‘The epic that Sidney Lumet has been promising for years’: Serpico reviewed in 1974

As Sidney Lumet’s Al Pacino-starring thriller about undercover cop Frank Serpico returns to cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration, we revisit an original rave review of the film first published in the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Serpico (1973)

A more full-bodied treatment of the themes of his previous crime saga, The Anderson Tapes, and a healthy step away from the theatrical adaptations that have been congesting his career, Serpico looks like the epic that Sidney Lumet has been fitfully promising for years. Its strongest qualities seem to cast back to his earliest films to the kind of dynamic, self-contained drama which, while worrying over a social conscience in Twelve Angry Men, hadn’t yet cast up the social parables that appeared in The Pawnbroker and The Group or the theatrical devising of the later films.

The career of Frank Serpico, the cop who became a renegade to his colleagues because of his refusal to work their system of full-time graft, connived at on all levels of the force, allows Lumet the scope for a broad yet detailed attack on city-wide corruption and the bureaucracy’s frustrating mechanisms for self-protection, while the emotional energies of his film remain, for once, firmly geared to the hero’s own. 

The peculiar mixture of idealism and obsession in Serpico’s notion of integrity leads him to become a pariah in his work, an impossible companion at home, and a prima donna – as he is accused by the investigating counsel finally assigned to open an enquiry – in applying his own sense of justice. The film has the highly-charged style which seems to be both peculiarly Lumet’s own and almost the family technique of all ex-TV directors.

Harsh, hectic images flesh out a disconnected narrative, and the drama is played, gracelessly but in a way that allows for a fierce switchback of emotion, in an alternation of close-up confrontation with the kind of static tableau where one worried police officer considers aligning himself with Serpico’s cause, while the man’s home and family are also held in the shot with a sense of precarious harmony. 

Where confrere John Frankenheimer has gradually worn the style down to academic monotony (in an effort to emulate Wyler, Stevens, et al), Lumet in the past has bent it to the needs of very theatrical symbolism and allegory (the confrontation in The Offence of another troubled copper with the three-fold personification of a victim/judge). Allegory is perhaps stirring beneath the surface of Serpico – in the Christ-like dress and appearance of the maverick cop, in the stigmata wound he finally suffers and his ritual disrobing in hospital – but it is surprisingly discreet and never threatens the convulsions which have overturned so many earlier films.

And the fragmentation and episodic narrative are here cogently justified: in following Serpico’s course through successively corrupt precincts, his ostracism increasingly marked by the unconventional dress which, in his own eyes, fits him more usefully to his job; in establishing the mood of frustration as one exit after another is blocked off in this Byzantine labyrinth; and in lending an uneasy edge to the occasional turnabout – the sympathetic officer who arranges transfers and proffers information on Catholic retreats, but whose good will abruptly reaches its own time-serving limits, and the eventual discovery of an ally in the most unexpected quarter. Frank Serpico turns out to be a less fantastical version of the loner-hero from the other side of the law in The Anderson Tapes – dreaming of the ‘hit’ that will net him an entire East Side apartment house, and compromised, exploited and finally destroyed in its execution.

Characteristically, and more solidly than usual, Lumet plots the ironies of Serpico’s single-minded integrity: gradually divorced from the environment of his past (the ethnic background rather eerily pointed up by Theodorakis’ score, but less morosely celebrated than in Bye, Bye Braverman), from the people amongst whom he insists he wants to work, Serpico’s self-formulated honesty and obsessive campaign lead directly to the final title, which tells of his resignation from the force and his self-exile to Switzerland.

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A look back at Philip French’s exploration of the burgeoning cop movie sub-genre, from our Spring 1974 issue.

By Philip French

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