Watching the DVD of Serpico brings back childhood memories.
Over thirty years ago, I remember going in to a movie theater with my father. It was just me and him. Usually, I would go with both my parents, or along with them and my sister, or even just sneak in with a friend to the old Ridgewood Theater, off of Myrtle Avenue -- usually to see the latest James Bond or Godzilla flick. But, this time it was just the men. And there was a reason. My dad and I were not particularly close, and in a decade he would be dead. Yet, in all the years since I have learned that all that I have that I can claim as an ethos derives from my father, or rather what I osmotically absorbed from merely being in his presence. He was not one who was a great preacher. But, the film we saw together was Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, based upon the 1970 Knapp Commission hearings on New York City Police Department corruption. The film centered on the key figure of the hearings, a cop named Frank Serpico, who said what everyone I knew knew, but no one had the guts to stand behind: that the NYPD was filled with little men wielding big guns. This was and is still true for most law enforcement around the country -- despite the post 9/11 hagiographies of that profession. Anyone who denies that fact is either willfully lying or hopelessly naïve. Much in the way I have been abused and reviled by the powers that be in the publishing industry, for my desire to both produce great art, and demand its production in my criticism, Serpico (the man) was reviled and nearly killed in his demand for honest law enforcement nearly forty years ago. Fortunately, the literati don’t carry guns.
Although I picked up the new DVD for a mere $7.99 a few months ago, I only recently watched it again, after another round of abuse from online assholes, some aggravation in trying to switch cell phone plans, some depressing moments in my continuing quest to find a publisher for me and my wife, and a much too depressing tour of a local book festival. I needed it as a fillip to remind me that I am not alone in having a zeal for excellence and honesty. So, too, all those decades ago, was my dad enamored of the lone cop who stood up against the system, and barely survived being squashed by it. Only The Valachi Papers so previously moved my dad as much as Serpico, in its exposure of organized crime’s underbelly. That much of the same evil was going on inside the halls of those sworn to protect the public from those professional criminals was no revelation to any New Yorker with any common sense, but it was nice to have someone to point to as an icon that all was not lost.
As for the film, adapted from Peter Maas’s titular biography, Serpico, by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, it was Al Pacino’s first big screen masterpiece of acting. The Godfather was really Marlon Brando’s showcase vehicle, and The Godfather: Part II was a year away, while Dog Day Afternoon, also with Lumet, was another year away. Pacino’s Frank Serpico covers alot of ground in his time on the force, and the two and a quarter hour film moves so briskly that it seems much longer, but in the good sense. As a biopic, it wisely focuses on the meat of the man’s public impact, not a cradle to grave psychodrama. We see the thousand little ways that corruption breeds and spreads. Not only is it evident in out and out graft and bribery, but in parking ticket quotas, freebie lunches, and the like of countless seemingly harmless acts. Serpico will have none of it, as he is shunted from precinct to precinct, and mocked by his fellow cops as a goody-goody, untrustworthy, and dangerous- all because he’s decent and ethical. The non-stop harassment eats away at his insides and his mind, destroys his relationships with women, and lands him on a mission to clean things up, by whatever means he can.
However, bureaucracy slows down his quest, until he connects with another cop, Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), who guides him across minefields of political machinations, until they both decide to go public to the New York Times. Consequently, Serpico is abandoned by his partners on a drug bust, and shot in the face -- the point at which the film begins, then proceeds to its coda. The film ends with Serpico going public at the Knapp Commission hearings, and then we get the credits telling us of the aftermath. Sidney Lumet had a perfect grasp of the streets and the times in this film, and the old clichés about them not making films like this any more is true. Compare this to the Academy Award-level "issue" films of recent vintage -- The Hours, Million Dollar Baby, Monster, or this year's Brokeback Mountain -- and there’s simply no comparison. Realistic, but poetic, films like this are just not made by the Hollywood machine any longer. And few independent films can afford the budget and time needed to craft so meticulous a work -- Joe Carnahan’s recent Ray Liotta vehicle Narc being a welcome exception. Yet, films like this, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Apocalypse Now, and the like, still tug at the American psyche. Surely, there will be a time in the not-too distant future that such films will be welcome again?
The DVD features have no commentaries, but some interesting tidbits in the short featurettes, such as the compromise Lumet made with the producers over the haunting film score by Mikis Theodorakis. Lumet wanted no score, but main producer Dino de Laurentiis insisted, and consequently the film only has fifteen minutes of music in it. Some comments on the real Serpico’s interactions with Pacino are worth noting. And did they make great trailers in the 70s, or what? The intoning voice of doom, and the stylized clumsiness of the whole thing?
But the film works best in its naturalism -- from the realistic action scenes and clumsy violence, to the cinema verité feel of the camera direction. All the supporting players are solid, but this is Pacino’s film, through and through. Rarely has an actor so dominated a film with such an understated performance. Yet, the best aspect of this great work is that it highlights a truly great man and American, rather than cynically praising a serial killer (Monster), blatantly tugging at emotions (The Hours or Million Dollar Baby), or forcing an agenda down one’s throat (Brokeback Mountain). I urge people to visit the real Serpico’s website, and remember that for every Frank Serpico, who survives and gets praise, there are 999 whistleblowers whose lives are ruined, or seriously derailed, demeaned, or targeted, and who slip into oblivion without so much as an acknowledgment or thanks.
As the film ended, and I popped the DVD out of my player, I was not in my living room, but back with my dad, who was smiling up at the big screen, hoping the best for his son, that he might one day be the kind of man and citizen that Frank Serpico was, not knowing he’d never live to see it. And while I’m not dodging the deadly machinations of my fellow workers, I am doing my best to clean up a different form of corruption, in a different area of life, one not with the immediacy that Serpico dealt with, but one in need of him anyway. I look over at my dad, and want to tell him not to worry, that I am Serpico.