Frank Serpico is a newly graduated New York policeman. Full of wide-eyed innocence and driven only by a determination to do some good, he soon realises that the world of a street patrolman is one of free meals, pay offs and apathy. Frank’s reluctance to be bought soon brings him into conflict with his colleagues and despite promotions and transfers, each new assignment simply changes the scenery around him, with the levels of corruption remaining unmoved. Unwilling to compromise his personal values and the values he feels every police officer should hold, Frank decides to expose the corruption of New York’s police department, first through police channels and then, when that fails, through the local mayor’s office. Shunned by his fellow officers and stifled by his seniors, his attempts to do the right thing are repeatedly thwarted until, with his personal and professional relationships in tatters, he finally finds enough honest men within the force to support his crusade.
First off, I feel I must apologise to all the filmmakers involved with Serpico, for not having seen the film at some point during the last 41 years. How this has happened, I don’t know. I suppose at the time it was in cinemas and then subsequently on TV, I was a lad growing up and something like Serpico wasn’t on my radar. By the time I reached adulthood, it would have been long gone and any home video releases would have been glanced over. It is to my eternal shame that it has taken me this long to see the film, but I’m so glad I finally have.
Based on real events, Serpico clearly fits in with one of the prevailing moods of early 1970s cinema in the US; the idea that movies should be true to their source material and surroundings and that they should reflect, critique and, as a consequence, almost be an act of contrition themselves. Serpico works as all of these things. From the outset, the understated white on black titles, accompanied by the slow fade in of a police siren, tell us that this is no flashy recruitment film. The low angles and gritty, documentary-like camerawork root the viewer firmly on the sidewalk and in touch with the action, with the location shooting across the whole of the city connecting the people and places and adding to the sense of authenticity the movie generates.
Two things stand out most prominently; Sidney Lumet’s direction and Al Pacino’s performance. Lumet brings an edgy immediacy to the film, with no scene feeling unnecessary or overlong. By using an event from the latter part of the film as a starting point, he hooks the audience in straight away and makes the discovery of how we got to that point, our sole focus. As a New Yorker himself, Lumet's knowledge of the locales is used to its fullest and (one decidedly fake looking motorcycle ride aside) he doesn’t put a foot wrong. Pacino was, of course, coming off the back of The Godfather in this film, yet whereas he was part of an ensemble cast for that, in Serpico he really gets a chance to shine. On screen for nearly all of the film’s two hours, he never fails to convince. Despite a character arc that sees him go from clean-cut, enthusiastic cop to disillusioned, bitter informant, Pacino keeps the audience on his side throughout. The conflict he feels at seeing those around him act as criminals, while being portrayed as a criminal for not taking payments by these same people, is felt by the viewer and his frustrations at the corrupt and impotent investigations that follow his complaints, are equally felt. Serpico just wants to do his job in the right way and without smoothing over his faults or being over sympathetic to the character, Lumet and Pacino have you onside from the first minute.
Eureka! Entertainment, through their Masters of Cinema series, present Serpico on Blu-ray in a fantastic looking widescreen print. The colours are spot on, with blood carrying a particularly pleasing shade of red and the picture is pin sharp during the exteriors, yet displays an appropriate amount of grain during the low light or interior scenes. The sound is available in original PCM mono or DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. Both are clear and punchy, with a bit of separation thrown into the 5.1 mix. As not a huge fan of surround sound, I preferred the original mono track, but both are strong and will be equally appreciated. English subtitles are also available.
Extras are slight, but interesting. Serpico: From Real To Reel is a 10 minute look at how the film went from novel to screen, Inside Serpico is a 13 minute discussion of the filming process, Serpico: Favourite Moments gives us a couple of minutes of producer Martin Bregman and director Sidney Lumet talking over their favourites scenes, there’s a 5 minute photo gallery which features Lumet talking about the music for the film and things are rounded off with the theatrical trailer. All the extras are in 4:3 and are brought over from the 2002 DVD release. The Blu-ray also comes with a 44-page booklet featuring critical analysis of the movie and accompanying archive photos, which wasn’t available with this review copy.
As I mentioned at the start, this was the first time I’d seen Serpico and it absolutely knocked my socks off. The intention of the movie was clearly to make Frank Serpico a heroic character, but never a hero and it works superbly. The dialogue, performances, direction and editing all pare things down to the essentials and ensure that the focus remains on Frank’s story and Frank’s story alone. The supporting cast, drama and locations all feed in to that story, never allowing themselves to overwhelm the singular direction the film takes and by the time we’ve reached the film’s conclusion, it’s difficult to not feel as drained as the lead character.
Perfection is an unobtainable ideal in anything, let alone a film, so rather than call it that, I’ll say that Serpico is pretty much faultless. It’s a film that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to bump into and I know we’ll be good friends for a long, long time.