March 29, 2010
Serpico (1973)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Al Pacino, Barbara Eda-Young, Tony Roberts

What it's about. Set in New York City during the 1960s and early 1970s, and based on a true story. Serpico (Al Pacino) is a cop who soon learns that all other cops with connections to the street are on the take. They shake down pimps, pushers, and bookies, then allow them to operate unhindered.

Serpico won't take his cut. In fact, he reports the payoffs to higher ranking cops, particularly his friend Bob Blair (Tony Roberts). But police investigators do nothing, aware that it is impossible to stamp out department-wide corruption, and disinclined to tarnish the public reputation of the N.Y.P.D. Finally, Serpico goes to the New York Times, which forces the hand of both the mayor and the police department.

Eventually, Serpico becomes the most hated cop on the force, since his fellow officers fear and despise his testimony almost as much as they covet the tax-free money from criminals. They set him up during a drug bust. Serpico is shot and left for dead.

During his 12-year career as a police officer, Serpico's appearance gradually changes from a clean-cut cop into a plainclothes beatnik. He also goes through two girlfriends, Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe), and Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young). The former leaves because Serpico won't commit, the latter exits once he becomes obsessive and verbally abusive.

The real-life Frank Serpico became a household name in New York following his court testimony against the N.Y.P.D. A biography by writer Peter Maas followed, which became the source of the present film.

How others will see it. This gritty drama benefits from the constant presence of the always charismatic Al Pacino. Since he is shot in the opening scenes, a la Carlito's Way, we know where the story will eventually take us. The foreshadowing creates tension.

Serpico received two Oscar nominations, for Pacino's performance and the adapted screenplay. At the Golden Globes, Pacino won in the category of best dramatic actor, and the movie garnered a Best Picture nomination.

The user ratings are consistently very high. Males under 18, an impressionable demographic, grade the movie highest (8.4/10), but all other audiences are similar, around 7.8/10.

How I felt about it. The first order of business is to determine the movie's general accuracy, which is easy to do courtesy of Wikipedia. Serpico shuffles major chronological events. He testifies, then is shot, then quits. The real-life Frank Serpico was shot, then testified, then quit.

He was also married and divorced three times during his police career. In the movie, he never marries. First wife Mary Ann is omitted from the screenplay, while Leslie (whose appearance is brief) and Laurie become live-in girlfriends.

But accuracy isn't everything. Certainly, it is less important than the film's message. Serpico was named #84 on the AFI Most Inspiring list. Frank Serpico is a hero who suffered for years, risked his life, and lost much of his health, to stop racketeering within the police department when he could have spent two decades taking payoff money.

One of the officers suggests that Serpico accept the money and donate it to charity. This would prevent him from financially benefitting from police corruption, and it would promote charitable works. However, the N.Y.P.D. would remain a gangster organization, whose real purpose is to extract protection money from criminals, instead of putting them behind bars where they belong. That outcome was unacceptable for Frank Serpico. If only the rest of us would not rationalize away the difference between right and wrong.