“He was perceived by many of his colleagues as the most menacing person in existence – a law-abiding police officer.”
The phrase was used to promote the controversial police drama Serpico during its debut 50 years ago. Looking back, it is surprising that Paramount Pictures chose to feature it prominently on the movie’s poster and advertisements, and even more surprising that it drew in large audiences. The phrase accurately captures the film’s main message: that corruption runs deep within the New York police department, and perhaps in other city departments across the country, making it nearly impossible for an honest cop to do their job without facing dangerous obstacles. However, it would be difficult to promote such a sentiment in today’s Hollywood, as it would risk backlash from the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement.
Al Pacino’s peak performance in 1973, sandwiched between his iconic roles in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, was a major factor in the success of Dog Day Afternoon. Pacino, alongside director Sidney Lumet, continued their collaboration on this film after working together on Serpico. Playing the role of Frank Serpico, a real-life whistleblower who bravely exposed corruption within the system, Pacino showcases his tough and daring qualities similar to those of Michael Corleone. However, his character also displays vulnerability and a carefree, unconventional charm that reflects Pacino’s own personality. It is not common for police officers to showcase their ballet skills in the workplace.
Despite later returning to the theme of police corruption in his acclaimed 1980s films Prince of the City and Q&A, director Sidney Lumet was a last-minute addition to Serpico. Originally intended for John G Avildsen, who had previously directed the unsettling Joe and would go on to helm Rocky, the project experienced a setback when Avildsen clashed with young producer Martin Bregman. (Bregman had discovered Al Pacino in an off-Broadway play and the two would later collaborate on multiple films, including Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Sea of Love, and Carlito’s Way.) One of the standout features of Serpico is its sense of spontaneity, as if Lumet had to improvise his way through the production. This raw and unpredictable quality enhances the overall impact of the story.
The film begins with a striking contrast between Serpico’s swearing-in ceremony and his subsequent rush to the hospital after being shot in the face. The rest of the film then shifts to flashbacks, starting with his first day on the job as a patrolman. However, his expectations are quickly shattered when he learns that corruption is ingrained in the police force, starting with small favors for free meals at a deli in exchange for leniency on parking violations. What may seem harmless at first soon leads to more dangerous and slippery situations.
Serpico is determined to reach his goal of becoming a top detective, and he sees an opportunity to improve the relationship between the police department and the communities it serves. However, his casual appearance causes tension with his more traditional colleagues. When he joins the bureau of criminal investigation, he is offered a bribe of $300, which he rejects. But speaking out against this corruption would make him an outcast among his superiors and other agencies. Despite the danger, he chooses to remain honest and it almost costs him his life.
Lumet effectively portrays the passage of time in Serpico by using an innovative editing style with guidance from the brilliant editor Dede Allen, known for her work on The Hustler and Bonnie and Clyde. Months and even years seem to fly by in a single cut, creating a daring and dynamic effect. For example, one moment Frank Serpico is purchasing a $5 puppy outside of his new Brooklyn apartment, and in what feels like a blink of an eye, the dog has grown into a full-grown sheepdog. Meanwhile, he continues to go to work every day and persistently urges his superiors to address corrupt precincts or transfer him to a more ethical operation. As time goes on, Serpico and his only ally, Bob Blair (played by Tony Roberts), decide to take their case to the press in hopes of pressuring the mayor to take action against the corruption.
Frank Serpico’s bravery ultimately led to the Knapp Commission and a significant overhaul in the NYPD in April 1970. However, the true impact of the film lies in its portrayal of the corrupting influence of institutional decay on all officers within the department, even those like Serpico who initially held onto their ideals. The film effectively captures the subtle hostility towards Serpico, as well as the deliberate endangerment he faces from his supposed comrades. Lumet’s exceptional location filming highlights the negligence of those responsible for maintaining order in New York City, as they turn a blind eye to the decay within their own ranks.
During a time of bold and daring American cinema, the release of Serpico had a greater impact on Al Pacino’s image than even The Godfather films. He embodied the rare characteristic of iconoclasm, playing the one righteous man among a room full of armed men. This challenged viewers to reconsider their perceptions of law enforcement and recognize the bravery needed to stand up for one’s beliefs. The film, much like its protagonist’s life, continues to be a valuable contribution to society.