“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).
It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.
Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.
Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.
What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.
The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.
I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.
This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.
In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars
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