Serpico

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Director: Sidney Lumet.
Screenplay: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler.
Starring: Al Pacino, Tony Roberts, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, John Medici, Alan Rich, Edward Grover, Norman Ornellas, James Tolkan, Richard Foronjy, John McQuade, M. Emmett Walsh, F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth McMillan, Tracey Walter, Judd Hirsch.

Frank, let’s face it, who can trust a cop that won’t take money?

With their second collaboration in 1974, Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet delivered one of the very best films of the decade with “Dog Day Afternoon“. It was a taut and captivating true-life story of a bank robber that gets way in over his head. Two years previously, though, they worked on another true-life story from the opposite side of the law. This time it was NYPD officer Frank Serpico and how he got way in over his head with police corruption rife all around him.

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1960’s New York: Frank Serpico is a cop who refuses to extort the local criminals and take pay-off’s even though all his colleagues seem to be in on it. As a result, nobody trusts or wants to work him and Serpico begins to realise that his life is in danger by the very people who have sworn to protect and serve. Time and time again, he refuses to go on the take, hoping that an investigation will be launched into the conduct of his numerous partners but knows that it will take his own involvement or testimony to make a difference.

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After a frantic opening where Serpico is rushed to hospital bleeding from a gunshot wound to the face, Lumet slows events down and goes back to where it all began. We witness his recruitment to the police department and his ideological approach to the job. It’s slow to start and spends a bit too much time on Sepico’s home life when all you really want is for the police corruption angle to move along. That being said, when things do start to get going, the film does improve and your patience reaps rewards.

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Revered as one the finest films of the 70’s and (for it’s time) that’s completely understandable as police corruption drama’s were not as commonplace. However, it now looks dated and time hasn’t been all that kind to it. Arthur J. Ornitz’s cinematography is observant enough to utilise the New York locations to excellent effect which lend the film a suitably grim and realistic tone but some scenes are far too dark to fully make out what’s actually going on. For the most part, Lumet’s handling of the material is strong and he’s in no rush to relate this biopic. This may be commendable but his pacing is slightly misjudged leaving you with feelings of lethargy and an overlong running time. Added to which – with the obvious exception of Serpico – there really isn’t any other character that gets attention in Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s screenplay. The support are all two-dimensional and some of the acting on show is very questionable, indeed. It even wastes the talents of great character actors like M. Emmett Walsh and F. Murray Abraham in thankless bit-parts. Although these minor flaws are forgivable, the most glaring is Greek composer Mikis Theodakaris’ ridiculously overused and misplaced music score. It’s feels random, tonally different and bears heavily on particular scenes that it brings nothing of value to. It even plays over the dialogue which can be difficult to hear and results in the film feeling cheap.

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Now, this sounds like a lot of flaws for a film that’s held in such high regard but they do happen to be there and wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by a contemporary audience. That aside, though, there is still much to recommend the film. It builds tension with ease, has numerous standalone scenes that are of a very high quality and the denouement is simply a work of suspenseful genius. Ultimately, though, this a vehicle for Pacino and unsurprisingly, he delivers an explosive central performance. It’s one of his most iconic and his commitment to the role actually raises the film beyond a particular standard. “The Godfather” may have been the film that made his name but it’s his performance here that cemented it. He not only echoes the reservation of Michael Corleone but also displays moments of frustration and rage that allow him to grandstand in the way that only Al knows how.

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Much like the refusal of Frank Serpico to go on the take, I refuse to fall into line with the particular posse of critics who see no fault in this film. I thought I would be handing out top marks as I was very fond of it in the past, but I wouldn’t be being honest if I did. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have quality in there too, though. Age may not have been kind but you can’t put a time on a top class performance.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Surprisingly, the subject was first planned as a star vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, following their success in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Redford was to play Frank Serpico and Newman was to play his lawyer friend David Durk (a character renamed “Bob Blair” in the final film, where he is played by Tony Roberts).

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42 Responses to “Serpico”

  1. A 70s classic by Lumet and Pacino!

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  2. jackdeth72 Says:

    Cheers, Mark!

    Great choice and critique of a cop classic. Pacino does a slick turn on a dime from his junkie from ‘The Panic In Needle Park’ while showing the depth commonality of corrupt cops. Also a lot of unintended humor throughout.

    A superb on location jumping off point for Lumet’s later, ‘The Prince of The City’. Though, with ‘Serpico’, there were far fewer District Attorneys and their regimes to contend with.

    Always get a kick out of Lumet’s knack of finding unseen and forgotten places for shooting scenes. And the progressive grown of Serpico’s pet English Sheep Dog. Who starts out a tiny puppy at the film’s beginning. And grows to gigantic size at the film’s end.

    Oh, and stay away from Lumet’s final offering of his “cop trilogy”, ‘Q&A’. Though it boasts an exceptional lower tier cast. The story overall is weak and predictable.

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    • Thanks Jack!

      I’ve still to see The Panic in Needle Park, but I do own a copy and will hopefully get around to it soon. It’s been on my list for ages. Scarecrow is another of Pacino’s that I’d like to see.

      As for Lumet, I’m a big fan. I’ve seen and loved The Prince of the City and even though, Q&A had its issues, I thought the cast were great – particularly Nolte.

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  3. Great stuff my friend. This is a movie I have wanted to revisit for several years now. I just need to sit down and do it. Lumet and Pacino really score.

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    • Thank you sir! Lumet and Pacino delivers solid work but the music score really let’s the film down on a recent revisit. It’s still a good flick but the music really is overpoweringly bad at times and takes away from the overall experience. It’s a shame they can’t just redo the soundtrack as I reckon it would vastly improve the film.

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  4. Bobby would be unhappy; you’re moving onto Pacino! Great review, however! This is a particular favourite of his.

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    • Haha! Bobby’s still the man but Serpico was a film I’d been meaning to revisit for a while. It’s not as great as I remember it but Pacino is outstanding for sure!!

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  5. “his pacing is slightly misjudged leaving you with feelings of lethargy and an overlong running time. Added to which – with the obvious exception of Serpico – there really isn’t any other character that gets attention.” That’s perceptively accurate and why it didn’t sweep me away. 3.5 stars is a fair score. Great review, Mark.

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    • Thanks Cindy. I remember really loving the film many years ago but it it wasn’t as solid as I remember it. Pacino was magnificent as usual but the music score, I found to be absolutely dire.

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      • When I saw it, I was too young to appreciate it. I agree the score was boring. I lost interest. But I do remember Pacino was explosive and commanding the screen. I box this film in my head with Dog Day Afternoon.

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      • Pacino certainly was explosive. It’s him that really raises the film. As for Dog Day Afternoon, I think that film is a near masterpiece and couldn’t give it any less than top marks! One of the true greats of the 70’s in my eyes.

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      • I agree and loved his energy. Those piercing eyes, the passion, the disheveled hair. Al was awesome and superior. I doubt that even DeNiro could have acted as well in DDA. πŸ˜‰

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      • As much as I prefer Bobby, Al was perfect in Dog Day. It’s quite possibly my favourite performance of his. So intense!!

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      • While I agree, I loved him in ‘A Scent of a Women’. I can’t imagine anyone else carrying off the role of the blind general, even G.C. Scott, with the panache, the sensitivity, the charisma as Al. He commanded respect and sympathy from the audience and delivered his monologues with lively energy. Also, I wrote a post a while ago about Al’s performance as Sherlock in “The Merchant of Venice”. I don’t care if one is not a Shakespeare fan, that performance was outstanding. If you haven’t seen him in it, I highly recommend it. It came out in 2004 and starred Jeremy Irons and Lynn Collins. You’ve probably seen it….
        Anyway, Hail to Al Pacino. The only actor who is on the high plateau as your Bobby dearest πŸ˜‰

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      • Of course, Scent of Woman was a great showcase for Al’s talents. Thoroughly deserving of his Oscar for that. I have seen Merchant of Venice and as you say, Al was again superb. I’m a big admirer of Shakespeare as it goes. I always try to read his plays before seeing any film adaptation. Speaking of which, have you seen Al directorial debut “Looking For Richard”? It’s a brilliant film about trying to capture Richard III with an all star cast, including Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder and many others.

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      • YES! LOVED it. Just as I thought, you have great taste. Cheers, Mark.

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      • Great minds, Cindy. Great minds… πŸ˜‰

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  6. It has been years since I last seen it and I have to admit I don’t remember much of it. Guess I’ll have to dive into my DVD collection to dig this one out again πŸ™‚

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    • I’d be interested to hear your thoughts Nostra. Especially having seen it already and revisiting it. It didn’t quite have the same appeal it did all those years ago for me.

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  7. Very interesting mate, funnily enough I nearly watched this last week for the first time in about 15-20 years. Shame it didn’t quite hold the same appeal it used to but 3.5 is a pretty good score all the same. I remember really liking the character, particularly the hippy element to Serpico, but aside from that I can’t actually remember too much about it or him. I’ll give it another watch sometime.

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    • 3.5 is still a good score, man. I did consider a 4 star rating but wouldn’t have been quite honest if I did so. It’s a good flick and very solidly made in parts but it wasn’t as solid as I remember it. Pacino was marvellous but if you do watch it again, let me know what you make of the music score. I found it terrible and really took away from what was onscreen. Cheers Stu!

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  8. Great review, Mark! Despite having seen only a few of my films, I consider Lumet one of my favorite directors and I’m really looking forward to watching this one, also for the great Pacino.

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  9. Oooh look at how young and cute Pacino is here πŸ˜‰ I’ve been meaning to check this one out. I actually saw a movie that referenced a scene from this and I’ve been curious to see which scene it was. Interesting flashback format too, great review Mark!

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  10. I saw this for the first and only time about 6 or 7 years ago when I really just beginning the road becoming a film buff. I loved it and Pacino in particular. Most of the movie has faded from memory. I’m curious to see if that’s changed after experiencing another 1000+ (2000?) films in he interim.

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    • I remember loving it too Wendell but I was slightly disappointed on a revisit. It’s not a bad film by any means but time has not been kind. To be honest, though, it’s the music score that really jars with the film. It’s ridiculously misplaced. Pacino, however, is magnificent!

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  11. I saw this for the first and only time about 6 or 7 years ago when I really just beginning the road becoming a film buff. I loved it and Pacino in particular. Most of the movie has faded from memory. I’m curious to see if that’s changed after experiencing another 1000+ (2000?) films in he interim.

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  12. One of Pacino’s many great early roles I have a slight preference for Dog Day Afternoon over Panic in needle park which I only recall as being depressing

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    • I found many flaws with the film but I can’t fault Pacino at all. It definitely is one his finest roles.

      I’ve not seen Panic in Needle Park yet but I totally agree on Dog Day. That’s a top quality film.

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  13. Totally agree with your review of this one Mark, the film didn’t age well at all. I saw it for the first time about 10 years ago and thought it’s really outdated. I liked Pacino in the role but the supporting cast were pretty forgettable. I love 70s cinemas but this one just doesn’t close to some of the classics from that era.

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    • I couldn’t agree more Ted. Pacino was outstanding but I can’t honestly say that about the rest of the film. Time definitely hasn’t been kind to it at all and it’s not up to the high standard of 70’s American cinema.

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  14. I have never seen this. Sounds like I should, for Pacino. But I should also go with a certain skepticism. Good review.

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  15. Not one I’ve seen but keeping seeing it cropping up every now and again. Think it might be on Netflix now actually too. Think I’ll add it to the list to check out Pacino. Top review mate.

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