Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), Serpico tells the true story of Frank Serpico, a police officer in New York City who unearthed rampant corruption throughout the force and single handily forced the establishment to look upon itself and change the ways in which it ran. But of course, he runs into troubles and his own colleagues become his new enemies as they turn against him and his vow to clean up the force.
The wonderfully calm and collected Al Pacino plays Serpico, in one of the most powerful and underrated roles of his entire career. The balance between his anger at what he was seeing; colleagues using drugs, committing unwarranted acts of violence, taking payoffs and a whole host of other forms of corruption, and trying to logically work his way through the force without being seriously harmed himself was something wondrous to watch. Finally, after being involved in a drugs bust and being shot in the face (where the film itself starts), Frank is asked to testify at the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into NYPD corruption, he is then awarded the department’s medal of honour before resigning and leaving the USA for good.
Lumet’s film could be seen as the tradition hardboiled crime genre; it is gritty and realistic and yet doesn’t contain much violence unless required. He touches on a multitude of interesting and multilayered themes, further than just the corruption in the force but also attitudes towards women and homosexuality, things that are still considered and discussed at length today. There are many instances during the film where Frank is accused of being a ‘fag’, whether it is because he wants to do the right thing or because he looks different from the rest of his colleagues, but the discourse is important to be had. Furthermore, despite the film being over 40 years old, it feels like it has aged so very well. There are directors today who are trying to create crime dramas that touch a nerve and create discussion, much like Serpico, and yet so few manage to quite create the same atmosphere and depth as Lumet’s filmmaking. As the film goes on, Lumet manages to create a sense of intense alienation and paranoia – not only is Frank feeling this as he starts to become victim to foul treatment from his colleagues but he becomes completely unaware about what could happen next – the same way that the audience starts to feel.
Surrounding Pacino is a wonderful cast of supporting characters; John Randolph and Jack Kehoe play his closest confidants who perfectly try to balance paying credence to Frank’s worries and findings and yet still give off the impression that they are inherently part of the force and part of the team with the others – they have no intention of being caught out along with Serpico. The two women in his life, played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe wonderfully bring out a softer and more intimate side to Pacino’s hard and moralistic character. Sharpe’s Leslie Lane is a touching and sombre character, bringing out Frank’s youthful and playful side whereas Eda-Young’s heightens the emotional stakes of the story as she is forced to overcome her worries about Frank and learn to look after herself first.
Few films are made, which have the longevity and continue to be as hard hitting as Lumet’s Serpico, there are discussions that are raised in the film that are continued to be had today and it shows a star at the beginning of his career – looking back Pacino must be so proud of this thrilling and important film.