A classic whistle-blowing and myth-bursting tale, Sidney Lumet’s 1973 Serpico, the agonizing story of an honest cop battling corruption within the New York City Police Department, showcases how greed trumps dignity every time at every level of human endeavours.
This 40-year-old tale of one guy against the system is surely nothing new to modern audiences, right? Who really does not know that the police force is a corrupt and self-serving organization? Since the release of the movie, audiences have become cynical and don’t normally buy this idea that cops patrol our cities ‘to protect and to serve’. It would however be a mistake to see the film’s value in such simplistic terms. For the story of Serpico is less about revealing corruption in the police force and more about the struggle one man faces when he chooses dignity and the consequences it has on his self.
Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) graduates from the police academy and starts working in a precinct in New York City. From the beginning he shows enthusiasm, hard work and honesty – he is indeed very serious about crime-fighting. One day he receives an envelope with $ 300 extortion money in it and he does not know what to do with it. Soon his reputation as an ‘untrustworthy and difficult’ cop is spread and Serpico starts rapidly to make enemies within the force. He asks to be transferred and is granted a new position in a different precinct as an under-cover police officer. As time progresses and his working life becomes unbearable, Serpico reaches the highest ranks of the department and blows the whistle on the police corruption. Before anything is accomplished he is shot in the face as a consequence of his colleagues’ disregard for his safety.
The first thing to say about Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece is that this is the portrayal of someone real. Not because the story is based on real events, but because the character Frank Serpico, depicted by Al Pacino, is one who rings true. Serpico might be the protagonist, the honest cop and the good guy, but he also is annoying and selfish, and has flaws just like any other human being. Sometimes, his tantrums, which are the result of years of abuse by the other cops, rob us of empathy towards his self. This is, to me, the most valuable aspect of the film: it has the intention of telling a story in an honest and realistic way.
..Not Everyone Wants to be his Buddy…
Frank Serpico’s physical transformation from mama’s good boy and conventional doted son turned clean-shaved and idealistic cop into a long-haired, bearded hippy, edging on the paranoid and neurotic side, surely helps us visualise the evolution of the character. But it is the appearance of nasty reactions to the pressure of it all that makes the man. He takes on his friend Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), who is trying to help him bring corruption charges against the cops; he mistreats his girlfriend and neighbour Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young); he is grumpy in general, all because of the stress and psychological pressure he is under.
The film is brave enough to portray this flawed guy, even though we are supposed to be sympathising with him. But had Frank not encountered such corrupted environment surely he would have behaved differently and therefore be thought of as a different person. With Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe), the first of two women he gets involved romantically with, he is more relaxed and easy-going for the simple reason that she belongs to an earlier period of his police career. At the beginning, though he already shows signs of an inflexibly honest attitude, the other cops seem to tolerate him because of his naiveté – he certainly will learn the ropes, they expect.
From the perspective of the other cops, the problem with Serpico is that he is different rather than that he is honest. He tried to be out of their way, gave the $ 300 to charity, generally ignored the exchange of bribes and tried not to care about the sarcastic comments and downright abuse made by the other cops. Still, they could not let him be. Sure, as one of them puts it ‘who can trust a cop who don’t take money?’ However, the impression remains that if he had fitted better in that testosterone-bursting environment his fate would have been different.
Instead, it was inevitable that he would be in trouble with the others. Idealist, strong-minded, determined, a loner and a free spirit… How could he have fitted better? More remarkable still is the isolation and alienation imposed on him by himself. Already ostracised by his colleagues at the force, Serpico embarks on a mission to alienate the ones who are on his side. So the pertinent question to be asked is not how could he have fitted better. He couldn’t. The rather more relevant question is: Why in general people have a problem with difference?
Al Pacino knows that too well. After The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) made him a household name, instead of making clichéd movies that would make him a fortune, he chose challenging roles like Serpico, this flawed and bitter guy, and Sonny, a gay bank-robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet). Basically, for some people, the choice to be high-minded, righteous and decent, even if it means fighting the world for that choice, is the only one. In his own way he was just trying to ‘be thou faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.’ (Revelation 2:10) After all, every man dies alone…