Starting off his Hollywood career, Al Pacino started off with an incredible run of performances beginning with 1972's The Godfather. It continued with Serpico, The Godfather 2, and Dog Day Afternoon. The common link? He was nominated for an Oscar for each performance -- one supporting nod and three lead roles -- and somehow didn't win even one. How he didn't win for Godfather 2 just confuses me, but that's for another time.
1973's Serpico is based on the real-life trials of Frank Serpico, a New York City cop who went against the grain in trying to be the best cop he can be. There are two types of performances Pacino does when he's at his best. One, think Scarface or Any Given Sunday, where he is over the top in almost every scene. He's effective doing that because he commits so whole-heartedly to the part. Two, there's Serpico, Heat, The Godfather trilogy, where he plays a highly intelligent, relatively calm character who has moments of huge, emotional outbursts. I prefer him with the second option, and as much as I love Michael Corleone, Pacino's Frank Serpico might be his all-time best performance.
From as long as he can remember, Frank Serpico (Pacino) has wanted to be a police officer. He graduates the academy and becomes a patrolman at an NYC precinct. But right away, Serpico sees being a police officer isn't everything it's cracked up to be. He wants to do his job as best he can without all the corruption that goes on behind the scenes. Serpico refuses to take any pay-offs in any form and quickly draws the ire of superiors and co-workers. He bounces from precinct to precinct with the hope of finally gaining detective status and the gold shield that comes with the position. But after years of seeing this corruption, Serpico realizes he has nowhere else to turn and must take action against the rampant illegal activities crippling the police force.
Getting his nomination the second time around, Pacino lost to Jack Lemmon in 'Save the Tiger' which I haven't seen, but I assume it has to be pretty great. Lemmon also beat out Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Marlon Brando (Last Tango), and Robert Redford (The Sting). Playing a real person can be a daunting task so Pacino met the real-life Serpico and followed him around for several weeks, and it pays off. By a certain point in the movie, it doesn't feel like Al Pacino playing a cop. You're just watching Frank Serpico. And as a character study of a man who just wants to do what he think is right, this movie is a classic.
Taking place over several years, the story follows Serpico's police career so other characters -- in his professional and personal life -- drift in and out. The one constant is Pacino who is in just about every scene in this 129-minute flick. He presents Serpico as a pretty even-keeled guy who is genuinely confused when a fellow officer hands him an envelope full of money. He clearly never thought of this as a perk of the job and doesn't know what to do. This situation builds and builds over the years because Serpico gains a reputation as being untrustworthy because he doesn't take the pay-offs. As a cop, he works as a plainclothes officer, growing a thick beard and generally looking like a hippie with his clothes. And that's usually a good sign for me in judging a role, Pacino becomes Serpico. I'll have to check out 'Save the Tiger' but it has its work cut out because this was a great performance.
In bringing this story to the big screen, director Sidney Lumet wisely chose to film on the streets of New York. We're not talking downtown Manhattan either with locations including Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens helping bring the gritty story to life. Parts of New York City in the 1970s certainly had a rundown look so a plainclothes officer working the streets had to blend in. As Serpico points out, 'our undercovers wear black shoes and white socks.' Translated? They stick out like a sore thumb. Some of the better supporting parts here include Jack Kehoe as Keogh, a fellow officer trying to convince Serpico to go along with the others, Tony Roberts and Edward Grover as two police officers who side with the much-maligned Frank, and John Randolph as Chief Green, a higher-up in the police department.
The one flaw I can point out is that the last 30 minutes gets a little repetitive but not enough to derail the movie, not by a long shot. Pacino's performance is too strong and doesn't allow the movie to derail in any form. The ending is a bittersweet one that tells what Serpico ended up doing later in his life. The real-life Frank Serpico is a fascinating individual with Pacino and Lumet painting a great picture and a great movie of his heroic actions. Definitely check this one out.
Serpico <----trailer (1973): *** 1/2 /****