[Illustration by NOMA BAR]
BY ALEXANDER POTTER In America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, real life was truly more shocking — and infinitely more sleazy — than fiction. The resignation of a disgraced president was still fresh in citizens’ minds, and the stench of corruption permeated the walls of every bureaucratic institution in the nation. Likewise, the Big Apple was rotting from the inside out: Garbage collectors went on strike, leaving fetid mountains of refuse to pile up on the city’s streets; the murder rate was skyrocketing to an all-time high; and to add insult to injury, president Gerald Ford denied them a much-needed bailout when then-Mayor Abraham Beame, desperate to put the brakes on the city’s race to the bottom, begged for federal aid. Serpico embodies the hopelessness of that time in the life of the city, when law enforcement was the disease, not the cure.
Serpico is based on the story of Frank Serpico, an undercover narcotics cop turned whistleblower, who testified before a grand jury against the city’s crooked police department and paid a terrible price for it. Starring a young, explosive Al Pacino, Serpico traces the titular detective’s career from his graduation from the police academy to his bitter resignation 12 years later. Director Sydney Lumet shot Serpico in four of New York’s five boroughs in blighted back alleys and on ominous street corners in godforsaken neighborhoods. The very pace of the film mirrors the pervasive violence of the time, jerking from image to image, borough to borough.
From the start, Serpico sticks out like a hippie at a cop convention—because that’s exactly what he is. Serpico is a born non-conformist: he also loves opera, enjoys ballet, wears flashy facial hair and talks to animals. His first day on patrol, he gets into a Mexican standoff with a butcher at a deli when he orders the wrong meal. “It’s best to just take what he gives you,” Frank’s partner instructs him, but Serpico never takes the easy way. Unlike just about everyone else on the force, Serpico adamantly refuses to take money confiscated from drug dealers and that’s where the trouble begins. ??Pacino has made his career playing angry, conflicted men (Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon) but he is sublime in Serpico as he transforms from overly eager rookie to embittered veteran in a matter of months.
Serpico begins to believe the only way he can effectively end corruption in the police department is to go to the top. His insistence on the moral high ground at first confuses, and then angers, the other detectives and before long Serpico’s hard pressed to find anybody on the force he can trust. Pacino puts on his best puppy-dog face when he confides in Captain McClain, a priest-like Irish Catholic who tries to solicit Serpico to go on weekend religious retreats and criticizes Serpico in a condescending, fatherly manner. Serpico eventually grows weary of McClain’s empty promises to get the commissioner involved in cleaning up the corruption and goes to the mayor, who’s no help, either. The mayor’s excuse is that, because it’s an election year, he anticipates rioting for which he’ll need the brute strength of the NYPD to put down.
Alone and with nothing to lose, Serpico continues his crusade fearlessly. His notoriety increases in spite of, not because of, his scrupulousness as a detective. An old friend-turned-crooked-cop named Kellogg warns Serpico he should watch his back, because a lot of cops would love to put a bullet there. Eventually he is transferred to Brooklyn, where bookies pay veteran undercover cops tens of thousands of dollars a month. Fully aware of Serpico’s boy scout-like reputation, the Brooklyn detectives tell him if he blows the whistle on them, they’ll kill him. Serpico chooses to ignore the warnings. In the end, he finds himself in the middle of a drug bust and his partners deliberately fail to cover him as he breaks down a door and the drug dealer shoots him in the face.
Paradoxically, the bullet may have saved Frank Serpico’s life, for it was the proverbial last straw. He resigns, but without a catharsis, for he is friendless and essentially homeless, the charms of his beloved New York now completely defiled by what he’s experienced. Sad to say nearly 40 years later, not much has really changed — in fact the stakes have only gotten higher. With all the financial market flimflams of the last three years, a case could be made that Wall Street (more specifically Goldman Sachs) has become the 1970s NYPD of today. Likewise a case could be made that America itself has become the 1970s NYPD, and Bradley Manning is the Frank Serpico of today. Either way, the film and for that matter the flow of history proves the verity of William Burroughs declaration that the paranoid are the ones who know what’s really going on.