Friday, June 19, 2015


If I recall correctly, I saw SERPICO (1973), when it was first released at the old Aquarius Four theater on Pleasant Valley Road (off of Riverside Drive) in Austin. I remember it being a solid film and when I watched it again this afternoon for the first time in 42 years, my memories were confirmed.

SERPICO is the true story of New York City police officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino). Serpico is a rare animal for the NYPD of the late '60s/early '70s. He's a straight arrow, honest cop, perhaps the only one in the entire department not on the take. The story follows Serpico's career from patrol officer, to working in the fingerprint identification bureau, to becoming a plain clothes officer working vice squad. At each level and each new precinct, he encounters crooked cops who are taking bribes, kick-backs and skimming a piece of the action off of the top of various gambling operations. He wants to blow the whistle on this rampant corruption but it seems that all of the top brass are concerned more with covering their own asses and offering up a few, low level officers as token fall guys. Serpico soon finds his life in danger and he's eventually shot in the face during a drug bust. He survives, testifies before an investigative commission and then retires from the police force.

SERPICO was filmed entirely on location in New York City by director Sidney Lumet and he brilliantly captures the gritty look and feel of a corrupt and dangerous urban environment. The screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler is based on the bestselling book by Peter Maas and does a fine job of condensing action and creating composite characters while remaining faithful to the events as they really happened.

SERPICO is a character driven crime film and that character is brought to vivid and intense life by Al Pacino. SERPICO was Pacino's fifth feature film appearance following ME, NATALIE (1969), THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), THE GODFATHER (1972) and SCARECROW (1973). While THE GODFATHER showed Pacino's acting ability (he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), that film really belonged more to Marlon Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola. SERPICO is all Pacino, all the time and it's a very strong performance. It's the picture that made Al Pacino a bonafide movie star.

SERPICO earned two Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Pacino) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Salt and Wexler).

Back in the 1990s, when I was doing freelance article writing for a couple of law enforcement magazines, I almost had a chance to meet and interview Frank Serpico. I knew a woman with the Austin Police Department who had some connection to him and she indicated that it might be possible to put me in touch with him. Alas, nothing ever came of this but for awhile there I thought I might score a real coup in my writing career.

SERPICO is a fine police drama that stands the test of time thanks mainly to the phenomenal talent both in front of and behind the cameras. It perfectly captures New York City at a time when the crime rate was high and crooked cops were everywhere. Recommended.


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