Written by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler
Directed by Sidney Lumet
All Cops Are Bastards. That was the commonly accepted stance in most of America for quite a while. Then 9/11 happened, and it was used as an opportunity to militarize police in America to the degree that had never happened before. That was simultaneously happening as cultural worship of first responders was seeded. I definitely think firefighters and paramedics do vital work, but they were pushed aside in the ensuing years or mashed into this current insane “Back the Blue” cult mentality. Information in America is delivered in bursts of overwhelming amounts that no average person can process & parse. This is why most Americans don’t even know about DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989), where the Supreme Court ruled that “police have no specific obligation to protect.” But for people that have been awake for a while, they didn’t need that ruling to explain it to them.
Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) graduates from the police academy intending to protect his community. Early in his career, he arrests a young Black man who was part of a group raping a woman. Serpico witnesses a senior detective physically beating the man to a pulp, which cools him down on how Serpico views the police. Eventually, he becomes a plainclothes officer, keeping his distance from the other officers while trying to stop crime. The longer he works in the system, the more he sees how corrupt it truly is, watching his peers accept bribes and levy the most violent reactions to criminals. The leadership protects the corruption because it keeps their foot soldiers happy and makes sure they will be loyal when they need to be flexed against the people. Serpico decides to become a rat and leak information about what he sees to those he hopes can do something about it.
Serpico is a reasonably straightforward movie regarding its plot. No big twists or anything to have to interpret. Cops are rotten, and Serpico learns he cannot reform them from the inside, which leads to his quitting in the end. What makes the film work so beautifully is the performance from Al Pacino and director Sidney Lumet’s commitment to realism in its presentation. Lumet insisted on casting unknown actors in almost every role to not distract the audience from the importance of the story. The movie was also made during the Watergate scandal, and it’s informed by the growing loss of trust by the big American institutions. When we get to my 21st Century Scorsese series later this month, I’ll talk more about the roots of policing in America via Gangs of New York, but it was pretty well established that by the 1970s, the cops were scum.
Lumet has a strong track record of making films about idealists who are defeated by the embedded evil in institutions. Dog Day Afternoon features crooked cops, and Network seeks to reveal the shallow self-importance of American media. Serpico is not quite as good a script as those other films, but even a decent Lumet film is far and away better than your average film. Nevertheless, Pacino can find places in the writing to elevate it, bringing his own particular brand of intensity that, despite how parodied it is in society, still holds up. Pacino feels like an actor who doesn’t just take roles but does the work by studying and making notes to better understand who he’s playing. In this instance, he spends a considerable amount of time with the real Frank Serpico and finds a character who is somewhere between the real man and Pacino’s interpretation.
Lumet would talk about the response to his films by the kinds of people featured in them and said he was surprised that they don’t see his work as anti-cop, despite it very much coming from that place. Instead, the police he would talk to about movies like Serpico seemed delighted to see their job portrayed so accurately on the screen. Lumet doesn’t push for melodrama, always holding to realism unless the story calls for otherwise. With Serpico, he makes big jumps in time and hard cuts and always emphasizes what is happening on the streets and how people interact with each other, everything underlined with tension.
One of the most interesting things about how Serpico is portrayed is that he’s incredibly eccentric. It’s first noticed in the choice of plain clothes when on the beat. He talks about going to the ballet and always seems to be reading a book. Serpico is a straight cis man, but he’s not scared of things against the mainstream idea of masculinity. His coworkers don’t know what to make of him, and that eccentricity at first functions like a shield. Eventually, accusations about his sexuality come out, which leads to a transfer. By the end, they fully understand his outsider status makes him a threat, and that’s when they truly reveal just how scummy they are.
Serpico remains a film that is so clear in its purpose. Lumet wanted to make a film that stunk like New York, literally and metaphorically. He also refused to bloat the film with stylistic flourishes because he knew that would take away from Serpico’s story and experience of being a cop in New York City at the time. It’s also crucial that the avenues of power were analyzed, as we see when the Mayor’s office tells Serpico they can’t go too hard on the police as summer is coming up and they will need them with the seasonal rise in crime. In 2020, we could see this reflected in how Mayor DeBlasio basically abdicated his duties and handed the city over to the dark army that is the NYPD. It’s a city under the occupation of a militarized force which sadly looks to be a trend across the nation. The problems in society will never be fixed by the police; they will merely exacerbate them by sucking up limited resources that could go towards genuine rehabilitative services.