Serpico (1973)

Lumet time again. I was, to be honest, a bit uncertain about this for the first half hour or so. I know it’s a classic and all that but I didn’t really feel myself responding to it somehow. And we’re dealing here with a true story, of course, NYPD officer Frank Serpico and his efforts to clean up the spectacularly corrupt police force of the 1960s, who mistrusted him because he wouldn’t “eat grass”, to use the phrase coined by the Knapp Commission; the police turned on Serpico because he wouldn’t lower himself to their level. And I think that may have been part of  what was bothering me about the film, Serpico himself. If I hadn’t known it was a true story, I’d almost have found Serpico a bit too good to be true in his refusal to give in to the culture, and indeed as the film went on he really started becoming kind of unlikeable, what with his increasing obsessiveness and paranoia, his apparent determination to alienate even those who would help him. And suddenly, as I started noticing just how basically unpleasant Serpico gradually becomes, the film suddenly started to become more interesting for me for that very reason. It suddenly struck me how unsentimental the film was being towards its title character, Lumet was clearly refusing to make him a conventional hero, and I started to really appreciate how good Al Pacino’s performance in the role actually is, making this rather difficult figure compelling to watch. I did think the film’s sense of period setting was a bit vague; I knew the story basically covered the time between Serpico entering the force in 1960 and him being shot in 1971, but I didn’t really get much of a feel for when any given part of the story was taking place from the film itself apart from Pacino’s own sartorial style. Bit of a problem but not a major one; on the whole, a pretty decent bit of 1970s gritty.


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