Frank Serpico is an idealistic young man who has just become the newest member of the New York City Police Department. He dreams of becoming a detective, hoping to qualify for the prestigious gold shield. He joins the Plainclothes Division, dressing like a hippy as part of the job, which is the source of much derision from his coworkers. As he continues his line of work, he will learn the disturbing reason behind their hostility.
Within days of earning his badge, Officer Serpico proves highly effective at apprehending criminals. Catching a rapist in the act, he chases the criminal in the dark, hopping a fence to capture him. However, in a stark contrast to his peers, he is also effective at getting information out of his suspects. The rapist is beaten up by the detectives, who are confused as to why he won’t talk. Just before he is about to be shipped off to jail, Serpico offers to buy the criminal a coffee, even going as far as releasing him from his handcuffs. This unexpected friendliness causes the rapist to name his accomplices.
While the cynic may opt to brutalize criminals under the rationale that minor acts of evil must be committed for the greater good, Serpico’s approach completely flies in the face of this notion. It demonstrates that Serpico’s affable tactics are not laughably ineffectual and weak – it gets results. At the same time, he is also not a quixotic fool for taking this approach, as he makes it clear he will not hesitate to shoot the man down if he tries to flee. Anyone who underestimates Serpico does so at their own peril. Unfortunately, as a result of his triumph, he is threatened with a reprimand for not writing it up in his notebook. The only way he can avoid a black mark is by allowing the detectives to claim credit for the arrests.
Things get worse for Serpico after he joins the Plainclothes Division. His interesting fashion choices earns him the ire of his peers, though it quickly turns out they are far more hostile than they let on. One of his first assignments has him chase a suspect through the streets. When his backup arrives, they begin firing at both him and the criminal, not even bothering to yell a warning out first. This is primarily because the Plainclothes division’s disguises aren’t especially effective. Common street thugs generally aren’t known for their short haircuts and polished shoes, after all. Even so, that the police would shoot first and ask questions later is the first indication something is seriously amiss. It makes one wonder how many of their own officers died in the line of duty in such a fashion.
After witnessing many of his colleagues take bribes and commit acts of excessive violence, he realizes something must be done. His first inclination is, sensibly, to report these various wrongdoings to the commissioner. Although the commissioner resolves to fix these problems, he does nothing at all. When called out on it later, he falsely claims to have forgotten. When the commanders of the precinct bring the matter to his attention, he insists on investigating it themselves as opposed to handing it over to Internal Affairs. This is a rather blatant conflict of interest. Although the commissioner is clearly in the wrong, it’s easy for him to be a coward because the complacent are the majority.
Sidney Lumet’s direction and Al Pacino’s performance effectively convey just how frightening Serpico’s situation truly is. When the full extent of the police department’s corruption is laid bare, he realizes he is all alone and surrounded by those who could easily dispose of him if he makes even the smallest step out of line. This causes him to lash out at his loved ones. When you can’t trust anyone in a line of work that is often a matter of life and death, forming relationships outside of the poisonous environment is incredibly difficult.
The truth of the matter is that corruption begets corruption. Serpico’s story is unlikely to be unique. There were plenty of would-be policemen who joined the force, believing they could help make the world a better place. However, after realizing the extent of the force’s corruption, they would be forced to play nice. Even if they’re ideologically opposed to what their employers are doing, they would have to give into the corruption, if only for the sake of self-preservation. However, it matters not whether the corruption is perpetuated by those who thrive off of it or actively hate it – the end result is the same, and these practices spread like a malignant tumor. The only way Serpico can even begin to fight this system is by going to those capable of spreading the word: the press. Because one cannot unring the bell, this causes the corruption to slowly crumble.
In many ways, Serpico acts as an interesting companion piece to On the Waterfront. Both are films in which its protagonists are forced to live in a system rife with corruption and their arcs see them step up and do the right thing. However, the protagonist of On the Waterfront, Terry, was indoctrinated in a corrupt culture. Only when he realized he had thrown his life away for the sake of an organization that didn’t care about him at all did he break free and report the corruption to the authorities. Officer Serpico, on the other hand, was a newcomer who, when he witnessed the rampant corruption plaguing the New York City Police Department, realized it couldn’t go on any longer. As such, he immediately attempts to set things right – it just takes him several tries before he finds success.
The beginning of the film shows Serpico being rushed to the hospital after getting shot in the face. One officer comments that he knows a few policemen who wanted him dead, but the truth is a little more complicated. In a drug bust that barely has anything to do with Serpico’s campaign, his colleagues set him up for a fall. Notably, they don’t shoot them in the face themselves; instead, they refuse to help him bust into the criminals’ apartment. This allows said criminals to get a free shot. It is precisely how corrupt individuals hold on to their practices; when they need to commit an illegal act to maintain the façade, they use the most passive method possible. That way, if they’re questioned about their wrongdoings, they can claim their hands are clean and there was nothing they could have done to stop the tragedy from unfolding.
The officers that refused to help are then caught off-guard because Serpico survives the attack. Sadly, his disillusionment causes him to quit his job and move to Switzerland. In a bitterly ironic twist, he receives his gold shield, but he no longer cares about it. He knows it is merely a political move intended to clean their hands from what amounts to an indirect murder attempt. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom, for Serpico’s actions results in a body that deals with police corruption, which would have a profound, positive impact on the department for years to come.
By 1973, the New Hollywood movement was in full swing. While Sidney Lumet certainly proved his worth as a skilled director when he adapted 12 Angry Men in 1957, what he accomplished with Serpico cemented him as one of the all-time greats. The Hays Code had expired, and he embraced the direction in which the medium was heading, producing many exemplary works throughout the 1970s when many of his peers ended up falling by the wayside as a result of the newfound freedom. Coupled with a stellar performance courtesy of Al Pacino, and you have yourself a true classic. It tells a tale of one policeman’s attempts to hold onto his integrity when the culture in which he finds himself demands he abandon it. It is absolutely worth watching every step of this journey unfold for yourself. As the real Serpico himself once said, “Pacino played [me] better than I did”. One could not ask for a better endorsement than that.
Final Score: 7/10