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Serpico (1973)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Many of his fellow officers considered him the most dangerous man alive - An honest cop.” 

This is the true story of what happened to one honest cop. It displays why honest cops may be getting rarer than they might once have been. That statement is so qualified not because I believe that honest cops are common; but, as with many perceptions of modern life, we often believe that the conditions that appall us now are new. Perhaps they aren’t. It is difficult to know with any degree of certainty.

The movie does not begin at the start of Frank Serpico’s story, much of it is told with flashbacks. As the film starts Frank (Al Pacino) is being taken to a hospital. The cops taking him there report in and the focus shifts to the precinct house they call. There the cop manning the phones asks another cop to guess who got shot. He answers his own question: “Serpico.” The second cop asks if the first thinks a cop did it. The first cop replies: “I know six cops said they’d like to.”

After Frank gets to the emergency room, a flashback shows him younger and clean shaven in a large group of people, many of whom are police officers. They are listening to someone talk about being a cop. “To be a police officer means to believe in the law and to enforce it impartially respecting the equality of all men and the dignity and worth of every individual.” That’s quite a mouthful, but there is even more. The viewer discovers that he is hearing a commencement speech from a graduation ceremony at a police academy. There are many young and hopeful faces.

The action flashes forward to the present and Chief of Police Sidney Green (John Randolph) rushing to the hospital emergency room where he speaks with a lieutenant of police (Judd Hirsch, in a very early uncredited role) about the details surrounding Serpico’s shooting. He then places a 24-hour guard around Serpico.

Flash back to the graduation and Frank Serpico receiving his diploma -- then later with family taking photos. From the cars in the next scene, one can deduce that Frank is arriving at his first assignment sometime in the early to mid-sixties. As when anyone starts any new job, the experience brings new and unfamiliar territory for the rookie, which is well-plowed ground for others on the job.

Frank’s newness often shows -- he has principles. He is anxious to serve and protect. These qualities are not always appreciated by other cops. The first incident shown involves a rape, which Frank and his reluctant partner interrupt. Frank manages to apprehend one of the assailants who is then beaten by another cop during his interrogation. Frank declines the offer to “have a piece of this” and later speaks with the beaten man about how he will take the rap, even though he actually did little other than get caught. Serpico then pursues the other assailants, even though he is not the assigned officer for the case.

This first example shows his tenacity and devotion to the principles stated in the commencement speech. His reward for apprehending the rapists is only an assist in the arrest credit which is given to detectives assigned to the case. They did nothing to pursue the criminals Frank has collared, but cite how many infractions Frank committed by pursuing the rapists.

The scene where the plain clothes officers are given samples of marijuana and the ones immediately following with Serpico and Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) are almost enough by themselves to make the movie worth a view. However, the quality of the acting, direction and story are hard to exaggerate.

Frank finds much more exploitation of merit and other forms of corruption in the NYPD than can be fully explained by mere laziness and lack of ambition. Although those traits seem to characterize many of the police shown in the film, eventually more comes to light. As Frank gets deeper into discovering the rampant NYPD corruption, his “popularity” grows to reach the point discussed by the precinct cops in the opening scenes. As Frank's girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) says: “Everybody knows about cops.” Eventually Frank finds an ally in Inspector Lombardo (Ed Grover). Together with Bob Blair they start to expose the problems. I hope I have relayed enough to make you want to watch more.

The “extras” on the Serpico DVD are excellent giving a tremendous amount of background on the film, the people who made it, and the actual characters portrayed in the film. As Producer Martin Bregman says in one of those pieces: " Serpico made Al Pacino a movie star. He was great in Godfather, but Serpico was his movie." If you haven’t seen this film you should for several reasons: the wonderful portrayal of Frank Serpico given by Al Pacino; the fine film produced by Martin Bregman and directed by Sydney Lumet; and above all, the story of Frank Serpico and a man’s integrity.

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