Sidney Lumet had a run of straight-up masterworks during the 70s which included ‘The Offence’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Network’. All are dynamic, character-driven and provide investigations into their protagonists’ state of mind. In particular, ‘The Offence’ and ‘Serpico’ are probing and disquieting enquiries into police work and moral compromise. Their main characters are a study in opposites. Whereas, in ‘The Office’, Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) is a man in psychological meltdown who finally crosses the line during the interrogation of a suspected child molester, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is an idealistic but ambitious New York cop who admits early on that he’s looking for a fast-track to promotion, but whose sense of morality is challenged at every turn by cynicism, apathy and corruption.
Adapted by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler from Peter Maas’s biography of Serpico, Lumet’s film kicks off in high gear with a police car tearing through the nocturnal streets, Serpico in the back seat, shot and bleeding badly. When word reaches the station house, the first comment is, “Wonder if a cop did it.”
It sets the tone. Lumet flashes back to Serpico as a rookie, his strict moral code soon coming to the fore. Partnered with an older cop who doesn’t bother to respond when the dispatcher puts out a call about a rape in progress, Serpico hauls ass to the scene. There are four perpetrators: three escape. Serpico collars the fourth. Back at the station, the youth takes a kick to the balls and a beating with a telephone directory. Serpico has no part of it.
As he tries to establish a career, moving to plainclothes assignments and taking courses in fingerprint analysis, he gets a worm’s-eye view of corruption, from bribe-taking to pay-offs. His friend Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe), who was wangled a mayor’s office assignment thanks to political connections, becomes Serpico’s unlikely ally as he tries to take his concerns through the proper channels while at the same time protecting himself. A string of transfers convinces him that corruption is endemic across the force; and as the higher-ups increasingly stonewall him, he realizes that it encompasses many levels.
Coming a year after his flawless performance as Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather, and with his reprisal of the role in ‘The Godfather Part II’ still a year away, ‘Serpico’ basically sealed the deal for Al Pacino, confirming him as one of the great acting talents in contemporary American cinema. Lumet surrounded him with a wealth of great character actors: John Randolph, Tony Roberts, John McQuade (in his final role) and M Emmet Walsh. Even the uncredited swathe of the cast list contains F Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsh and Tony Lo Blanco.
Does anything need to be said about Pacino’s performance. He’s unafraid to delve into the personal consequences of Serpico’s rigid morality, showing him venting his frustrations on the women in his life, losing the flamboyant Leslie (Cordelia Sharpe) and driving away the loyal Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) as he vents the frustrations of the job on her. He also captures, with chilling immediacy, Serpico’s professional isolation, culminating in a scene where Serpico goes into a drug den only to find himself (quite literally) trapped and facing down the business end of a small calibre gun while his colleagues hang back and let him take a bullet.
Lumet’s direction is unshowy and unobtrusive – a hallmark of his career. He makes superb use of the location work. There is also a great understanding at work of the dynamics of mise en scene, particularly in a scene where Serpico is upbraided by a group of fellow cops during an off-the-record meeting in a park. Lumet contrasts the uncluttered openness of the exterior with a sequence of shots where the heads of Serpico’s colleagues fill the screen, their cheap shirts and bad ties all but out of shot. What remains is the hatred in their eyes. It’s one of the best representations I’ve seen of someone being surrounded.
Lumet pulled off a comparable seen a couple of decades later in ‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ where Andy Garcia is the only character seated as a group of men in suits surround him, firing off questions. There’s the obvious metaphor of standing (as in “standing in judgement”), but more than this Lumet frames the shot to cut off Garcia’s questioners at shoulder-height: effectively, they’re faceless.
‘Night Falls on Manhattan’ was underrated, as was ‘Q&A’ – unjustly so – but both demonstrate that Lumet’s fascination with the machinations of bureaucracy and the moral compromises of the law and those who are entrusted to withhold it were lifelong concerns. Lumet’s swansong, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’, was again a crime thriller, shot on the streets with a fierce realism, and proved that the man never lost his edge. Cinema is poorer for losing him.
i.m. Sidney Lumet, 25 June 1924 – 9 April 2011