this film, as it does an excellent job of showing what was going on, requiring no outside knowledge of the viewer.
Some filmmakers would take a story about rooting out corruption and make it a big blockbuster action film, filled with guns blazing and a top bad guy whose criminal empire would crumble the minute he was shot by the intrepid hero. Lumet takes a different approach, a realistic one that is more respectful to the true story. Serpico is in many ways a quiet film, with things coming to a slow boil. Frank Serpico starts his career optimistic and enthusiastic about helping people. He sees a few of his fellow officers take payoffs, and wonders if it’s normal. He doesn’t take part, but he doesn’t actively oppose it either. But he starts looking for a transfer to another division, hoping to escape the corruption. But everywhere he goes, he only finds more. Over the years, he slowly becomes more and more frustrated with the system, and more determined to try and find some way to root it out — while despairing of the ability to do so while the department heads seem content to look the other way.
Al Pacino is the only actor who gets his name on the poster or video cover. This is perfectly logical, as in a way, Serpico’s the only character. He has a couple of girlfriends, but they exist only to be pushed away as his frustration mounts. He has few allies in the department, and fewer friends. Most everybody else is a corrupt cop, and from a practical standpoint they are interchangeable. That’s the entire point of their characters, to show how widespread the corruption is by showing that it really doesn’t matter where Serpico goes, his fellow officers remain the same. The faces change, the names change, but in a very real sense, they’re the same people. The film is purposefully designed so that Serpico is the only character who stands out.
And stand out he does. Not just because of his fundamental honesty, but because of Pacino’s magnetic performance. The strength of emotion he shows grows with direct proportion to the amount of corruption he encounters. He starts off quiet and carefree, and later is explosive with anger. He becomes so agitated that he can’t be still. Pacino pulls this off with such skill that he never seems to be “acting”, he just seems like he’s genuinely feeling it. Towards the end of the movie, the tension Serpico is under is so visible that it feels like one wrong step will cause him to fly apart literally as well as figuratively. (I read afterward that the film was from last scene to first, to make it easier to film the growth of Serpico’s facial hair. This makes Pacino’s performance all the more remarkable, as he wouldn’t have been working up to the state of agitation, but working down from it.)
It’s a masterful performance, easily worthy of Oscar consideration. And with the whole film built around the performance, it makes for a great film.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.