Serpico (1973)

*. In 1971, at the end of Dirty Harry, SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan tosses his badge into a quarry pond. In 1973 NYPD Detective Frank Serpico rejects the badge of a detective’s gold shield, opting for (very) early retirement to Switzerland.
*. Two dramatic acts of abnegation from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Harry and Frank are disgusted with “the system,” but for very different reasons. Harry would, of course, be back, his fight against the system becoming a part of American mythology. But there would be no second act for Serpico, whose story had the uncomfortable distinction of being true. I have to think there’s some larger meaning to this.
*. I have to say I find Serpico a dull watch today, but that’s more because of its genre than its politics. The progressive-activist biopic is almost the definition of Oscar bait. Norma Rae. Silkwood. Erin Brockovich. Milk. All stories about little guys taking on the corrupt/racist/homophobic/capitalist system. And I think they’re stories that are worthy of telling. I just can’t imagine watching any of these movies twice.
*. Al Pacino in his heyday, just after The Godfather and just before The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. He’s good here, if a little improbable. He looks so small, and one simply can’t credit him running down the bad guys on foot. Sidney Lumet was a last-minute replacement as director but Mr. New York City comes through, even if you have to grin at the way Serpico keeps arranging secret meetings at such conspicuous landmarks.
*. As with most of these biopic heroes, Serpico is a Christ figure. This is even more obvious because he’s undercover as a hippie so he even looks like a ’60s (or ’70s) Jesus. He’s also often wearing white, and the light on him is highlighted whereas the dirty cops are cast in shade. Actually, most of the supporting players are cast in shade. There’s some talent alongside Pacino but we don’t really notice them in such a one-man show. The women are so disposable they don’t even register. Though there’s no way he was going to let that magnificent sheepdog get away. He’s a keeper.
*. Everything looks dirty in that documentary-style grittiness that was, briefly, the style after The French Connection. And yet it’s not a movie that makes much of an impact today. Perhaps it’s too authentically of its time and place, meaning the pre-Disneyfied NYC. Fifty years later, bad cops are more likely to be exposed by cell phone footage than being outed by a whistleblower. I’m not sure if the medium has changed the message.

4 thoughts on “Serpico (1973)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’d argue the toss about this one; watched in in HD a couple of years back, and I find Lumet’s scuzzy view of policework still invigorating. And while aspects of the film are dated, sure, but to be a Serpico is still a thing; whistleblowers are still a big deal, and that particular label has stuck…

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, I can see all that. I think there’s something about the genre that I have trouble with. These are stories worth telling, but as movies I never feel like going back to them. But maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this one.


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