(director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriters: Waldo Salt/Norman Wexler/based on the book Serpicoby Peter Maas); cinematographer: Arthur Ornitz; editors: Dede Allen/Richard Marks; music: Mikis Theodorakis; cast: Al Pacino (Frank Serpico), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Captain Inspector McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie Lane), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), John Medici (Pasquale), Allan Rich (District Attorney Herman Tauber), Norman Ornellas (Don Rubello); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Martin Bregman; Paramount; 1973)

“A true story about an honest NYC police officer dealing with police corruption.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) bases his Serpico on a true story about an honest NYC police officer dealing with police corruption in the period from 1960-1972. Former blacklisted Waldo Salt’s assured screenplay contributes to the drama. The film is based on Peter Maas’s book Serpico, where the Serpico story is told solely from his point of view. The neophyte Detective Serpico is the bearded, bead-wearing, hippie cop who, in February 1971, under cloudy circumstances was shot in the face and critically wounded while attempting to make a narcotics arrest. This prompted him to resign from the department after his recovery and grand jury testimony, as he lost confidence in the department and was fearing for his life. He went into exile abroad; the bullet fragments were still dangerously lodged near his brain.

Police sirens blare in NYC. A phone rings in “A” precinct with the message left that Serpico (Al Pacino) has been shot and it is possible that another cop could have done it. So opens this true story about widespread police corruption with Serpico on a stretcher carried into the hospital. It then goes into flashback to tell his story and of how he’s in danger from other policemen. It tells of how he refused to give up his individuality after joining the force and lived like a bohemian in Greenwich Village to the ridicule of the other police officers, who refused to work with him. When Serpico refused to accept bribes or participate in graft schemes, he found the corruption so appalling that he couldn’t live with it anymore and when he told this to his superiors they were put off by him and only wished to keep him silent. By going to The New York Times reporter David Burnham and telling him of graft and corruption within the Police Department and by supplying places, dates, and names, this information prompted Mayor Lindsay to appoint the Knapp Commission to investigate the charges. It led in time to a complete overhaul in the Police Department. But by breaking the blue wall of silence, Serpico found himself in constant danger from his fellow officers.

There’s no questioning Serpico’s heroism but the pic was one-dimensional and lazily structured, as it failed to build on the intensity of the situation and reach for a higher ground to rest its case. The dynamic Al Pacino characterization made his character seem more like a whining misplaced hippie unwilling to face reality than an undercover detective battling street crime. During this period his relationship with his nurse girlfiend (Barbara Eda-Young) crumbles as does his relationship with his best friend (Tony Roberts), as he’s pictured as not the saintly person he appears to be. This Lumet feature was a practice run for his more enlarged Serpico-like dramatization of corruption in the 1981 Prince of the City. The film however hit the spot with audiences and was also well-received by most critics, as the public was upset with bureaucratic complicity and Serpico’s earnest story hit a nerve with them.