Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Al Pacino
The other night, not really craving anything to view and perusing the titles in my collection, I happened upon Serpico. I can’t remember the last time I watched it, but I do remember my first viewing of it. I must have been about 21 or 22 years old and had really just discovered the cinema of the American New Wave (the New Hollywood), my best friend Kevin and I would sit in his living room until the wee small hours drinking Coke with our eyes popping out as movies like Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Serpico (to name only a few) pulsated, twitched, and ran ragged across the television screen. I remember thinking that Serpico certainly had a great performance, but seemed a much lesser film than Dog Day Afternoon and many others of that time. However, after this recent viewing I will revise that assessment. Serpico is a rich and fascinating film in which context, cinematic language, and craft work together more than being a film that is held up and held together by the performance of its lead actor.
That being said, though, let me start with Mr. Pacino. Simply, he’s great. The ubiquity of his greatness in the 1970s perhaps made audiences take him for granted, but I believe very few actors could have held the screen and the character of Frank Serpico to keep me with the feeling of being an objective observer and personally invested in this character’s well-being. Here, Mr. Pacino is not alone in his performance; the cinematic language employed by Mr. Lumet helps establish how we should feel about and view this man who inhabits the screen for almost every second of the film. The differing use of close-up is particularly memorable. Mr. Lumet uses wide angle lenses to give a false sense of size to the foreground as well as deep focus to fill out the frame. Figures attempting to pressure or subvert Serpico are notably placed in the foreground while Frank remains in medium shot.
This has the effect of making the antagonistic element seem unnaturally large and uncomfortably close. However, when Paco is shot in close-up, his face fills the screen and the effect is one of intimacy and familiarity, not least because he has a nice face, friendly eyes and is so different to everyone else in the film. Contasting this, however, is the first shot of the movie, which is a close-up of Serpico, bloody and gasping in the back of a police cruiser. He’s dying, could die at any moment, and Mr. Pacino has to convey who this man is and why we should care about him immediately and with no thought or question. The performance succeeds in relating his fear, his paranoia, and his hope without words and without gesture; it is an example of film acting at its finest.
Another aspect of the portrayal of Serpico is his placement in the environment. Despite the use of wide-angle lenses and the revolutionary editing techniques of Dede Allen*, Serpico maintains the signature gritty, syncopated realism of 1970s American cinema and the character is placed both within and against this realism. Most of the narrative action of the film takes place in extended flashback. The world is we see it, though shot with this neo American realism, is highly subjective and Frank is clearly depicted as a kind of hero/super cop. The first image of Serpico we see in flashback is a good boy in blue, a model police academy graduate, fresh-faced, clean, innocent, but he is also just a face in the crowd, one amidst many, as the camera pulls back to reveal all the cadets sitting at the graduation ceremony. This image is reflected in the last shot of the film, with a much different-looking Paco sitting with his sheep dog against another dark background. Again, the camera pulls out to reveal the enormous liner that will take Serpico away from New York, away from America. He is presented not as a face in the crowd, but as a man isolated against the enormity of the machinery and infrastructure that would carry him, and us in society, wherever it will. This perhaps the central idea of Mr. Lumet’s film. There is a constant struggle between the individual and whatever society he is part of.
Serpico is clearly very different from his fellow police officers. His gift for blending in on the streets and with his hippie/youth culture friends (as signified by his many excellent hats and fabulous facial hair) is a visual clue to this struggle between individual and society, being both distinguishable and indistinguishable, and the tension of if you’re not one of us then you are against us. In the film, this is exhibited by the corrupt cops, by his friends when they find out he is a cop, and then by Frank’s paranoia; in society, this was prevalent in the remnants of hippie culture vs. preppy culture, in race relations, in aspects of the Vietnam War, and in domestic American politics and government (it was the Nixon years, after all). It is also still with us. If our time is as divisive and edgy as the late 1960s and the 1970s, then this film is every bit as relevant as it was to its contemporary audience.
Definitely seek out Serpico and any of the work of Sidney Lumet, Al Pacino, and Dede Allen. I’m glad my mood took me to re-watch this film, and I may just follow it up with its companion piece, Dog Day Afternoon.
*For more on Dede Allen, arguably the greatest editor in American film take a look at these screen credits: The Hustler (1961), Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Reds (1981), The Breakfast Club (1985). Also, read a short piece from NPR and this essay: “Considering Dede Allen: The Editor as Revolutionary”.