Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, is a true-story crime drama made in 1973. It tells the story of Frank Serpico, an honest cop, who blew the whistle on the corruption running rampant in the force, only to have his colleagues turn on him. Shot in the face, he miraculously survived.
I chose this film because it has stuck in my memory these many years. Perhaps, as an impressionable teen I was struck by the fun bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village New York City, which, ironically, is where I lived when I arrived in America in 1982. More than that, however, I think the film is memorable because of the character, Frank Serpico, who stays true to himself, to his own values, his own code of conduct, in spite of what others may think or do. I believe this is the theme of the film, that individuals must do the right thing.
The movie opens with white on black titles against the sound of someone in pain and the blare of sirens. Our first image is a close-up of Serpico with, what we will learn is, a bullet hole in his face. We then cut to a police station where it is announced that Serpico has been shot and we are informed there are at least six cops who’d want to kill him. A reporter then wakes up someone important in the middle of the night, so we know that Serpico is not just ‘any old’ cop. A flashback of Serpico graduating from the police academy as the code of conduct is recited tells us that Serpico will uphold that code of integrity, courage, perseverance, character and courtesy. These are his values. In under five minutes, we know what this movie is about.
The story progresses with Serpico going beyond the call of duty as a patrolman only to be circumvented from credit and advancement by higher-ups. This happens at eighteen minutes and is repeated at forty minutes with the line, “Life is Unfair.” Meanwhile, we are introduced to police corruption: small at first, such as getting free food at a restaurant in return for overlooked parking infractions, that escalates into envelopes of cash for payoffs. His unorthodox methods, which include his physical transformation from clean-cut cop to long-haired Bohemian, rub other cops the wrong way. At the end of act one, Serpico is accused of being gay. This launches him onto the path to become a detective where his transformation continues as he continually plays with his appearance in the role of undercover cop that will ultimately be his demise.
The story resonates with me as a screenwriter because it is the epitome of the hero’s journey and the script hits every plot point on the mark. The Writers Guild of America awarded it the “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.” It also won “Best Picture” in 1974’s Golden Globes. For the Academy Award’s Best Actor, Pacino was up against Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Robert Redford (The Sting) and, the winner, Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger).
As a producer and director, I find the movie interesting because it was shot “fast and loose,” as noted in TMC’s review, “with scenes being edited as they were shot.” This sounds like the precursor to modern filmmakers such as (one of my personal heroes) Robert Rodriguez when he shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico in digital hi-def.
Serpico is ranked 84 on the AFI’s List of 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time, sandwiched between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and What’s Love Got To Do With It. Frank Serpico is ranked 40 on AFI’s 100 Heroes and Villains, on a par with Freddy Krueger as a villain.
On a final note, I'd love to hear what others think of the score of the film. It seemed to really play a part establishing tone, especially when Frank was "back to his roots" with his family. I can't decide whether it was sentimentally OTT or "just right." Composed by Mikis Theodorakis, it was nominated for a BAFTA and, in 1975, for Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture in the Grammy Awards.
Oh! And what do you think of the trailer?!