This is the state of affairs in the police department that green police academy grad Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) finds himself thrown into. At first, he is unaware of it all as he moves up the ranks as a young uniformed cop. In fact, he looks exactly like a post-war Michael Corleone at this point. His new role seems like an honorable life of camaraderie, duty, and public service. The corrupt is obvious and distinct from the good. Soon his brash, forthright style creates waves, but it soon becomes apparent that he is not one to care about hurting egos.
He moves on with his career working in plainclothes and getting a new apartment followed by a new dog. His appearance begins to change as well as he starts wearing a thick bushy beard and wearing hippy garb. It suits him fine in his work and outside he meets a pretty girl named Leslie Lane, but it’s not meant to be.
Serpico corroborates with colleague Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) trying to figure out how to bring attention to the bribes he has been offered. But honest help is hard to find especially from someone who makes it stick. The higher ups care more about the reputation of the department over corruption, making progress difficult to come by. He continually bounces around from division to division and nobody seems to want him, or trust him for that matter. There are only a few honest Joes around and they are few and far between. Serpico gets transferred this time to the “upright” 7th division and begins seeing his next door neighbor named Laurie. Too soon he learns that one of his acquaintances is instrumental in the extortion that takes place department-wide. By now Frank is feared, hated, and despised because he will not take money under any circumstances. It takes its toll to be all alone in the force, and he lashes out at Laurie who leaves him for good. Now he truly is alone.
He becomes increasingly combative and paranoid as he gets ready to testify before the grand jury. Another case of bribes comes out and when Serpico and his upright partner try and report it nothing is done. As a last resort, Frank goes to The New York Times and they blow the cover right off. He soon receives an ominous death threat and gets shot when trying to bust someone.
He lays in the hospital recuperating asking for his guards to be relieved and watching the hate mail pile up. His badge is returned to him, but he rejects it in disgust, soon resigning from the police and waiting for a slow boat to Switzerland. That’s as far from New York as he could get.
It seems like there are so very many close-ups of Frank Serpico, and thus, over the course of the film we get the opportunity to truly study his face, or rather the face of Pacino as he embodies this character. His cold, aloof eyes, his facial hair that goes under several transformations, but that is only the outward appearance. It is his inner transformation that is most important because that is where his conscience lies, to guide him each and everyday on the beat.
My New York geography leaves something to be desired but that’s not the problem of native New Yorker Sidney Lumet. This is a story that takes place in New York, made for New York, and fit perfectly with its director. It seems like he knew the streets of the New York like the back of his hand, really creating an authentic atmosphere for this police biopic. It has a touch of The French Connection and yet it is a far more personal look at the life of Serpico himself.
This is also extraordinary because the story of Serpico was so fresh, still only a year or two old at most. Furthermore, the film has the same disillusioning and depressing tone of other dramas that came out of the 1970s. Back in the 1950s films like 12 Angry Men (Lumet’s debut) still had an air of idealism. That had mostly dissipated in the New Hollywood period, because the good guys aren’t black and white. Serpico is not the greatest guy around, but the one thing he has going for him is that he is not crooked and that’s saying a lot in the corrupt world he exists in. This is his story told with all the blemishes, personal troubles, and drama that went with it. The greatest service to him is that his story got told and hopefully truthfully enough.