Serpico: a character study of how one police officer’s personal crusade against corruption destroys him

Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973)

As character studies go, “Serpico” is very good indeed: based on the biography of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico by Peter Maas, “Serpico” follows the career of its eponymous protagonist over a decade and a bit in the New York state police department as he gradually comes to realise the extent to which the force has compromised its own ideals and ethics and has become nothing more than just another gang of thugs – albeit well armed – susceptible to taking bribes, bending rules to suit itself, and ignoring the needs and safety concerns of the wider community it’s supposed to serve. He determines not to succumb to the blandishments of police force culture, however seductive they are, and to expose the system and indifferent attitudes of senior management to the public. Unfortunately this means that Serpico must isolate himself from his fellow police officers, well-meaning and kind they may be at times, to avoid succumbing to the same temptations they have fallen for, and the consequences for his personal life, his close relationships, his mental and physical health, and the later decisions he makes turn out to be severe. His fight against a corrupt institution and its insular culture is long and hard, and takes a heavy toll on him, and while Serpico’s battle is justified and the New York state police department finally decides to start cleaning up its organisation and culture, the police officer’s own health and career end up being shattered.

Al Pacino is suitably intense and fiery as Serpico, and throws himself right into the character to the extent where he lives and breathes Serpico, and has probably adopted some if not most of Serpico’s eccentricities as his own. For much of the film’s length, Serpico broods or glares at his superiors and other police officers – but the best moments are when his tough fa├žade falls away and the vulnerable man, unsure that the path he has taken is the right one, lonely and afraid for his life and career, is exposed. Whatever his character is required to do, whether he beats up a drug-dealer, chases crooks, buys a lovable puppy or tries to reason with his girlfriends who threaten to walk out on him, Pacino handles all these and more without much strain.

The support cast varies from average to good, giving just enough to allow Pacino to dominate his scenes without overpowering them. The New York City urban landscape is a significant character in its own right: its buildings rundown, the streets and alleyways full of rubbish, and neighbourhoods harbouring drug rings, small-time criminals and others whose lives are affected by hard drugs and the gangs that supply them, the city may be enticing in its apparent promise to shower newcomers with fame and fortune if they work hard, obey the law and stay out of trouble, but it is also a cruel and demanding mistress to those who fail to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

The film’s pace is mostly leisurely and the plot takes its time to reveal itself in all its detail to viewers. At times “Serpico” feels more like a television series than a one-off biopic, so relaxed and low-key it is. Scenes come and go without much apparent resolution: we never do learn how the inquiry into police corruption proceeds and what conclusions it reaches and what recommendations it makes; and we must assume that the two women who love Serpico – not at the same time, mind you – never see him again. There may be something to be said for editing the film so it’s a little faster and more focused as it lurches towards that inevitable climax where he nearly dies. When the ending comes, it is completely unexpected and somewhat of a disappointment, even though if you know something of Serpico’s life or have read the Peter Maas book you know what’s going to happen, that it will be lacking in heroism or grandstanding speeches or a moral lesson. Viewers are forced to question the nature of true heroism and sacrifice, and to ponder whether the rightness of Serpico’s personal crusade more than compensates for nearly losing his life and having to give up the career he loves.

“Serpico” is an excellent example of the type of New Hollywood film, with its emphasis on realism and the focus on less advantaged levels of American society and their issues and problems of discrimination and poverty, post-Martin Luther King, that was being made in the 1970s. What a pity that such films are very rarely made these days, either by Hollywood or by independent film-makers.