18 Movies In 18 Days #11: Serpico

After watching Stand Up Guys, I had to remind myself why I love Al Pacino. So I chose to watch a classic movie that I had sadly never seen. The 1973 classic Serpico is one of Al Pacino’s best movies and possibly his best performance. I came to the movie knowing only that Pacino played an undercover cop and that it was based on a true story.

The first thing I noticed about Serpico is the stark reminder of just how raw and real 1970s crime movies were. In many ways, they are grittier and more realistic than anything being put out today by major studios. And so when there’s a gang rape early in the movie, it ends up seeming much more brutal and terrifying than a similar scene in a modern movie. The violence in Serpico and other 1970s movies like French Connection and Dirty Harry looks like violence rather than stylized violence.

The result of this sort of filmmaking is that everything feels more authentic. It’s still the Hollywood version of what really happened, but nothing is pretty. Even when Serpico is sharing a bathtub with a woman, they look like two naked people in a tub rather than airbrushed models. Modern filmmaking could learn a lot from 1970s movies.

In Serpico, Pacino plays the title character of NYPD Officer Frank Serpico. In the opening scenes we see him shot and bleeding profusely as he’s taken to the hospital in the back of a squad car. We then flash back to his graduating from the police academy. Serpico quickly makes a name for himself with his investigative work and his policy of not taking bribe or extortion money. When he tries to report the corruption, he gets the run around.

Years go by and we watch as Serpico becomes increasingly frustrated and increasingly notorious. Serpico can count his friends on one hand and even they aren’t there for him at times.

There are two things that set this movie apart. One is the economy of filmmaking that director Sidney Lumet uses. He never tells us anything. There are no title cards saying where they are or how many years have gone by or any number of other things that so many movies spoon feed their audiences. Instead Lumet uses visual queues such as Pacino’s facial hair or the growth of his dog to denote the passage of time.

The other thing that sets Serpico apart is of course, Al Pacino’s incredible acting. Pacino inhabits the part of Frank Serpico so completely that the frustration of the character isn’t just shown in his actions and dialog. It’s etched on his face. Two years later Lumet and Pacino would do the equally classic Dog Day Afternoon and it’s easy to see after this success why they’d reteam.

Serpico is a cautionary true story. The real Frank Serpico sent his badge and clothing to the New York Police Department’s museum. They refused it. Even today, Serpico’s courageous effort to stop corruption is seen by many cops as a betrayal.

If you’re like I was this morning and haven’t seen this justifiable classic, take a couple hours and watch Serpico. It’s worth it.

Serpico is available on Netflix or you can purchase it at this link.