Michael Corleone. Tony Montana. Carlito. That bloke from Donnie Brasco. Al Pacino’s most vivid creations have always been on the wrong side of the law. Well, nearly always. Enter Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who took a lonely and dangerous stance against internal corruption.
The film he made before The Godfather Part II, Pacino (Oscar-nommed for his troubles) is as sizzling as he’s ever been. It wouldn’t be his last whistleblower – see his tobacco industry snitch in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) – but there’s something irresistible about him here, contained and drum-tight.
Directed by the late Sidney Lumet, with whom Pacino would reunite for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), it’s a film built on character not carnage. Mirroring the wailing siren that opens the film, it grows in intensity as Serpico goes from idealistic clean-shaven rookie to jaded veteran.
“I feel like a criminal because I don’t take money,” he notes, as his non-conformist crusade against bribes leaves him increasingly isolated in a world where even Internal Affairs view him suspiciously.
As for Lumet, he’d touch on cop corruption again in Prince Of The City (1981) and Q&A (1990) but never with such urgency, bolstered by his decision to shoot everything on the streets. Like The French Connection (1971) before it, Serpico drew the blueprint for every cop drama since. With grassroots support (including early roles for F. Murray Abraham and Judd Hirsch), it’s a prime example of why ’70s Hollywood is still so revered.
Three featurettes are DVD oldies, but decent enough – the interview-based ‘Inside Serpico’ makes the most of its 12 minutes.
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