Serpico  (1973) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

If you're at all interested in the history of movies, you already know what Serpico is, the first of the famous biographical whistle-blower movies. Filmed in between the two Godfather movies, it established Pacino's versatility. He not only played an eccentric cop, but the character happened to be an undercover cop, requiring Pacino to play a quirky man who disguised himself as other non-conformists and atypical citizens, including a conservative Rabbi!
Serpico is based on the true story of New York police officer Frank Serpico, as detailed in a best seller written by Peter Maas. Serpico had been a good kid from the New York streets who dreamed of being an honest cop. His dream turned into a nightmare when he found corruption through every bureau of every precinct of NYPD - bribes, kickbacks, comps, shake-downs, stolen evidence - all without any attempt to hide it from the rookies, as if it were understood as the privilege of position.


There is a sexual molestation scene in which the victim is seen naked, full-frontal.

Serpico's girlfriend (Cornelia Sharpe) is seen topless in the bathtub.

The film details Serpico's path through the ranks from cadet, to uniformed cop, to undercover work. He reported the problems he saw through all levels of the police chain of command, and then through the city chain of command, all to no avail for a decade.

Failing to find any satisfaction at any level of municipal government, Frank Serpico took his story to The New York Times. When that paper broke Serpico's revelations of police misconduct, it forced then-mayor John Lindsay to create an independent oversight committee, the Knapp Commission, to investigate police corruption in the NYPD. On June 18th, 1971, Serpico testified against a former partner. Death threats ensued. It all came to a denouement when he was shot in the face at point blank range while making a drug bust in Brooklyn. His colleagues did not call for help.

It's a terrific movie, although we will never be able to enjoy now it as we did then. Some films don't age as well as others, not because they aren't good, but because they belong to their time, and require their original context to make their original impact.

  • The movie came out within two years of the last incidents portrayed. Frank Serpico was famous, a hero to most, a heel to some. In 1973, the film had a freshness to it that we can't recreate when we watch today. This kind of contemporaneous edge could only be duplicated today by a movie about, for example, the heroic passengers who took the Pennsylvania airliner back from the terrorists.
  • Frank Serpico's staunch non-conformism in his personal life touched an important chord with the rebellious young anti-Vietnam generation. His long hair, and his colleagues' distaste for it, created a bond between Serpico and the audience.
  • The film was also released at about the same time that the Watergate scandals were bringing Americans a new awareness of corruption in their institutions, precisely reinforcing the theme of the movie. In so many ways, this film was completely in sync with the prevailing zeitgeist.
  • The standards of modern pacing have left this film somewhat behind. It is languid by today's standards, and the 130 minute running time seems more like 180.
  • The scene transitions are sometimes clumsy. More than once, I found myself thinking "what the ...?".
  • The social context has changed enough that certain items don't seem believable. This film was considered ultra-realistic at the time it was made, but the three terrifying black rapists, for example, look like Princeton students with neat hair, shaven faces, and .... golf shirts!
  • We've seen many similar movies since. Although this was a pioneer, it now seems like a cliché. It was first, so it was fresh, but looking back on it today, we can't turn back the clock and pretend we haven't seen all this before.

Ignoring the ways in which the cultural and artistic climates have changed since 1973, the biggest flaw of the film is repetition. Serpico is assigned to one precinct in one department where he's ostracized for his unwillingness to play by the rules. They switch him to another department. Repeat. Another precinct. Repeat. Downtown. Repeat. Go to the captain. Stonewalled. Commissioner. Stonewalled. Mayor. Well, you get the picture.

On the other side of the coin, one has to admire this film for having the moral courage of a Serpico himself. It would have been very easy to portray Serpico as a saint and to star Robert Redford or somebody similar in the part, but the script told it like it was. Yes, he was morally in the right, but in many ways Serpico is the least likeable person in the film. He was generally disliked for other reasons besides his incorruptibility. He was a strident, whiny individual who always made people feel that he thought he was on a higher moral and intellectual plane. He liked to work undercover so he could wear long hair and a scruffy beard all the time. He favored opera and ballet. Obviously, he never did fit in to police culture at all. To its credit, the film never backed away from Serpico's eccentricities, going so far as to show that he was not just odd, but could be downright creepy. By handling all of this with humor, the film manages to present the unvarnished reality without alienating the audience from the Serpico character.

I like so many things about the film, that the draggy, repetitive pace didn't seem that important. I enjoyed the realistic look at New York's politics, and the location photography throughout the boroughs. I got a kick out of the quirky details the script brought to Pacino's confrontational, deliberately non-conformist character, and I laughed at his silly disguises.

I also got sucked in by the struggle of a single individual against a complete system, in which it seemed he was without allies. In presenting the situation as similar to that of Kafka's Joseph K, a sole honest man living in terror in the midst of an inherently criminal bureaucracy, the film was quite successful at getting the audience to identify with and feel Serpico's sense of paranoia, or whatever word one is supposed to use for  "paranoia" when it is justified.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1.

  • documentary: "Serpico, from real to reel"

  • "Inside Serpico"

  • Favorite Moments

  • Photo gallery with commentary by director Sydney Lumet

  • Theatrical trailer(s)


Book info from Amazon

Brian Koller of, summed it up as follows:

In Lumet's surreal take on the police department, the entire force has essentially become a crime organization. Like the Mafia, they parcel out territories, shakedown street losers, and target the squealers. They beat suspects, and show complete indifference to crime that occurs under their very noses. The graft dwarfs their modest salaries. The Policemen also steal from Serpico, taking credit for his arrests. They try to steal his soul as well.

The movie had a very innovative approach to music. Contrary to the contemporary fashion, it had only 14 minutes of background score, and even that was some offbeat zither music written by the guy who did "Never on Sunday" and "Zorba the Greek". Personally, I didn't really find the Greek-sounding music very appropriate to the action, but it was generally unobtrusive and, viewed from a distance, seemed to reinforce the overall sense that we were watching the life of an impassioned, noble, but truly eccentric man.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

Serpico (1973) is the true story about the New York police officer who refused to accept graft. All he wanted was to be allowed to do his job fighting crime, and remain honest. Unfortunately, his stand was a threat to most of the force, who felt they couldn't trust him because he put morality above loyalty to other cops. Al Pacino, fresh off The Godfather, absolutely nailed the role. Set in the five boroughs of New York, the locations were amazing, creating the correct mood for this film.

They had four months from start of principal photography to opening. Director Lumet likes a rapid shooting schedule for several reasons. On his first day of shooting, he shoots lots of easy scenes (like a character entering a doorway) one after another, often in several locations, and, if he and the camera man agree, only do one take. He feels the actors don't have to stretch much for these simple scenes, it announces immediately to the crew that this is not going to be a laid back, take lots of insurance shots experience. It also lets Lumet find weak spots in the crew before they become a problem. This was a culture shock for Pacino after Godfather, but he liked it because he could stay in character from one scene to the next.

The down side to this schedule may have been the fact that they had to edit as they shot to have the film ready for release. I suspect that the pace, and certainly the transitions from one scene to another would have been better if they could have started editing after they had everything in the can. Lumet was somewhat surprised that they film was a popular success, calling it proof that the viewing public is smarter than the studios assume they are.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. No major reviews, but the cited articles were generally very favorable.

  • The film was nominated for two Oscars: best adapted screenplay, best actor.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it grossed $27 million in the USA. That was pretty solid by 1973 standards, not a blockbuster, but a minor hit.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "C+ or B. It was definitely a B in its day, but the impact of the film was strongly tied to its relevance, and the standards of pacing were more leisurely at the time. It seems to me that it would now be a film for specialty audiences, not an across-the-board winner. It is an excellent film, however, in many ways." Tuna says, "The proper score was B in 1973, and is probably still B. With the one honest man fights the entire corrupt system theme, Serpico's offbeat but endearing character, and Pacino's amazing performance, the film, even though somewhat dated, is still a cut above most police crime thrillers."

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