Cast: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler)
SUMMARY: In New York City, undercover police officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is shot in the face, and rushed to the hospital While he is in surgery, the film flashes back to Serpico’s police career. He graduates from the police academy in 1960, and becomes a patrol officer, but quickly realizes that his perception of policemen is overly idealistic. When they are alerted to an ongoing rape, Frank’s partner doesn’t want to respond, because it is out of their jurisdiction. Frank ignores him and answers the call, and manages to capture one of the suspects. When they get back to the station, the suspect is severely beaten by another officer. Frank declines to participate, and later manages to get the man to confess by simply talking to him. He then arrests the other two men involved, but is not given credit for the arrest as he is not the superior officer. After some time, Frank joins the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, as it is considered a quick path to making detective. He experiences the same success at this new job, but still clashes with other officers because of his principles — and his appearance, which now resembles that of a hippie (the better to blend in on the street). After a few years, though, he has not made detective. Frank’s personal life is more pleasing: he meets a girl named Leslie in a Spanish class, and she eventually moves in with him. She introduces Frank to the world of art, particularly dance, but this backfires when a superior sees him reading a book about Isadora Duncan, and starts to believe Frank is gay. After a few years, Frank and Leslie break up, and Frank is transferred to another district. On his very first day, he is handed an envelope containing $300; when he takes it to his friend, Bob Blair (who has been successful in moving up the police ladder), Blair contacts another superior officer. To their surprise, the man tells Frank to simply keep the money and not make noise — that the extortion racket that is providing the money is too big. Frank does keep quiet, but refuses to take any of the money, instead allowing another officer to safeguard it.
Over the next few years, Frank works in several other divisions, but finds corruption in every one. He takes the information to the commissioner, but the man does not act on it. By doing this, he puts himself in great danger among the other officers. Still, he and Bob Blair speak to an aide to the mayor, who is consequently excited about starting a court case and rooting out the corruption Again, nothing comes of this. Frank continues to walk a thin line, doing his job very well while facing the growing displeasure of his peers. He continues to make noise to the brass, and eventually a committee meets to discuss them. Unfortunately, they want to resolve the issue only as far as cleaning up the reputation of the office: they do not want to actually eliminate the corruption. Frank realizes that this means a few minor policemen will be used as scapegoats before the matter is swept under the rug, and refuses to cooperate. He is finally convinced that in order to make a difference, he must testify in front of a grand jury. Frank does testify, but is again frustrated to find that the depth of the corruption is not addressed: the district attorney fails to ask him questions that allow him to reveal this. Frank is transferred again, and finds more extortion and corruption. This time, he and Bob Blair go to The New York Times to tell their story. An investigation begins, but Frank is transferred to narcotics, where the other cops are raking in thousands of dollars in bribes. During a raid on a dealer’s apartment, Frank tries to force his way in through the door; his partners do not help him, instead remaining in the hallway. Someone in the hallway then shoots Frank in the face. At the hospital, the doctor tells Frank’s parents that he will recover, but will have long-term side effects, including pain and hearing loss. In 1971, Frank testifies about the police corruption before the Knapp Commission. He then resigns from the police force and moves to Switzerland.
MY TAKE: Obviously, this is based on the true story of Frank Serpico, who really did help uncover widespread corruption in the New York City police department. It’s always kind of sad to know that stuff like this happened, especially when it consumed the entire department: police are supposed to be the protectors of everything good and just, so we expect them to be morally upstanding. Unfortunately, they’re humans. Clearly, almost every other man in the department had come to terms with this, and had even gotten in on the action. Serpico seems to be basically the only one to repeatedly resist. This was made even harder because of the pressure from other cops, and the underlying threat that came with that: join the group or risk being sacrificed. It’s pretty amazing that Serpico managed to buck the system and remain unharmed as long as he did. Each time he was moved to a new division, and found more corruption, my heart sank a little further, and I definitely started to wonder how he was ever going to be able to expose the corruption by himself, especially since the commissioner seeed to be in on it. In today’s world, the answer might be a little more obvious: tell the media. This is what Serpico eventually does, and it’s what ends up working. Still, after everything he went through, it’s no wonder the man moved to Switzerland. Talk about disillusionment. I did wish that the time periods of the movie were a little more documented, just so we could see how long this went on, which would help explain the scale of it. I also would have liked to see them note each time Frank was transferred, so it was easier to see just how many divisions he worked in, and therefore how large the scandal was. You get a pretty good impression of this already, but I think it would have helped the tone of the movie if these details were noted.
RATING: Intriguing but kinda slow.