Serpico (1973)

acd89-serp2“Come on Frank. Let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”

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.

39dd2-serp2b3He 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 60789-serp2b4been 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.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Annie Hall (1977)

d37a3-anniehall4“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”

So begins Annie Hall a film that Woody Allen, also known as Alvy Singer, begins with an opening monologue borrowing a quip from Grouch Marx. It acts as a lead into his life story, romantic and otherwise.

He had a childhood characterized as being morose, depressed, and so on, because as he noted early on “the universe is expanding.” He grew up living under a roller coaster and having fun with the local bumper cars. He grew up to be a comic with the same despondent outlook on life. In one memorable long shot of a sidewalk, we listen to Alvy talking to his friend about people making jokes about him being a Jew and his assertions seem uncalled for.

When Alvy was dating Annie, they went to Ingmar Bergman films and The Sorrow and the Pity was a personal favorite of Alvy. A favorite film with a perfect title and subject for the pessimistic fellow. However, what really vexes him are puffed up know-it-alls who pontificate on and on like they are God’s gift to the universe. It seems necessary at this point to break the fourth wall.

As Alvy recalls his early childhood and first relationship which began at an Adlai Stevenson rally, it is rather funny that he remains unchanged the whole time. Physically Woody Allen is playing Alvy as a young man and an old man without any change.

Then there is the fiasco with the lobsters and the memories of his first meeting with Annie over tennis. That was when he met the girl who came out of the Norman Rockwell painting. Seemingly the antithesis of Alvy himself.

Their relationship is examined with all its quirks from a trivial conversation about art, with underlying subtitles that reflect their real thoughts, to Annie’s stint as a nightclub singer. They have a comical time people watching, and Alvy recalls his second wife and the one who was a Rolling Stone reporter. His relationship with Annie also has its share of arguments, over spiders at 3 in the morning and adult education. Through it all Alvy still views Annie as a cartoon version of the Wicked Queen from “Snow White,” who he secretly loves.

It is during a famous split screen sequence (actually a split room) where the stark differences, not only between the pair, but the genders are pointed out. Things are changing. They take a trip out to sunny California and Alvy cannot help but hate it compared to pleasantly gray New York. They have laugh tracks, wheat germ killers, and trash which is subsequently made into T.V. shows. Annie loves it all.

The inevitable comes and Annie breaks up only to have Alvy soon revisit California to propose marriage. Needless to say, it does not happen. He returns to New York and makes his first play about their last conversation verbatim, with one small revision. Alvy sees Annie one last time when she returns to New York, and they share some laughs while highlights role across the screen.

Allen’s stand-in Alvy sums it all up with one final joke about a guy who has a brother who thinks he a chicken, but he fails to do anything about it because he needs the eggs. That’s how he feels about relationships. “They’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd,” but you keep on because you need the eggs. Another philosophical gem from Alvy Singer.

The irony of Annie Hall is that many a person has gone on to pontificate on and on about it, but if we actually pulled an Alvy Singer and dragged Woody Allen from out behind a movie poster, I’m sure he could set us straight. Annie Hall is chock full of humor, a far from typical type of romance, and people trying to find their way in life. Take away discussion about psychoanalysis, modernism, antisemitism, and what you are left with are people just talking. Some of what they say is about such philosophical topics, but sometimes it’s not. It’s about memories, simple observations of life, and the little things that happen along the way.

There are clashing worldviews that come up against each other like New York and California (brought to us by the cinematography of Gordon Willis). There are different sorts of people like Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Yet we still go through relationships “because we need the eggs” so to speak. We are searching for that type of intimacy and closeness, and very often we keep looking and looking. It is painful, seemingly necessary, and all the same, it can feel pointless. It’s part of being human I suppose.

Annie Hall works for me because of the quirks that give a fresh face to the typical romantic comedy and it will be the measuring stick for other such films that are being released for years to come. I am not usually a major fan of Woody Allen films, but this one is his undisputed masterpiece. It exemplifies his general philosophy and approach to comedy. Not to mention his typical players in Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts.

4.5/5 Stars