SERPICO, a seminal “corruption” drama from 1973, wasn’t the first movie that dealt with “dirty” cops. But unlike earlier crime pix that had one or two bad apples in an otherwise clean barrel, rogues who were eventually purged from the system (usually via sudden injections of lead), this fact-based exposé showed nearly an entire department—the nation’s largest—was rotten to the tree trunk. One of director Sidney Lumet’s select squad of urban epics from the era, it boosted Al Pacino’s rising star with an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The candidly explicit screenplay from Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler also earned a nomination. *
Taken from the bestseller “Serpico: The Cop Who Defied The System”, by Peter Maas, the story covers eleven years, 1960-71 in the ultimately distinguished but decidedly uncomfortable career of New York City police officer Frank Serpico (Pacino). He goes from eager patrolman to bitterly disillusioned detective, ostracized by fellow cops because he not only refused to be on the take, but actively sought to expose it. Making a lot of guys with guns mad at you is not the best retirement strategy.
Gripping at the time, and intense all the way, it’s lost some of its steam over the years, but Pacino’s immersive performance holds up, with two exceptions the large supporting cast register with uncomfortable believability, and Lumet’s direction is tight. On the debit side, it goes on a bit too long at 130 minutes, and Mikis Theodorakis’ score tends to lay on the suds. Serpico’s home life, frantic and frivolous, then fractured and futile, with girlfriends played by Cornelia Sharpe and Barbara Eda-Young, isn’t compelling (nor are the two actresses); that material feels forced.
Critics clapped, and audiences ate it up, the $3,300,000 cost vanquished by a $29,800,000 payoff, 1973’s 13th most-attended movie in a year loaded with good ones.
Lumet packed his deck with “New York” actors whose ‘street faces’ would soon become familiar. Among the 107 speaking parts in 104 separate locations are John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Ed Grover, Tony Roberts, Allan Rich, James Tolkan, Nathan George, M. Emmett Walsh, F. Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsch.
* Lumet, on New York gritty: “Locations are characters in my movies. The city is capable of portraying a mood a scene requires.”
Academy Al: “I was sitting in the third or fourth row with Diane Keaton. Jeff Bridges was there with his girl. No one expected me to come. I was a little high. Somebody had done something to my hair, blew it or something, and I looked like I had a bird’s nest on my head, a real mess. I sat there and tried to look indifferent because I was so nervous. Any time I’m nervous, I try to put on an indifferent or a cold look. At one point, I turned to Jeff Bridges and said, “Hey, looks like there won’t be time to get to the Best Actor awards.” He gave me a strange look. He said, “Oh, really?” I said, “It’s over, the hour is up.” He said, “It’s three hours long.” I thought it was an hour TV show, can you imagine that? And I had to pee–bad. So I popped a Valium. Actually, I was eating Valium like they were candy. Chewed on them. Finally came the Best Actor. Can you imagine the shape I was in? I couldn’t have made it to the stage. I was praying, “Please don’t let it be me. Please.” And I hear . . . “Jack Lemmon.” I was just so happy I didn’t have to get up, because I never would have made it.”