[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.