Still from 1973's "Serpico."

Serpico January 12, 2018        


Sidney Lumet



Al Pacino

John Randolph

Tony Roberts

Jack Kehoe

Biff McGuire

Barbara Eda-Young

Cornelia Sharpe









2 Hrs., 9 Mins.

the 1973 film based upon this risky endeavor, he is played by Al Pacino as a good and honest cop, a paradox emphasized by get-up (a lumberjack beard complemented by a single, shiny gold earring and Sly Stone garments) and street talk that remind us time and time again that his being so different from the norm signifies goodness.


With Pacino as the star and Sidney Lumet (Network, 1976; Running on Empty, 1988) as the director, we’re certain we'll be in for a masterwork. But as the 129 minutes start wrapping up, we’re quick to blurt, “not quite!” Whether this movie that turns a hero for the ages into a Method actor’s latest transformation is a success is debatable.


On one hand, Serpico convincingly captures the seedy and unforgiving city streets as they probably looked and felt in the early ‘70s. As we watch the semi-fictionalized Serpico navigate this dangerous world, we believe that he could possibly walk right into the barrel of a gun at any moment. But on the other does it lack a certain sort of urgency that could be attributed to the way so much of it feels like the television police procedurals it’d inevitably go on to inspire; there’s no real sense of impending doom here.


Such is perpetuated by its inability to choose a specific aesthetic. Sometimes we’re watching action made realistic by shaky camerawork or Pacino’s way of running about in front of the camera with the persuasive weariness of an actual street tough. But sometimes we’re also watching a movie with a capital M. Even a feature this eager to be called “tough as nails” falls victim to performances Lee Strasberg’d call far-reaching. And even a movie this anxious to appear gritty can’t resist inclusions of non-diegetic orchestrals that tell us how we should be feeling or clipshow-baiting monologues.


The movie still makes for effective me-against-them story, though. Even the bloated running time can’t stop our astonishment when witnessing Pacino’s fierce performance, and there’s no denying that the film adequately translates the real Serpico’s experiences. But just imagine if the picture were tighter, if it were even more unforgiving in its depiction of small-time crime and unrelenting police corruption; then we’d have something as visceral as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (also 1973).


Director Sidney Lumet’d fine tune his stabs at verisimilitude just two years later with the wonderful Dog Day Afternoon, another Pacino-starrer. Serpico comes close to its corporeal, sweat-on-the-brow naturalism, but its too-long length and tendency to choose the obvious over nuance keeps it from becoming the vicious too-true neo-noir it could be. But since so much of its playing it safe has to do with a desire to be respectful toward a sort of demigod of law enforcement, much of that’s understandable. B-

f Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) was a right-wing fantasy in which matters had to be taken into one’s own gun-toting hands, then consider Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) to be its left-wing counterpart. This isn’t pulp: it’s a veritable true crime story featuring actual repercussions. It is a movie about the dismantling of a major fraction of police corruption at the hands of a single man, spanning a decade.


The man at the center of that takedown is Frank Serpico, a real individual who really blew the whistle on corrupt New York law officials in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In