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Our old friend Sidney Lumet was handed the reins on SERPICO (1973) with short notice, replacing John Avildsen shortly before shooting began. Presumably a complete shooting script was already in place, which didn't keep Lumet from making a film with recognizable qualities in both craftsmanship and aesthetics. Based on a novel which in turn was based on a true story about NYC police corruption, one has to wonder how Hollywood would have handled this material today, or whether the same script would even have been green-lighted, Oscar nomination or not.
Serpico rests on three distinct legs, which was and should be considered enough for a stable foundation. One is the New York City milieu, captured beautifully as too-honest cop Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) gets transferred from borough to borough. Shot entirely on location, we see the great city at its most run-down and naturalistic, before any gentrification and zero tolerance moved in. Only a couple of years separate these streets from those in Taxi Driver, and I almost expected Pacino's Serpico to bump into De Niro's Travis Bickle in some street corner. Although I suggested earlier that Lumet's direction seems most at home in distinct, enclosed spaces, the reels of Serpico breathe with the exhaust fumes and fast food smell of a restless inner city. It's not a question of stylish direction as much as a selection of ideal shooting locations, a parade of exposed brick walls, withering brown-stones and abandoned shopfronts.
The second asset is Mr Al Pacino, smartly nabbed for a leading role between Godfather I and II. Obvious as the praise is, the performance shows the man at the absolute top of his game, clearly rejoicing in a role with a wide emotional range and plenty of room for method acting expressionism. But his most important contribution isn't the credibility brought to this complex character as much as the subtly stated trajectory of maturing that takes place underneath the latinesque flamboyancy, a development of particular importance in a movie where the narrative story arc is unsteady and repetetive.
Which brings us to the aspect hinted at above, the nature of Serpico's story as a story, and how it may be considered unfilmable today. Because there is no grand plot that unfolds in this script; rather a sequence of almost identical cycles in which the protagonist arrives at a new police district, refuses to partake in local bribery, becomes victim of a freeze-out, and is ultimately forced to leave. This scenario is repeated, with very little variation, four times during the 2+ hours the movie lasts, and the parallel plot of Serpico trying to engage 'outside agencies' is equally repetitive as various high officers turn out to be corrupt in their own ways. Any storyteller's natural instinct would be to cut and compress all this into a couple of anecdotal instances that clarify the theme and struggle, and develop a more conventional hero-narrative around these key structures.
But in the early 1970s a lot of things were possible and new models tried out, and so this true life saga remained a naturalistic zig-zag path between hope and despair, seemingly dictated by randomness rather than myth. As mentioned above, Pacino outlines a steady trajectory underneath his mood swings, but this would not have sufficed as backbone if Sidney Lumet hadn't also put his vast film-making skills into making Serpico's tale a working cinematic experience, rather than a "60 Minutes" special on police corruption. The gold is in the details, like the casting of a long line of unknowns with memorable, often brutal faces to play crooked uniform cops, or the way a police station looks exactly like you imagined it*, or the fact that Serpico's girlfriends do not resemble Raquel Welch but ordinary NYC hippie ladies. There are a few missteps where the desire to make every scene memorable means adding awkwards details, but aesthetically Serpico is a triumph, and probably one of the main inspirations for Ridley Scott's period recreation in American Gangster.
At the end of the day, though, Frank Serpico's tale doesn't really carry enough weight or originality to communicate across the decades, and even less so at an overlong 130 minutes. The producer's choice to stay away from typical Hollywood mythification and tell the story as it was (by and large) is wholly commendable, but it also set a ceiling for how powerful a movie experience one could deliver. Thanks to Lumet's professional commitment and Pacino's multi-layered performance, the finished result came pretty close to that ceiling. 7 of 10
* along with French Connection, Serpico provided a blue-print for the look and tone of TV cop series for a dozen years ahead.