Serpico (1973)

‘The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier’ Serpico

It was Al Pacino’s 80th birthday this month, I have seen most of his films, even the bad ones, yes there are bad ones! (Note – this is not a bad one) I thought I revisit Serpico as it sort of feels timely.

Serpico is based on real life police officer Frank Serpico who in the late 60s early 70s blew the whistle on police corruption in the US. A book was written about him by Peter Maas and subsequently the 1973 film followed. Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, produced by Martin Bregman and Dino De Laurentiis (the latter famously had creative disagreements with David Lynch on Dune) with music by Mikis Theodorakis, the film went on the be nominated for two Oscars, including a best actor for Al Pacino, but you knew this already, right?

This is an absorbing portrayal of how Serpico experienced corruption within the police force and the price he paid. From his beginnings as a patrol man he encounters the culture and workings of the police to be distasteful, for example when he and his patrol partner enter a cafe for lunch the chef informs him that the creamy chicken is good and that he should have it, he instead opts for beef sandwich. When he receives his order, it is nothing but fat, he looks to complain but his partner informs him the food is free and that he shouldn’t complain, it is free because the police look the other way for traffic offences the cafe commits.

Later he and his partner stop a brutal gang-rape, but only one of the attackers is caught, with the remaining escaping. During the integration of the suspect the investigating detective beats the suspect with a telephone directory to get him to name the others, the detective asks him if he wants to join in, Serpico declines. During the transfer to prison Serpico gets some time with the suspect, he uncuffs him and gives him a coffee, he eventually gets him to give the others up. When he locates the assailants, he informs the police department, but they tell him as the case belongs to the detective they cannot send back up. He proceeds to arrest them himself.

Serpico is later partnered with a collector police officer, we later learn the police are skimming money off drug dealers and redistributing to officers in the department, Serpico refuses to take the money, which causes animosity within the force and leads to severe consequences.

This film is evenly paced and keeps the audience attentive, Pacino is great, he commands the screen and drives the film, he also has a dance scene in this ummm… anyway Lumet does a great job, however I did feel the female characters were quite one-dimensional. The supporting cast was great, there were also quite a few uncredited actors (not sure why they weren’t credited) – see if you can spot F. Murray Abraham (later worked with Pacino in Scarface).

This film is gritty and unsettling even after all these years, there is no doubt it has influenced many films since it came out. It has also influenced the public on the perceptions of the police and police brutality. The US police has not helped itself in some respects, for example the Rodney King beating, which led to riots and rap group NWA to record ‘F**k the police’. Indeed, the UK police has also had its watershed moment when it was deemed to be institutionally racist following the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.

The film also touches on homophobia within the police, citing it as one of the reasons why Serpico was not promoted on several occasions – to note Serpico was caught in a misunderstanding by a lieutenant in the men’s toilets and is not actually gay, but the fact he didn’t address the situation led to further questions and hostility towards him.

To summarise, in an age of suspicion, preconceptions and assumptions I couldn’t help but wonder how this film is still relevant and important today. Thankfully the introduction of the whistle-blowing act and enquiry committees, commissions and groups have led to better protection and support for individuals to come forward and report incidences, of course more should be done to help stop bad practices, stamp out corruption and to change cultures within organisations in the long-term, something which we are all responsible for – time to do the laundry.

My rating of film 4/5

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