Serpico (1973)

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Cinematography Arthur J. Ornitz

Serpico is a 1973 American neo-noir crime drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino. Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler wrote the screenplay, adapting Peter Maas‘s biography of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corruption in the police force. Both Maas’s book and the film cover 12 years, 1960 to 1972.


Working as a uniformed patrolman, Frank Serpico excels at every assignment. He moves on to plainclothes assignments, where he slowly discovers a hidden world of corruption and graft among his own colleagues. After witnessing cops commit violence, take payoffs, and other forms of police corruption, Serpico decides to expose what he has seen, but is harassed and threatened by his peers. His struggle leads to infighting within the police force, problems in his personal relationships, and his life being threatened. Finally, after being shot in the face during a drug bust on February 3, 1971, he testifies before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into NYPD police corruption between 1970 and 1972. After receiving a New York City Police Department Medal of Honor and a disability pension, Serpico resigns from the force and moves to Switzerland.



Prior to any work on the film, producer Martin Bregman had lunch with Peter Maas to discuss a film adaptation of his biography of Frank Serpico. Waldo Salt, a screenwriter, began to write the script which director Sidney Lumet deemed to be too long. Another screenwriter, Norman Wexler, did the structural work followed by play lines.

Director John G. Avildsen was originally slated to direct the movie, but was removed from production due to differences with producer Bregman. Lumet took the helm as director just before filming.

The story was filmed in New York City. A total of 104 different locations in four of the five boroughs of the city (all except Staten Island) were used. An apartment at 5-7 Minetta Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was used as Serpico’s residence, though he lived on Perry Street during the events depicted in the film. Lewisohn Stadium, which was closed at the time of filming, was used for one scene.


honest filmaking, good and true story of corruption in NY police department

11 March 2004 | by parsleylion (Ireland) – See all my reviews

Sidney Lumet is a director who captures something crucial in city based dramas surrounding legal and political affairs; with films like ’12 angry men’, ‘the verdict’, ‘nightfalls on Manhattan’ and ‘Q & A’ he shows an excellent grasp of the power plays in civic politics. In ‘Serpico’ he uses an excellent script to tell the story of an unorthodox character in Frank Serpico, a hippie in a time when most cops were square as a doorway but whose honesty when faced with police corruption marks him out as a man of remarkable character. Unflinching in its depiction of Serpico, the film portrays warts and all, over the period in which he refuses to take money and shows his extraordinary political vindication at an official investigation into NYPD corruption.


The story of civic corruption is cogent in any time, one only has to look at great empires like Rome to understand how much corruption plays a part in the shaping of so called civilizations; where the very foundation stones have bodies, so to speak, buried under them or even within them. This film is both informative and honest in much the way ‘All the Presidents Men’ would be in the following year.


Winning Al Pacino a deserved Oscar nomination in the years between the Godfather’s Part I and II; it demonstrates the range of an actor who would go on to portray a character in Michael Corleone soon afterwards who is the very nemisis of the character in Serpico. In Serpico there is a dramadocumentary that calls to mind Shakespeares history plays in its depiction of a classical situation of a man ostracized and driven by noble sentiments to embody something of the civic value one expects of servants of the public trust. Brilliant film. 10 out of 10.

Sure, The Godfather made Al Pacino a star, but Serpico kept him one

Author: Derek237 from Canada
5 June 2003

Al Pacino is one of the best actors around, and he has many definitive roles. His role as Frank Serpico is certainly one of them. He acts with such charm and smoothness in some scenes, while explosive and intense in others.


The movie gets into a big plot line about police corruption and Serpico blowing the whistle on the department. It’s interesting and the whole point of the movie, but the reason this is such a good movie is because of the character, not the plot. The better scenes include Serpico’s personal life and struggles. There’s one great part where he explains to his girlfriend why he’s always wanted to be a cop. It’s scenes like those that make you sympathetic for him.

Sidney Lumet and Pacino made a great team for this movie, and proved to be a great team for Dog Day Afternoon a few years later. But as good as a director Lumet is, as good as everyone involved with this movie is, this is Pacino’s movie. It’s an essential viewing for his fans.

My rating: 9/10

Unfair. Unfair!”

Author: Michael Coy ( from London, England
16 January 2002

Frank Serpico begins his career with the NYPD as an idealistic rookie who believes in the moral value of policing. He has a simple and old-fashioned ethical code, an outlook which used to be known as honesty. What he finds is a moral sewer, five boroughs wide, in which almost every cop is on the take.


The police are just another gang of hoodlums, but with more guns than the bad guys. Even basically decent cops go along with the kickback culture, because a locker-room psychology prevails in which values have become perverted. Squad loyalty is now a criminal conspiracy of silence. Detectives do not hesitate to shake-down hoods who are slow to pay. To Frank Serpico, this is simply wrong. He wants no part of it. And so his long agony begins.

Both responding to and helping to shape the mood of its time, a weary cynicism towards authority, “Serpico” arrived on the screen just as Watergate built to its climax. Americans could no longer regard their institutions as gleaming examples to mankind of optimism and good government. The film begins gloomily with Serpico badly wounded, having been shot in the face. We hear police and ambulance sirens fading, symbolically representing the life-force ebbing from Frank, and the withering of American dreams.


This first-class film is a triumph, and one that could easily have misfired. Had the crooked cops been depicted as mere thugs, then Serpico himself would have been an archetype, just another two-dimensional crusader. What gives the film its psychological richness is the realisation that the dishonest cops are NICE. These are affable, reasonable men who want to like Serpico and want to welcome him onto the team. The camaraderie is seductive and it’s difficult for Frank to hold out against it. He is besieged by self-doubt, wondering if he is just a one-man awkward squad, or worse – a prima donna, sacrificing personal relationships on the altar of his own ego.

Again, the easy (but disastrous) course would have been to give Frank some big heroic speeches, allowing him to inveigh against corruption. The film chooses instead to go for psychological truth, and this is what makes the project outstanding. Appalled, afraid and despairing of ever changing anything, Frank withdraws into himself. He becomes the spectre at the feast, the silent rebuke, the muted but ever-present conscience of his colleagues.


Though Frank rejects the golden shield which is eventually offered, we feel that the system still means something. There are still some honest cops, and even after all these vicissitudes, the United States is still a nation of laws. Lumet’s profoundly liberal and optimistic view of America ultimately shines through, but the final mood is one of quiet resignation rather than triumphalism. Right can prevail over wrong, but a price has to be paid. Serpico wins his titanic struggle, but he is diminished and saddened as a man.

The film contains some marvellous technical things. In the opening minutes, the action cuts between Frank as he is now (wounded, broken and alone) and as he started out (the clean-cut, idealistic rookie). These transitions are seamless, and the narrative logic is smooth and natural. We see Frank’s first moment of disenchantment in a cafeteria when it dawns on him that cops get free handouts of food, but they have to take whatever comes. This first bewilderment develops until we see the gulf open up between Frank and the dishonest cops, the ones who take the money but also take the self-loathing.


The terrible stress to which Frank is subjected is depicted with skill. The police department has a huge institutional inclination to protect its own, and this vast weight is brought to bear on Serpico. Equally, the pressure is relieved cleverly at appropriate points in the narrative. Frank’s ‘collar’ of Rudi Casaro reaches an explosive climax as this all too human guy reaches breaking-point. On the other hand, the romantic story-telling interlude with Laurie and Serpico’s undercover cameo as an orthodox rabbi break the tension and vary the pace beautifully.

The second-unit work is of a uniformly high standard. We are shown atmospheric New York streetscapes with grubby brownstones and the massive, overbearing masonry of the Brooklyn Bridge, in knowing homage to the films noirs of twenty years earlier.


The symbols are powerful. This city, and this police department, are too colossal for one man to stand against them. Practice sessions in the police firing gallery intelligently reinforce the film’s undercurrent of foreboding. Paper targets obscure the gunmen’s faces, suggesting a monolithic force united against Frank, then come hurtling towards him on pulleys, signifying the fate which is rushing to meet him.

Mikis (Zorba the Greek) Theodorakis has provided a classy score. I particularly liked the jazzy, minor-key horn passage.

Pacino puts in another of the towering performances which have distinguished him as the profoundest acting talent of his era. He is simply wonderful. Barbara Eda-Young gives top-notch support as Laurie, the genuinely loving partner who is destroyed by her man’s seeming eagerness for martyrdom in rejection of domestic happiness.


If ever an actor exuded confidence it’s Tony Roberts, and he is ideally cast as Bob Blair, Serpico’s well-connected ally. Though he can open City Hall doors, he can’t actually help Frank at all. Nobody can. Christ-like, Frank understands that it is ordained – he must go to the hill alone.


Al Pacino’s magical wardrobe

Author: tieman64 from United Kingdom
12 September 2008
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“I’m thrilled by the fact that I’m not even sure how many films I’ve done. All I want to do is get better and quantity can help me to solve my problems.” – Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet has such a huge filmography that it’s hard to keep track of everything he’s made. In the 1950’s he hit us with at least one classic (“12 Angry Men”), before spending the next 5 years filming TV shows, stage plays and the occasional theatre production.


He then made three films in quick succession (“Stage Struck”, “That Kind of Woman” and “The Fugitive Kind”), the last two with Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando. Already we can see Lumet’s style developing; he sees himself as a theatre director, content to simply sit back and guide his actors.

After some more TV work, Lumet then directed “A View from the Bridge”, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, “The Pawnbroker” and “Fail Safe”. Here he begins to reveal himself as a bit of a socially conscious artist. These films are all tragic morality plays, focusing on homosexuality, alcoholism, the holocaust and nuclear annihilation respectively.


Lumet then spent the next decade trying to branch out. “The Hill” was a gruff, overtly masculine picture, filled with a cast of strong, sweaty men. “The Group”, in contrast, was about as “feminine” as you could get, featuring a cast of lesbians, girls and women. He then did “The Deadly Affair”, a once influential but now dated spy thriller, followed by “Bye Bye Braverman”, an absurd comedy in the vein of Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud”. With “The Sea Gull” he tried his hand at Chekov and with the surreal “The Appointment” he dabbled at Fellini.

In the 1970s Lumet did some of his best work. “The Anderson Tapes” may be flawed, but we can see Lumet playing with space and architecture here, designing his heist story to show off his sets and clever camera work.


He then follows this up with 2 great cop films: “The Offence” with Sean Connery and “Serpico” with Al Pacino. The greater of the two is, of course, “Serpico”, with its iconic lead performances and superbly claustrophobic aesthetic. It’s another one of those “man against the system” pictures, but Lumet’s camera captures well the grit of low-rent New York and the paranoia of being an undercover officer. Pacino – bearded, Christlike and with a procession of hilarious outfits – is even better.

Lumet would then have hits with “Network”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Murder on the Oriet Express”, 3 films which show him trying to break away from his theatrical roots. He tried his hands at comedy and musicals along the way (“Just Tell Me What You Want” and “The Wiz”), but these films haven’t aged well.


Then came “Prince of the City”, arguably his most ambitious picture. Vast in scope, Lumet juggles this mammoth crime picture with confidence. Sadly, not many people have seen this film.

The rest of Lumet’s career has been pretty hit and miss. The best of his later films are arguably “The Verdict”, an excellent courtroom drama with Paul Newman, and “Running on Empty”, a sensitive, underrated film starring River Phoenix and Judd Hirsch.

9/10 – Masterpiece.


Author: MovieAddict2016 from UK
24 February 2004

Review edited for IMDb due to word limit. See for full review.

“Serpico,” its many flaws notwithstanding, is far from being a terribly exciting motion picture. Granted, it is based on the true story of an incorruptible Italian-American cop named Frank Serpico who brought down an entire police precinct that was “in on the take.” But true stories aren’t always warranting for great films. That’s the primary reason Hollywood always spices stories up by inserting scenes that never occurred in real life and altering the facts.


“Serpico” could have used a bit of altering. It’s just not interesting enough to sustain its material for two and a half hours. Perhaps a ninety-minute movie would have done it justice, but its running time is far too long for such a film. But even then I could probably say it’s a well-made film. Too bad it feels so sloppy and cheap.

Let me briefly rephrase that in a nutshell: It’s not a bad movie. It just could have been a lot better.

Sidney Lumet should be ashamed. He should have fired the editor the first day on the job. Here we have many different scenes spliced together, in apparently random order, and an unbearably dingy audio track that *plays during (and over) conversations!* Music is essential to all film, but it has to be used correctly. You can’t just play a soundtrack throughout an entire motion picture.


But Lumet doesn’t even do that. He plays it in the worst spots he possibly could. It’s as if he went through the entire movie, marked down each scene where there shouldn’t be music in the background, then applied it. Even if you’re going to burden the audience with music and dialogue blending together at the same time, at least make it *good* music!

Many scenes seem pointless and badly executed. Pacino is a standout but the rest of the film is a failure. The acting (save Pacino) is stiff and the dialogue is corny (save Serpico’s, but even his gets cheesy sometimes). It’s as if everything were scripted by an author and just fed to the actors. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened. My bad.


Did all these people who claim this is the best police corruption film ever made witness the same mediocre blend of poor technicalities and acting and music that I did? Did they not see the horrendous nature of the random interactions being spliced together with separate ones? Did they not notice that every time a crucial character moment came around this really, really bad music started to play over the actors’?

The plot is pointless because I’ve already delved into it–a downtown police precinct is corrupt and they can’t stand Serpico’s morality. So they decide to plot against him and try to murder him. They fail. First we get Serpico being led away in a car. (“He’s been shot by a cop!”) Bloodstained and in a daze, we see Al Pacino’s bearded portrayal of Serpico drifting in and out of consciousness.

Then we get the non-introduced flashbacks to the beginning.


But Lumet presents Serpico as a caricature, playing by all the rules and fitting snugly into a giant cliché. Al Pacino rises above these clichés, of course, with his hard-edged performance. But imagine how much more powerful it could have been if the director and scriptwriter had liberated him and set him free. Maybe we’d get a performance to equal that in “Scarface.” But alas, Pacino is simply overburdened with juggling these clichés and only manages to make the character somewhat realistic. Even then he goes through the same routines that all the clean characters go through. (Even Sly made it more realistic in “Cop Land.”)

I saw a documentary once about the real Frank Serpico and what he did after the film was released. He turned into a hermit. He still looks the same, with his beard and all, but it’d be interesting to watch the film with him and have him point out all the things he actually did and said as opposed to what’s in the movie. I’m not saying Serpico was corrupt. I’m sure everything is true. I’m sure he was a very nice and moralistic man.


But there’s a difference between being a moralistic man and a naive idiot like Serpico in the movie. Pacino makes him smarter than he appears on paper but read some of his lines to yourself and notice the sheer stupidity of it all.

Pacino’s performance is a knockout one, which is why “Serpico” gets a fair rating in my book and a weak recommendation. But it takes its time getting places, too many scenes are out of place, the music is more often distracting than not and the rest of the cast are insufferable. They could easily have brought down Pacino but he’s too strong for that. He’s a fighter, just like Serpico, which may explain why he took on the role. Too bad Lumet had to interfere with his performance. Too bad the music had to interfere with the dialogue. Too bad Lumet and the music had to be there at all. Just imagine what Scorsese could have done with this, and how liberating he could have made the character and his interactions. Here we just have a stone caricature of a real man, and it isn’t too terribly impressive.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s