“Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”
There’s a whole sub-genre of movies about people who stand up for the right thing even when everyone else in their lives doesn’t care. Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino, takes that formula, but it does what few other movies like this dare to do: it’s not afraid to be messy, morally gray, and frustrating. If the combination of Lumet, Pacino, and a morally complex plot based on a true story sounds familiar, it’s because these things came together again in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon—a testament to how well they worked in this film. Serpico shows us the harsh reality of a world where, even in the police force, morality is not so clearly divided into good guys and bad guys, and the struggle to do the right thing can be painfully tedious.
The plot, based on a true story, follows the eponymous character Frank Serpico, an eager cop in New York City. With crime being so prevalent, every officer on the force takes bribes to turn a blind eye to whatever crimes they deem harmless—except Serpico. Determined to do his job without taking any money, Serpico makes the other police officers extremely uneasy, and tensions build. Serpico begins fearing for his safety and is transferred around to other departments, but the problem persists everywhere he goes. When Serpico finally resolves to do something about it, he finds that changing such an ingrained thing about the entire police force is far from easy.
I’m a marked man in this department. For what?
Films about exposing police corruption usually tend to be these righteous crusades where the hero is blameless and ultimately triumphs against unjust offenders by exposing it and letting justice run its course. Perhaps the most striking thing about Serpico is that there is no justice anywhere Frank Serpico looks. The few allies he finds run into the same problems he does: it’s impossible to gain any traction with this problem. More than that, though, the characters themselves aren’t so black and white. Many of the police officers taking money aren’t what you would call bad people, and Serpico himself, while his resolve to not take money is unwavering, has his share of flaws and vices. The end result of this hazy morality is that you know very quickly into this movie that the force of good is not guaranteed to win. The stakes and tensions are higher than they are in films like American Gangster that tackled this problem with much more straightforward morals.
The sometimes brutal realism in the film stems from a dedication in both Lumet and Pacino to stick to the real story and refuse to let this be a Hollywood version of the events portrayed. When Pacino got the role, he soon got in touch with the real Frank Serpico and the two began to spend a lot of time together. Serpico wanted to stay on during the actual production of the film, but producer Martin Bregman thought this would be too much of a distraction. (The film had a notoriously tight deadline.) Principal filming began only a year after the final events of the film occurred, so when two New York City police officers were directly assigned to the movie, Lumet was worried how they would react, given the subject matter. Thankfully, his fears proved to be false. In Lumet’s words, “As soon as they saw the truth we were going for, how it was not a Hollywood version, they not only weren’t a problem, they more actively helped.”
Though there are some surprising moments of levity, the dominant feeling of this film is frustration as Serpico hits wall after wall in trying to set things right. He even receives threats and finds his life in danger a few times, and the stress of his position starts tearing him apart. I don’t know that frustration is what every movie should be striving for, but it was actually an amazing and defining part of this film. The tension was real and held my attention, and the character of Frank Serpico was interesting throughout. I wouldn’t describe this film as light—it’s definitely a heavy film.
If you love gritty cop movies but wish they had more depth and complexity, Serpico might be exactly what you’re looking for. The tension and action that occur on-the-job for Serpico are gripping, but the dramatic elements and glimpses into the rest of Serpico’s life keep the film from being one-note and give plenty of chances to get to know this complex character. Pacino’s performance is brilliant—he considers it to be one of his greatest achievements—and Lumet’s direction is equally impressive. This is a film that holds up very well today, even better than many of the modern classics, and will be remembered for decades to come as a frustratingly realistic story of the struggle to do the right thing in a corrupt world.
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Director: Sidney Lumet
Genres: biopic, crime, drama