There once was a time when I lumped any film made after 1971 into something of an untouchable category. Looking back on this self-imposed exile, I realize that the only real reason I tended to do this was because I didn’t think these films were stylistically up to snuff. They were too dirty, too gritty; their storylines did not offer the sort of escapism or romantic idealization that I liked in the movies I chose to watch. I suppose I only made any significant progress away from this when I started college and worked in the library with some interesting characters who fed my penchant for idealistic social activism with some of the landmark films to come out of the late 1960s and into the 1970s, such as Easy Rider (1969), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Patton (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), All the President’s Men (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Network (1976), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The French Connection (1971) and on and on. The same elements that I originally loathed about this time period actually form the basis of my respect for it now.
My experience with Al Pacino’s filmography seems to only cover his earlier films; with the exception of Dick Tracy (1990), I haven’t seen any of his work made after 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. I suppose this is probably the best possible introduction to his films, since it seems that no other part of his filmography has been quite as acclaimed as his work in the 1970s, and with good reason. Sidney Lumet‘s Serpico has been on my radar, albeit peripherally, since my dad mentioned how impressed he was when he saw it. Based on true events, Al Pacino plays Officer Frank Serpico, a young graduate of the police academy who proudly enters the force in New York City. The first sign of Serpico’s drifting from the staid tenets of the police force can be seen in the increasing length and carelessness of his hair and dress, which is adopted in an effort to blend in with the streets, concealing him from the ever-watchful gaze of dealers, pushers, gangs, and anyone else threatened by police presence. For a time, Serpico straddles the line between being a cop and being part of youth culture. Girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) doesn’t even believe him when he tells her his line of work; his discomfort in being seen as just a cop within her circle of friends is linearly drawn out, culminating in a party scene where he tries to blend in pricipally by not revealing his occupation.
The primary focus of Serpico‘s storyline is his disillusionment with the police establishment as the routine of internal corruption is revealed first through bribes and eventually through workplace harrassment when it becomes clear that Serpico will not take his money and shut up. Lumet’s direction and Pacino’s performance synthesize perfectly as Serpico’s frustration, isolation, anger, and eventual sense of betrayal by the New York police come out in every scene, eventually reaching a head as he lashes out at those closest to him, principally girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe). Despite the hellish environment at work after repeated transfers and new work assignments, Serpico still seems to retain some loyalty by his insistent refusal to turn to outside sources like the New York Times to reveal the corruption that has insinuated itself into the daily workings of the NYPD. After all this, Serpico still believes in the honesty of his superiors; there is no other explanation for his dogged determination to work with the established authority to weed out corruption and once again (in his mind, at least) institute honesty and fairness into police dealings with each other and local citizens. It would be difficult to watch this film and not wonder why he does not up and quit, washing his hands of the whole ordeal. It is that sense of loyalty to the department, or his idea of it at any rate, that keeps him from going.
It takes gun shot in the face to finally drive the point home that Serpico cannot hope to remain alive within the New York police. A transfer to the narcotics division can certainly be interpreted as a death sentence, as he is warned about the ease of set-ups and the danger he faces not only from the streets but even from other officers. His partners on a routine drug bust essentially leave him to die after they fail to offer the backup he desperately needs, even though they are less than ten feet away. Perhaps the only thing that could have broken Serpico’s intangibe loyalty is a near-death experience, which here he finally receives. In that sense, he is dead to the NYPD and free from any compunction he may have felt at testifying against the force. Not only if he free from this, but also from the United States itself, as a postscript tells audiences that the real Frank Serpico left the States, subsequently residing “somewhere in Switzerland.”