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This is the true story of Frank Serpico, the New York City police officer who almost lost his life exposing corruption within the force. Starting out as an idealistic young recruit, he soon realizes that many of his fellow officers are on the take, something he refuses to do. He tries to keep a low profile while remaining true to his principles, but his honesty is a threat not only to individual policemen but to the entire system. After making the acquaintance of Bob Blair, another honest member of the force, Serpico tries to raise his concerns with his superiors, but most turn a blind eye, leaving him unprotected as other officers abuse and threaten him. Serpico's stand against corruption eventually puts him in danger, and the stress takes a serious toll on his relationships and well-being, culminating in his shooting under questionable circumstances during a drug bust. Nevertheless, he doesn't back down, and testifies before a special investigative commission.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Producers: Martin Bregman, Dino De Laurentiis
Screenplay: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Editing: Dede Allen
Art Direction: Douglas Higgins
Original Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Cast: Al Pacino (Serpico), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie).
Why SERPICO is Essential
Serpico was one of those fortunate circumstances in filmmaking where a compelling true story hit home with the mood of the country and the times. It all came together with an enthusiastic producer seeking to make his mark in the industry, an emerging young actor at the height of his talents backed by a strong supporting cast, and an experienced director with a feel for authentic locations and a sure hand at guiding performers to their best performance.
Frank Serpico was a New York City police officer who made headlines when he bucked the system and went public about entrenched and extensive corruption within the department. Serpico's principled stand made him a public hero but a pariah on the force and may well have contributed to his shooting during a drug bust. When Peter Maas' best-selling book about Serpico was brought to the attention of Martin Bregman, a film industry talent manager and representative looking to break into producing motion pictures, he knew he had found the perfect vehicle. He also knew the perfect actor for the project, one of his own clients.
Despite his highly praised performance in The Godfather (1972), Al Pacino truly became a star with Serpico. His work in the earlier film was part of an ensemble, dominated by Marlon Brando's towering portrayal of a Mafia don and secondary to the attention paid to Francis Ford Coppola as a major new force in film directing. Serpico, however, was totally Pacino's film, and he threw himself into the part with the intensity and focus for which he would become known in his long career as one of America's best actors. Serpico earned him a huge fan base, critical praise, and a number of awards and nominations for his electrifying performance of a man fighting not only City Hall but his own inner fears, frustrations, and isolation. He was ably supported by a cast of mostly little-known character actors whose relative anonymity boosted the strong sense of reality needed to drive the script's story and themes.
That air of realism was heightened even more by the use of multiple New York locations (more than 110) chosen by Sidney Lumet and his production team. Lumet came into the project with the confidence of a director who, as he described it, knew the city like the back of his hand. He also had a reputation for drawing the best performances from his actors which was one of his earliest trademarks as a director. Serpico was an important step forward in his career and addressed a persistent theme in his work - one that stretched from 12 Angry Men (1957) through such films as Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), and The Verdict (1982). All these films charted the course of outsiders and rebels who were isolated by their principles and took outspoken stands against systems they saw as morally wrong and detrimental to society.
Much of the success of Serpico may also be attributed to that particular theme and focus. America was just coming out of the 1960s, a time of high idealism and countercultural rebellion in the face of war abroad, violence at home, and cataclysmic change. At the time of the movie's release, Watergate was very much in the air, drawing attention to an atmosphere of corruption and deceit at the highest levels that forced America to re-examine its image and the values the country once believed in unquestioningly. Frank Serpico, as presented on screen - and by general account, was true to life - was a cop, a symbol of authority and order. At the same time, he was an undercover officer who dressed and behaved like a hippie, a man dedicated to his profession but also actively seeking new ways of living, drawn to art, culture, and philosophy. So the more conservative elements of the audience could look to him as an upright, principled man of the law while left-leaning and younger audiences could root for him as a rebel and idealist, unafraid to buck authority and expose the ills that were having a negative impact on American ideals and society.
What raises the film above the level of the typical biopic, political diatribe or police drama, however, is its focus on the character of Serpico, who is brought to full life by Pacino's intense and layered performance, described by Vincent Canby in the New York Times as "a driven character of Dostoyevskian proportions, an anti-cop cop." And the positioning of Serpico as a man with this dual nature, one foot in each world but never wholly accepted into either, heightened his isolation and discomfort in almost every aspect of his life, making for a compelling human drama. As Peter Maas, author of the book on which the movie was based, noted, "It's more than the story of a cop. It's about a man who just dug in and said he won't go along with the system....He would have followed the same course if he had had another profession."
by Rob Nixon
"People who know me say that [Pacino] was more me than I was. Whatever that means. I mean, actors are actors." Frank Serpico
According to a January 1974 article in New Republic, applicants for the qualifying exam to become a New York City police officer increased dramatically after the release of Serpico.
The film and Maas' book from which it was adapted were the basis for a television movie, Serpico: The Deadly Game (1976), and a TV series broadcast in the 1976-77 season, both starring David Birney as Serpico. Maas wrote the bulk of the episodes.
Serpico's story has remained a compelling one for the public and the media. Newspaper and magazine articles are still written about him periodically, and the Biography cable series featured an episode on his life.
According to some sources, the building Pacino stands outside when he asks Cornelia Sharpe (in the role of Leslie Lane) if she wants a ride on his motorcycle is the same one Pacino is looking at in the film Author! Author! (1982) when his character (Ivan) asks the homeless woman if he should wear a tie or not. The New York State Theater (where Serpico and Leslie go to see a ballet) was also used for scenes in two other later Pacino movies, Sea of Love (1989) and Looking for Richard (1996).
Critics Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen have noted the similarities in theme between Serpico.and Lumet's Prince of the City (1981), calling Serpico a "tone poem on New York police corruption that hints at the symphonic stature to come" in the later film.
Serpico probably had some influence on the 1970s television series Baretta about a maverick big city cop who also keeps an exotic bird for a pet. The lead was played by Robert Blake.
There is a punk metal band from Edinburgh, Scotland, named Serpico. Their debut album Neon Wasteland was released in May 2009.
In the film Saturday Night Fever (1977), the lead character Tony (John Travolta) has a poster for Serpico on his wall and fantasizes about his resemblance to Al Pacino.
In the movie Se7en (1995), the Brad Pitt character is referred to at one point as "Serpico."
The character in Boogie Nights (1997) played by Mark Wahlberg has a picture of Serpico in his room.
The name "Serpico" has been used in a number of movies and TV shows when characters comment on other characters' honesty or determination to expose corruption, ranging from the thriller Inside Man (2006) to the comedy Knocked Up (2007) to the TV sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Serpico's story and his example are frequently invoked when incidences of blatant police corruption or brutality are investigated and/or reported. In one such case - the brutalizing of suspect Abner Louima in 1997 - Frank Serpico was called on to testify before a New York City Council hearing on the case. The hearing was held around the same time that Maas' biography was reissued in paperback. Writing about the Louima case in the Village Voice in June 1998, Nat Hentoff noted that Maas had written a glowing article about the command of the New York City Police force under Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Hentoff commented: "not a word in the article about rampant police brutality on their watch. Peter Maas knows better."
Writer and cultural critic Nat Hentoff noted in 1998 that Serpico inspired Hentoff's son Nick, only 10 years old during the Knapp Commission hearings but very aware of what the real-life Frank Serpico had been through, to become a public defender.
by Rob Nixon
Frank Serpico left the country in 1972, living for a time in Europe. He returned in the early 1980s and now lives in the mountains of New York state, studying, lecturing, sculpting, and writing (including pieces for The Huffington Post and his own blog at frankserpico.blogspot.com). He still speaks out against corruption and injustice.
"You know, he's a guy who really wanted nothing but to be a cop," Lumet has said of Frank Serpico before he returned from living abroad. "I hope he has some kind of life left. I don't want to sound presumptuous, but I don't think Europe is the answer for him. He seems to be such a native American. If there were only some way he could channel his talents."
When Al Pacino asked him why he had blown the whistle on police corruption, Serpico replied, "Well, Al, I don't know. I guess I would have to say it would be because... if I didn't, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?"
Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet made only one other movie together, Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
At the age of 83, Lumet released his latest of more than 40 feature films, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). Known for guiding a wide range of acclaimed actors to very notable performances, Lumet started out as an actor himself, appearing at 11 as one of the original Dead End Kids on Broadway in Sidney Kingsley's 1935 play from which they took their name. (Kingsley lent Lumet his apartment to film the party scene in Serpico.) Lumet has directed 17 actors in Academy Award-nominated roles; four of them won: Ingrid Bergman (for Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express), Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straightthe last three for Network (1976).
In addition to Serpico, Martin Bregman has produced four other films starring Al Pacino: Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Scarface (1983), Sea of Love (1989), and Carlito's Way (1993).
Bregman has been married to former model Cornelia Sharpe, who plays Leslie in Serpico, since the early 1970s.
Screenwriter Waldo Salt is most often identified with films that reflect the attitudes and mores of the 1960s and 1970s, such as his Academy Award-winning work on Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978). He was, in fact, born in 1914 and began his career as a studio contract writer in the 1930s. His refusal to testify before HUAC led to his blacklisting in the 1950s, although he continued to work under pseudonyms for many television shows and occasional films. The Sundance Film Festival bestows a writing award named in his honor. His daughter is the actress Jennifer Salt (Brewster McCloud , Sisters ). He died in 1987.
Screenwriter Norman Wexler worked in advertising and as a playwright before having his first script produced at the age of 44. The movie was Joe (1970), an offbeat drama of intergenerational conflicts that marked the screen debut of Susan Sarandon and earned Wexler an Academy Award nomination. His career was briefseven films in 16 yearsand his most famous work was Saturday Night Fever (1977). Wexler's severe bipolar disorder led to his arrest in 1972 for saying he would shoot President Richard Nixon. It has been revealed in the years since his death (1999) that he was at least partially the model for comedian Andy Kaufman's alter ego "Tony Clifton" and was the mysterious "Mr. X" referred to in Bob Zmuda's biography of Kaufman.
Five of author Peter Maas' other books have also been made into movies, including The Valachi Papers (1972) and King of the Gypsies (1978).
Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz (1916-1985) was the son of blacklisted "Hollywood Ten" writer Samuel Ornitz. He began his career on Power and the Land (1940), a documentary about the drive to electrify the rural US, directed by Joris Ivens, one of several pioneering independent filmmakers (among them were Shirley Clarke and Russ Meyer) with whom Ornitz worked over the years. After a stint in Europe in the early 1950s, he returned to American film with The Goddess (1958). He worked steadily for the rest of his life on such films as The Boys in the Band (1970), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), and An Unmarried Woman (1978).
Greek-born (1925) Mikis Theodorakis began his career in 1953 and continues to compose film soundtracks to this day. Most of his work has been in Europe, primarily his native country, but he has achieved international recognition with his scores for Zorba the Greek (1964) and Z (1969). The Greek title for the music theme he composed for Serpico is "Dromoi Palioi," meaning "Old Streets."
Al Pacino is one of three male actors to be Oscar®-nominated for Best Actor and Supporting Actor in the same year. The first was Barry Fitzgerald, the only actor to have been nominated in both categories for the same role in the same picture: Going My Way (1944). Pacino won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman (1992) and was nominated for Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Jamie Foxx won for Ray (2004) and was nominated for Collateral (2004). Eight actresses share the same double nomination distinction: Fay Bainter, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange, Julianne Moore, Emma Thompson, Sigourney Weaver, and Teresa Wright.
Barbara Eda-Young made her film debut as Laurie in Serpico. She and Pacino had been friends since they were both members of Lincoln Center Rep.
Future Academy Award-winning Best Actor F. Murray Abraham appears in a small role as a police detective. Also in a small part is Judd Hirsch, making his film debut.
The original director of Serpico, John Avildsen, left the project after disagreements with producer Martin Bregman. He went on to direct the drama Save the Tiger (1973) starring Jack Lemmon, who bested Pacino for the Best Actor Academy Award the year Serpico was nominated.
Some of the principals involved in the real-life case remarked that Serpico erroneously made it appear that Serpico was the sole person responsible for blowing the whistle on police corruption in New York and objected to the elimination of police Sgt. David Durk's part in it.
Sidney Lumet said he wasn't surprised at the film's positive critical reception but was unexpectedly delighted that it became a box office hit, considering it had such a downbeat ending. "It shows the audience is always more grown up than most studios think they are."
Memorable Quotes from SERPICO
COP 1: Guess who got shot? Serpico.
COP 2: You think a cop did it?
COP 1: I know six cops said they'd like to.
LESLIE: What do you need a gun for?
SERPICO: You ever hear of Barnum and Bailey? I'm their lion tamer.
DESK SERGEANT (remarking on Serpico's beard): You look like an asshole with dentures.
KELLOGG: You have two alternatives. You can force me to take you to the commissioner of investigations. He'll drag you in front of a Grand Jury.
SERPICO: I don't want that.
KELLOGG: Oh, I can understand that. Word'll get out. Before it's all over they'll find you face down in the East River.
BOB: What's the other alternative?
KELLOGG: Forget it.
KEOUGH: Who can trust a cop who don't take money?
SERPICO: Nothing's gonna happen from the inside. The top guys have been cops too long.
BERMAN: The priorities are a long hot summer ahead. Riots are expected. And the mayor cannot afford to alienate the police.
END TITLE: Frank Serpico resigned from the police department on June 15, 1972. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for "conspicuous bravery in action." Serpico is now living somewhere in Switzerland.
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Frank Serpico joined the New York City Police Force in 1959. Over the course of the next twelve years he became increasingly disturbed by the rampant corruption he found within the force and was frequently harassed by fellow officers for not taking payoffs. Unable to get any active response from their superiors, Serpico and another officer, Sergeant David Durk, went public with the information. As a result, New York Mayor John Lindsay in 1970 empowered a panel, known as the Knapp Commission, to investigate widespread corruption among the police. In the course of this process, Serpico was shot in the face during a drug bust; there was suspicion he might have been set up by other officers because of the way the bust and the aftermath of his shooting were handled. Disillusioned and exhausted by the toll his stand against the system had taken on him, Serpico retired from the force in 1972, a month after receiving the department's highest award, the Medal of Honor. He relocated to the relative anonymity of Switzerland for almost a decade and returned to the U.S. in 1980.
Author and journalist Peter Maas (1929-2001) had written a best-selling and critically praised book about a real-life Mafia informant, The Valachi Papers in 1969, a seminal work that launched a new genre of crime books; among the most famous of this new trend in the book industry was the fiction novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Always interested in stories about "organized crime, organized corruption and people whose revelations shattered myths or created new ones," Maas became intrigued by Serpico's story and wrote a book about it, focusing more on the colorful title hero than on fellow whistle blower David Durk, who was still a much harassed member of the NYC police force. The book quickly became a bestseller.
Peter Maas said, "I've been a reporter for 15 years, but Serpico was the first to come along and say, 'This is wrong and I'm going to do something about it!'...If society in America is going to mean anything, it's got to start with a guy like Serpico. He followed his conscience despite enormous pressures."
In the early 1970s, Martin Bregman was a successful manager and representative of a number of film industry people, including actor Al Pacino, but he was more interested in becoming a producer. He had lunch with Peter Maas' agent Sam Cohen who told Bregman about Serpico, Maas' book, and their interest in making a film of it. Bregman decided this would be his first project as producer, and that he would champion Pacino, then coming off the success of The Godfather (1972), as the lead.
"Within 20 minutes of our first meeting," Maas recalled, "Al started absorbing his role through his pores. It was almost like he was inhaling the guy."
Bregman approached a number of studios but could not get financing because they felt that the police drama genre was played out. According to Bregman there had been 17 films in the previous two years dealing with cops and "most of them were dreadful," with super heroic officers who cleaned up the streets and took out dozens of criminals in big raids and shootouts. "It wasn't real," Bregman said. "Having grown up in New York and raised in fairly tough areas, I knew what cops did. Most of them never fire their weapons."
Cohen sent Bregman to Dino De Laurentiis, who had produced the film version of The Valachi Papers (1972), also based on a Maas book. De Laurentiis liked the project and was particularly drawn to Al Pacino.
Reports in Varietyand Publishers Weekly in 1972 may indicate a slightly different deal making process than the one Bregman describes. According to various news items, the film rights were sold to De Laurentiis for $400,000 (and a promise of Maas' active participation on the film) six months prior to the publication date of the book. Maas was quoted as saying he wanted to give De Laurentiis first shot at the movie rights because he "had guts enough" to do the film of The Valachi Papers when no one else would touch it.
Bregman got to know Serpico much better during the research phase while the producer was still hunting for a director for the project. The two of them were in an otherwise empty art house cinema in New York checking out the work of a particular director. Aware they were alone, Bregman lit a cigarette, figuring it would disturb no one. Serpico told him to put it out, regardless of who was or was not there, because it was against the law. "He was very strict about morality and following the rules," Bregman noted.
Initially, John Avildsen was hired as director based on Bregman's admiration for his work on the movie Joe (1970). But they quickly disagreed, according to Bregman, over Avildsen's insistence on focusing more on the bigger political story and the Knapp Commission hearings. "That's a television show," Bregman said. "I wanted to make a film about the character." News items at the time of Serpico's development, however, said the disagreements were over budget and locations. One article stated that everything came to a head when Bregman "refused to accede to the director's demand that key scenes be filmed at Frank Serpico's actual boyhood home in Brooklyn," a choice Avildsen made to heighten a realistic approach to the story. The two had clashed repeatedly, with Avildsen quitting and then being coaxed back, but by April 1973, he was completely off the production.
Sidney Lumet was approached to take over directing on Serpico. According to Lumet, his involvement was quickly confirmed: He read the book, met De Laurentiis, and a day later met with Bregman and Pacino, all within about three days. This happened barely 10 days before rehearsals were about to begin and six weeks before principal photography.
The first writer on the project was Waldo Salt, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who had previously won an Academy Award® for Midnight Cowboy (1969). Lumet found Salt's script "marvelous" but, at 240 pages, far too long; the movie would have been more than four hours. Then Norman Wexler, who wrote Joe, was brought in to give it structure and cut the script down. Although Wexler was masterful at structure, his dialogue couldn't match Salt's more accomplished skill in that area. "So we basically ended up shooting Waldo Salt's language and Norman Wexler's structure" for the entire film, Lumet said.
The script of Serpico stuck fairly closely to the facts, although certain details, such as Serpico's three marriages and other relationships and the names of many of the principals in the story, were altered. Time was also compressed so that it appeared as if events happened over a shorter period than an entire 12-year time span. Also, fellow whistle-blower David Durk was left completely out of the story; his part in the story was semi-fictionalized as the made-up character Bob Blair. Others who testified before the Knapp Commission were also left out of the film version.
Lumet met Frank Serpico about three days before rehearsals were to begin and found him "extraordinary" and great fun. Serpico had been invited by Pacino to stay with him in a house on Montauk, Long Island, and the two spent a lot of time together while Pacino studied him and spoke to him about his life and experiences. Serpico also sat in on script conferences and contributed ideas. When it came time to shoot, Bregman and Pacino felt that Serpico's presence on the set would be a distraction, so they told him he could not be involved in the production in any way. "His feelings were enormously hurt," Lumet said. "He had this fantasy that show business would be his new life and that [Pacino and Lumet] would be his best friends."
by Rob Nixon
The Serpico production budget was in the $2.5-3 million range.
Before shooting began, Sidney Lumet and the production company had to cast 107 speaking parts. They decided to use mostly unknown actors. Lumet said the best way to strengthen the sense of reality was not to use actors for whom audiences had a lot of previous associations. Even Pacino, despite his high exposure in The Godfather (1972), was still relatively new. "Back then, we could work with lesser-known actors because there wasn't the pressure for a big opening," Bregman said. "The film, the story was most important." This was often the case in the early 1970s but the focus is very different today.
Principal photography on Serpico began a year after Serpico's resignation from the police force.
Lumet likes to do very simple things on the first day of shooting, like basic entrances and exits, to let actors and crew get used to each other and make them aware that things will move very quickly. He will often shoot just a single take and move quickly to another set-up. He said this process also helps to spot weak links in his team. The first day on Serpico, he worked at three different, fairly far-flung locations. Pacino was initially stunned, especially after coming off the methodically low, deliberate process of The Godfather. But he and the rest of the cast soon learned that this fast pace had the benefit of keeping the inner tension of the narrative and the characters alive.
Associate Producer Roger Rothstein gave Lumet high marks as "a tremendously organized director" who was able to motivate everyone to do as many as 35 set-ups in a single day.
Serpico was shot entirely on location in New York City in every borough except Staten Island. A total of 104 locations were used. This worked well for Lumet, who knows the city inside and out and has a memory bank full of neighborhoods, buildings, and streets he calls on for any New York City-based film he directs. For instance, for one scene, he remembered having spotted a building in the meat-packing district with a deep shade of red, so he scheduled his shoot there. "With a film like this, location is important. You go first to where it actually happened, but often reality is dull, so you have to heighten it." That may have been the thinking behind filming Serpico's home at a location on Minetta instead of the real location at Perry and Greenwich streets in the Village, which was a few blocks away.
Lumet was pleased with the cooperation of the NYPD, especially in light of the subject matter and the proximity in time to the actual events depicted in the movie. "I'm not apologizing for corruption, but they had their code, and it's painful for them, that kind of movie...It should be painful for them. But I shot in four live station houses with their work going on at the time. The NYPD were wonderful." Two officers were directly assigned to the movie, and Lumet wondered what their reaction would be. "As soon as they saw the truth we were going for, how it was not a Hollywood version, they not only weren't a problem, they more actively helped," he noted.
Because Pacino's character goes from a clean-cut recruit to bearded and long-haired, the picture was shot in reverse. This allowed Pacino to start with the beard and hair and gradually trim or remove them as the earlier scenes dictated.
Since filming was done in the summer heat, details of winter scenes, such as defoliated trees and visible breath, had to be simulated.
The actors were allowed to do some improvisation in their scenes. Reportedly, much of Pacino's explosive reaction in Serpico's last abortive meeting with his former captain was off the cuff.
Lumet said Pacino always needed to be in the character's state of mind in any given scene and could not shed that state off camera, so he behaved accordingly at all times, either happy, joking, and laughing for a lighthearted scene or angry and lashing out at everyone if the scene they were working on called for that behavior. "It's a tough way to work but it sure results in brilliance," Lumet said, adding that this method often spilled over off set, too. Pacino would sometimes go in character to different neighborhoods, some of them dangerous. One story has it that Pacino was so in character while filming Serpico that he pulled over a truck driver and threatened to arrest him for exhaust pollution.
Woodie King, Jr., now an acclaimed stage and screen producer-director (Death of a Prophet , Segregating the Greatest Generation ), was originally cast as a young street thug but he broke his leg while filming a chase scene and was replaced. He returned to the set two months later to play Leslie's friend Larry in the party scene.
The principal photography onSerpico began right after July 4th, and the film was scheduled to open by Christmas. That left four and a half months for shooting, editing, and mixing, an "insanely short time" in Lumet's estimation. Therefore, the editing had to take place during filming, something Lumet normally doesn't like. Without the luxury of time, it was necessary to finish shooting a scene and rush it to editor Dede Allen, who had to cut the footage within 48 hours and have it ready for delivery to the sound department.
Speaking of the production in a later interview, Lumet said, "Serpico, just physically and in terms of logistics, gives you the problem of keeping your emotional theme work in perspective. You have to ask yourself not only 'Where am I physically?' but 'Where am I emotionally?' I think I was more tired after finishing Serpico than almost any movie I've ever done. There was also the obligation to the real Frank Serpicoto be honest with his life and not exploit it."
by Rob Nixon
"It's incredible but I feel like a criminal because I don't take money." So says frustrated New York policeman Frank Serpico in the fact based drama cop drama Serpico (1973). As portrayed by Al Pacino, Serpico is the resident nonconformist in the working class New York Police Department, a college-educated street cop with counter-culture tendencies, an increasingly shaggy appearance (the clean-shaven rookie grows out his hair and his beard as the film progresses) and a penchant for jokes that his blue collar coworkers never get. His refusal to take the bribes that other cops accept as part of the job makes him a pariah on the force and even the Internal Affairs division treats him as trouble, but he's more reluctant whistleblower than shining knight in blue. It's not moral superiority that drives him to break the "blue wall," simply his disgust with the culture of corruption in a job that he believes in. As the department closes ranks to protect its own from outside investigators and the wheels of justice get jammed out of fear of scandal, he becomes a walking target.
The real-life Frank Serpico made headlines as the scandals broke and, as an independent commission delved into the scope of the corruption, he was almost killed on the job under suspicious circumstances. Peter Maas put his story into a non-fiction bestseller, which Martin Bregman optioned as his first feature as a producer. Previous films about police corruption tended to frame the issue in terms of bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel. This was very different, yet Bregman was more interested in the man and his experience than a story of corruption and investigation, and the episodic script follows Serpico as he is bounced from one precinct to another and becomes more alienated, frustrated and desperate. He found a collaborator on the same wavelength in Sidney Lumet, a TV-trained director with a reputation for strong performances, literary adaptations and, in films like The Pawnbroker (1964), creating a sense of street realism. The New York-born Lumet shot most of Serpico on the streets and in standing buildings rather than sets wherever possible, and he brought a distinctive sense of place with his choice of locations and his documentary-style approach to shooting. While that became a hallmark of seventies police dramas and crime thrillers to follow, it was still quite new at the time. Along with The French Connection (1971), Serpico was one of the films that brought this new realism to the screen portrait of American cops with its realistic portraits of procedure and systemic failure and flawed, human characters behind the badges.
Al Pacino's star was on the rise when he was cast as Frank Serpico - he had just completed his first major role in The Godfather (1972) - but where he was part of a powerful ensemble in France Ford Coppola's gangster epic, Pacino was in every scene of Serpico. As the script was driven more by character than plot, it fell to Pacino's performance to carry the film. To prepare for the role, he spent days with the real Frank Serpico trying to get to the heart of the man and the struggle of his ordeal. According to Lumet, Pacino so subsumed himself in the role while shooting that he often carried the character off screen.
Serpico was shot fast and loose, as much out of preference as of necessity. Lumet liked to shoot quickly and he believed that the tempo of production helped drive the tempo of the film. But the project was also rushing to meet a release date: shooting began in July 1973 for a Christmas release, "an insanely short time," in the words of Lumet. Scenes were edited as they were shot so that Lumet had a rough cut by the time shooting ended in August and time to fine tune the rhythms of the episodic narrative.
The Watergate scandal was breaking as Serpico was released at the end of 1973 and the story of systemic corruption and cover-ups and Pacino's loose, energized performance as an idealistic policeman who essentially sacrifices his career and his girlfriend and almost loses his life to do the right thing struck a chord with audiences. The film was a hit. Pacino earned his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger) and won a Golden Globe for his performance. The film's screenplay, by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, was also Oscar® nominated, and though Lumet was ignored by the Academy, he was nominated for Best Director by the Director's Guild of America. The film also established Lumet as a director of intelligent, gritty, modern crime dramas. Two years later, Lumet reunited with Pacino for the acclaimed Dog Day Afternoon (1973), a film with the same dynamic sense of character and location and moral confusion, and at the end of the decade Lumet produced and directed the ambitious Prince of the City (1981), a veritable epic portrait of corruption in the New York City police force. It could be the bookend to Serpico, the first major American film to seriously and unflinchingly confront police corruption as a systemic issue.
Producer: Martin Bregman
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler; Peter Maas (book)
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Art Direction: Douglas Higgins
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Film Editing: Dede Allen, Richard Marks (co-editor)
Cast: Al Pacino (Officer Frank Serpico), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Capt. Insp. McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie Lane), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), John Medici (Pasquale), Allan Rich (Dist. Atty. Herman Tauber), Norman Ornellas (Don Rubello), Ed Grover (Insp. Lombardo), Al Henderson (Peluce), Hank Garrett (Malone).
C-130m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Sean Axmaker
Awards and Honors for SERPICO
Serpico received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler)
Other awards included the Golden Globe Best Actor Award (Pacino) and a nomination for Best Motion Picture Drama, the National Board of Review Best Actor award, three British Academy Award (BAFTA) nominations: Best Actor, Best Direction (Lumet, also nominated for Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), and the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music (Mikis Theodorakis)
Additional honors include the David di Donatello (Italy) Best Foreign Actor Award, a Directors Guild of America nomination for Lumet, a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium (Salt and Wexler), and the Edgar Allan Poe Award (mystery writers) nomination for Salt and Wexler
It also garnered a Grammy (recording industry) nomination to Theodorakis for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture
Pacino's performance in Serpico is generally considered one of his best. His role as Serpico is ranked number 40 on the American Film Institute (AFI) "100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains" list. The film is also ranked 84th on AFI's "100 Years, 100 Cheers: America's Most Inspiring Movies" list.
The Critics' Corner: SERPICO
"It is galvanizing because of Al Pacino's splendid performance in the title role and because of the tremendous intensity that Mr. Lumet brings to this sort of subject. The methodsudden contrasts in tempo, lighting, sound levelseems almost crude, but it reflects the quality of Detective Serpico's outrage, which, in our society, comes to look like an obsession bordering on madness. ... You should find the film most provocative, a remarkable record of one man's rebellion against the sort of sleaziness and second-ratedness that has affected so much American life, from the ingredients of its hamburgers to the ethics of its civil servants and politicians."
Vincent Canby, New York Times, December 6, 1973
"Pacino dominates the entire film. His inner personal torment is vividly detailed, manifested first in the breakup of an affair with Cornelia Sharpe and later, much more terribly, in the wreck of his love for Barbara Eda-Young."
"Al Pacino gives a masterful performance as Serpico. He proves that, although there is a strong resemblance, he is no rubber-stamp Dustin Hoffman."
Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News, 1973
"...Serpico is as enjoyable and engrossing as a film can be without being a work of art....the script by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and Norman Wexler (Joe, 1970)...is intelligent and adroit. It does not pretend to explain what it doesn't know...Serpico is a street movie, like The French Connection (1971), like certain films by Elia Kazan and Jules Dassin, because to these directors, as to Lumet, a back alley and a boulevard are as real as their bedrooms and bathrooms; because they seem more at home with wall-to-wall asphalt than with wall-to-wall carpeting. In such films the cameraman is extremely important, and Serpico's Arthur J. Ornitz has the requisite ultrahigh sensitivity to light and shadow locked in Manichaean combat over the city, to the way faces flatten out into vapidity in overilluminated offices, or become prematurely eclipsed in sunless metropolitan chasms."
- John Simon, Reverse Angle
"The theme is richly comic, and the film is great fun, even though it sacrifices Serpico's storyone of the rare hopeful stories of the timefor a cynical, downbeat finish."
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt & Co., 1984)
"Serpico is a fascinating instance of overt New York realism succumbing to the introspection of the actor. Lumet may have wanted a lively drama of cops on the take and big city cover-ups. But Pacino diverted it into the ballad of a sad, aloof hippie. It is his cutest film, a self-righteous pose."
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film
"Lumet's best film of the Seventies..."
- Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema
"Like a practice run for Lumet's Prince of the City (1981), this deals with police corruption in New York... whereas the later film built up an impressively complex series of narrative strands and psychological motivations, this is far more one-dimensional, and is so laxly structured that its rambling story seems to last longer than the (almost) three-hour Prince of the City. Another problem, these days, is Pacino's characterisation; he seems at times more like a misplaced hippy than a plainclothes cop."
- Geoff Andrew, TimeOut Film Guide
"One of Sidney Lumet's very best movies in an exemplary career, Serpico is a highly entertaining movie about grim police corruption in New York....Serpico tells the tale of Frank's personal ordeal, while painting a vivid and credible portrait of the force at all levels. For a film that one would think the NYPD would never allow to be made on the city streets, all the settings and precincts look 100% authentic, from the fingerprint and file rooms to the grungy bathrooms. The show has an enormous cast of real-looking faces, and many small parts are played by names that would later become familiar - M. Emmet Walsh, James Tolkan, F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth McMillan, Judd Hirsch, even Tony Lo Bianco in a tiny bit. Look fast and you'll also spot unbilled Jaime Sanchez (The Wild Bunch, 1969) in a towel in the police gym."
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
by Rob Nixon