Wednesday, 14 December 2016
1,001 Films: "Serpico" (1973)
Along with the later Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City, Serpico was one of Sidney Lumet's career-redefining true-crime visions of New York before the clean-up: here's a place mired in corruption, where even those still trying to stay on top of things were liable to be brought down in the daily course of events. (Travis Bickle is parked up just around the corner with his engine running, obscured by the rain, dirt and sewer smoke.) It's less police procedural than murder-mystery, an attempt to square the bearded cop bleeding out in the back of an ambulance in the opening moments with the fresh-faced new recruit (Al Pacino) we then see reporting for duty, who immediately establishes himself as different from his colleagues by reading the writings of Isadora Duncan and refusing to take anything for free. Already, one notes Lumet's gift for economically describing character, and Pacino's ability to disappear and grow inside a role: on one level, Serpico is all about performance and identity, built as it is around a protagonist who - in refusing to wear the uniform that had become tainted by that point - is constantly having to prove himself. (Hence Duncan; hence the moustache and beard that transform Frank Serpico into an avant la lettre Barry Gibb.)
The kind of corruption the film depicts - quiet, persistent, low-level graft, skimming off a few lousy bucks here and there - is obviously far less dramatic than that presented in The Godfather, and possibly it now looks over-reliant on Pacino's innate hoo-ha-hery to sustain it through its more meticulous stretches (his "I can shout anywhere!" isn't so much a throwaway ad lib as a manifesto for much of the work to come); Lumet also invents that cop-film cliche of the the obsessive investigator who gets so caught up in his work that his wife or girlfriend has to leave just to get him to notice her. Still, you can see why it struck a chord at its particular countercultural moment - as elsewhere in America, the idealism of a bookish, hairy young thing is used to show up the failings of his elders, portrayed as either indifferent or utterly complacent by the kind of doughy, sweaty character actors who proliferated in 1970s cinema - and it holds up today, if less as a gripping thriller than as a parable of individual heroism gone awry within a system that simply doesn't care.
Serpico is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment, and on Blu-Ray through Masters of Cinema.