Serpico (1973)

2012 #30
Sidney Lumet | 125 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | Italy & USA / English | 18 / R

SerpicoBefore Murder on the Orient Express or Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet directed this true story about a New York cop battling corruption.

Noting it’s a true story, it certainly has a biographical feel. That came as a bit of a surprise, to me at least — I was expecting a thriller about a good cop exposing the corrupt ones, but instead got Frank Serpico’s life story from the time he left training on. It’s not as if it just deals with his professional career — say, showing how his early days formed his moral compass, or something — there’s lots of screen time devoted to his personal relationships too, which may or may not have been relevant to his work. More than a corrupt cop thriller, it’s a biopic about someone involved in that world.

This focus on reality begs one question: just how much is it based in the truth? It makes an uncommonly high claim to reality by including all this near-extraneous detail, but typically “true life” stories, especially those made quickly after the real events, fictionalise things for one reason or another. It wouldn’t matter if it didn’t effect the quality of the film, but I think it does: it feels a bit sloppy at times; kind of disjointed. The timeline jumps forward almost at random; things occasionally seem to go by half explained; there’s no clear throughline… This all plays into the feeling of it being like real life, where nothing — certainly not a police investigation — is as simple or straightforward as it’s usually made out to be for the movies. Which has its pros and its cons.

Serpico talksAs the titular copper, it’s a typically strong performance from Al Pacino. Not his best work — I don’t think the part really gives him enough to deliver that — but he’s more often than not the most engaging element of the film. This was his fifth film; considering The Godfather was just his third, and he followed this up with Part II and Dog Day Afternoon, it’s easy to see why he’s long been regarded as a Great Actor.

I feel like Serpico used to come up fairly often as a minor classic; the kind of film not a lot of people have seen these days but many more should have; but I don’t feel like I hear it mentioned any more. Obviously this is just a perception and maybe it’s a load of rubbish, but I’m afraid I side a little more with the latter-day less-mentioned side of things.

I would say it feels rather worthy, at least in part for the things I’ve mentioned about its claims to truth. It’s an interesting, sometimes compelling film, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed or liked it. “Enjoy” is an awkward word — you wouldn’t typically say you “enjoy” Schindler’s List, but you do (you could say) enjoy its greatness. I didn’t enjoy Serpico in the way you would typically say you enjoyed something; nor did I enjoy it in a Schindler’s List way; nor did I really admire it, again for the reasons levelled above. But it has elements of interest nonetheless.

3 out of 5

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