The bloody face in the rear of an ambulance–Serpico (1973) begins like a classic noir, flashing back from what looks to be a fatal climax. But soon enough we figure out that we are watching a different kind of movie: a biopic with the structure of a picaresque and the thematic dimensions of a morality play. The film covers a bit more than a decade in the life of Frank Serpico, a New York City police officer, from his graduation from the police academy in 1959 to his testimony before the Knapp Commission on police corruption in 1971 and his retirement in 1972. There are hops in chronology throughout the film: three years here, weeks and months there. Serpico moves from precinct to precinct in search of fellow cops that he can work with, cops that are not on the take, that can tolerate a “weirdo cop,” a “hippie cop,” that won’t accuse him of homosexuality and obstruct his promotion, that won’t turn down calls to the scene of a crime out of laziness, that won’t shoot at him recklessly when they encounter him undercover on the street making a bust, that won’t send him in first on a dangerous operation and then leave him for dead.
Serpico is a portrait of a world that doesn’t know it’s crumbling, and of the man who enters as the avatar of the world that will replace it, though not just yet, perhaps not even now. The old world was entirely mobbed up, entirely patriarchal, and when it came to law enforcement brutally racist. Aspects of that world remain, but today sports betting in New York City transpires legally via smartphone apps. The kickbacks from local bookies may have dried up, but the sort of brutality the film depicts may always be with us, even in the era of body cams. That the fashions of the time dictated that Serpico grow a beard and dress like a beatnik—both in his off hours and while on duty as a plainclothes policeman—gave him a conveniently coincidental Christlike aspect, exaggerated by Al Pacino’s humble stature and his hobolike gait. Serpico’s private life is pure 1960s urban idyll, as if ripped from the pages of Jane Jacobs, whose writing you expect him to start touting to the other cops at the precinct (instead it’s a biography of Isadora Duncan, which he’s reading to impress his ballerina girlfriend). He attends NYU, rides a Honda SuperHawk motorbike around downtown (somewhat gratuitously, it must be said), takes in the opera, lives in the West Village on the ground floor, and takes his morning coffee in his garden where he flirts with the neighbors. One wonders why he wants to go on being a cop rather than a DJ, a folk singer, or a graduate student studying Japanese theater.
Al Pacino and and Tony Roberts in Serpico (1973)
Serpico was filmed in a rush—10 weeks over the summer of 1973—and released that December. The reporter Peter Maas’s book about the New York cop who wouldn’t take bribes had only been published the year before, its rights acquired by Dino De Laurentiis, the frequent producer of Fellini who’d moved from Italy to the US to make The Valachi Papers (1972), introducing a young Charles Bronson as a button man who ratted out the mob. Robert Redford and Paul Newman were briefly attached in the roles taken by Pacino and Tony Roberts (as the film’s other clean cop, Blair, who has connections in the mayor’s office). John Gregory Dunne (and presumably by proxy his wife Joan Didion) turned down the job of doing the adaptation. That job went to Waldo Salt, who’d won Oscars for the screenplays for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978), and then—after John G. Avildsen was attached as director and unsatisfied with Salt’s draft—to Norman Wexler, who would share the credit. Avildsen and Wexler had worked together on the 1970 satiric hippie massacre fantasia Joe. When Avildsen and De Laurentiis clashed, directing duties went to Sidney Lumet, who was known to be able to stick to a schedule, had shot New York City masterfully in The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), and had just finished another study in police misconduct, The Offence (1973) with Sean Connery.
It was to Wexler and Lumet that New Yorker critic Pauline Kael attributed what she saw as the film’s cynicism. On her reading, Serpico exits the film, the city, and the country, bound for Switzerland, a defeated man, in possession of little more than his sheepdog, his beard, his ethics, and the bullet fragments dangling in his skull, which might cause him occasional vertigo. According to the filmmakers, the New York City Police Department wasn’t troubled by a few bad apples, it was a bad tree. “Basically,” Kael wrote, in a review that also featured an interview with the film’s subject, who cooperated with the filmmakers and spent time with Pacino but never sat through the entire film until 2010,
the movie’s attitude is like that of the people who think there had to be something the matter with Serpico—who think he had to be crazy to be honest. The wonderful joke of Serpico’s life is that he’s a winner, and one of the few fighting heroes that the disaffected can accept. The movie is great fun, but—to put it on a moral level—Serpico’s crusade becomes Wexler’s and Lumet’s debauch. They had themselves a ball, and so will the public, but the movie turns this hero into a mere freak, and turns one of the rare hopeful stories of our time into an entertaining downer.
Perhaps Kael was a little too hopeful herself about the police. Perhaps she didn’t anticipate a time when they would be outfitted in riot gear better suited to far-flung military invasions, and habitually resort to the use of that equipment in the course of dispersing crowds of protesters or skateboarders. Their reading now seems the correct one, even if the nature of police misconduct has evolved with the times. Which will come first: the dream of an enlightened law enforcement or the abolition of the police?
In his 1995 memoir Making Movies, Lumet was less cynical about the picture in his one-line summary: “A portrait of a real rebel with a cause.” But he elaborates: “With Serpico, I was constantly ambivalent about his character. He was such a pain in the ass sometimes. Always kvetching. Al Pacino made me love him, not the scripted character.” Lumet was more empathetic in describing his next collaboration with Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon (1975): “Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the most outrageous behavior than we know or admit.” That picture represented a refinement in Lumet’s vision of New York City politics and crime that would continue through Prince of the City (1981), Q&A (1990), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), until his final masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). As for Pacino, he has gone on to play so many cops, righteous and otherwise, one wonders if he’s receiving a pension. It was his fourth starring role, and the first that involved ample shouting. “I can shout anywhere!” he tells his girlfriend, foreshadowing the rest of Pacino’s acting career. But mostly he plays the part with tender if sullen sensitivity. When Pacino asked Frank Serpico what made him do it, the real cop told him: “If I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”
Christian Lorentzen is a critic and theater actor currently residing in Albania. He writes on Substack.