[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”
What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.
I have no idea whether the real Frank Serpico was a martyr or a selfrighteous opportunist, but Pacino’s Serpico is every man who has been bugged by an injustice large or small—some wrong that the majority accept without thinking too much about it. He’s every man who’s allowed his sense of outrage to eat at him until he steps out of line and inadvertently turns heroic. He’s not an especially attractive, winsome fellow: he takes things too seriously, is disruptive, takes stand on ground no one is much interested in defending anymore. His sense of humor suffers. Pacino’s superbly developed performance is not that of a tragic hero whose fatal flaw is too much honesty, but that of an ordinary man who gets torn apart—psychically and physically—not by the system’s violation of some “great truth” or moral absolute he read in a book or heard in a speech, but by behavior that pisses him off because it’s incompatible with his own personal illusions, because it outrages that little citadel of ultimate I-ness that is identity. Lumet’s (or de Laurentiis’) film has nowhere to go because it’s a proliferation of predestined dead-ends and burnt-out cases: no one is really capable of moral choices because everyone died and went to hell a long time ago. Consequently, while Pacino/Serpico searches the corrupt circles of metropolitan officialdom for the proverbial honest man, we are not so much brought low by the predictable and undifferentiated culpability of the system’s flunkies as infected, exhilarated, by Pacino’s explosive, barely contained rage. Pacino’s performance represents a way out of the moral cul-de-sac that Serpico—along with too many current films—practically celebrates. The color of the day is gray, the posture passive cynicism. But Al Pacino’s Serpico occasionally makes one see red, and though he ends by being shot down and exiled, he remains undefeated, if not victorious.
Direction: Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, after the book by Peter Maas. Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz. Editing: Dede Allen. Production: Dino de Laurentiis.
The Players: Al Pacino, Tony Roberts, Biff McGuire, John Randolph, Barbara-Eda Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Jack Kehoe.
Copyright © 1974 Kathleen Murphy