Monday, August 31, 2015
A young police officer, Frank Serpico, gets his enthusiasm demolished when he starts working for the New York police. He is shocked at the police brutality, but even more at the corruption in the precinct, since some criminals pay regular bribes of 800$ per cop each month as to not get arrested. Serpico refuses to accept the bribes, which causes tension among his fellow police officers. He informs two superiors, and they suggest that he collects evidence undercover. However, after a year and a half, no action has been undertaken. Serpico's friend Blair persuades him to go to the mayor, but nothing happens, either. Finally, after an article in the New York Times, a commission is formed to investigate the precinct. Serpico is set up to get shot during an assignment, but survives and testifies in front of the investigation.
Often regarded as one of the classics of the 70s, "Serpico" is a very noble and honest ode to the idealistic title hero who bravely dared to report police corruption among his colleagues, and is often considered one of the performances where Al Pacino had his finest hour. Torn between his ethics and loyalty to his police colleagues, Serpico is indeed a fascinating character, and the screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler tried to portrait him as concise as possible, without falling into sentimentality (except in the melodramatic sequences between him and his girlfriend). The crafting by Sidney Lumet is not always spot-on, though; the scenes of Serpico's private life seem strangely uneven and disjointed from the rest of the storyline, and thus we here have unfortunate moments of the hero's interest in ballet, adopting a puppy or randomly meeting characters at a party, all of which smell of a "deleted scene". However, when the film follows Serpico's career at the police, this is where all the highlights launch. One sequence in particular is extraordinarily effective: Serpico's arrest of drug dealer Corsaro, who thinks he is safe because he bribed the police. Almost every detail in that sequence is charged with power, from Serpico's anger when he spots the arrested Corsaro chatting friendly with four detectives, through Serpico losing his patience and stripping Corsaro until he rips his pants from his butt, up to the four detectives standing there, sour, so the hero drops a chair in front of one of them to make him move. Lumet managed to make Serpico's discomfort very palpable, especially in the old technique where the perpetrator blames the victim for everything (upon refusing once again to take the bribe, his colleague decide to split his part between them, and call him a "schmuck"), and manages to establish him as the conscience of the police, which is rare and intriguing.