Sidney Lumet received a life achievement Oscar this last February. That he never won a Best Director Trophy seems all the more screwy to me after re-watching one of his finest, Serpico, on DVD over the weekend. Few directors have juggled hot-button issues, pretense-free storytelling, and genuine artistry so adroitly over a career, and in 1973 Serpico found Lumet at the top of his game.
Based on a true story, the film follows Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), an earnest and hard-working New York policeman who rises from beat-cop grunt work up to plainclothes duty. Along his path up the ladder of the force, he's faced with workaday examples of the NYPD's imperfections; smatterings of police brutality, departmental intolerance at his unconventional appearance, and most significantly, fellow officers on the take.
Serpico navigates this minefield of politics and corruption, solving problems on his own terms while keeping himself at arms' length from department misdeeds, until his repeated refusal to accept bribes incurs the scorn of his fellow officers...and worse. Much worse. Faced with overt threats to his life from a greedy and self-serving segment of the police department (and an administration more concerned with covering its ass than cleaning house) Frank finds himself alone and under fire--figuratively and literally from all sides.
Mistrust of government agencies ran high in 1973, so the true story of an honest cop fighting a quixotic battle against the system hit a strong nerve with audiences. But all the button-pushing wouldn't mean squat if the movie serving it weren't rock-solid, and Serpico fulfills that obligation to white-knuckled perfection.
Lumet grew up artistically during the golden age of TV in the fifties, and those roots surface in the best possible way in his best movies. The economic storyline of Serpico charts Frank's path subtly but directly, letting the chinks in the NYPD's shield gradually appear here and there, over a decade or two of onscreen life. Sweeping as the plot is, though, there's not a shot or syllable of dialogue wasted.
What makes Lumet a great film director is his ability to embrace, and transcend, the basic guts of a true story. The director faces all angles of Serpico's moral Gordian Knot openly--including the unsettling notion that this cop's morally straight-shooting inflexibility is a pretty hefty character flaw in its own right--but he continually averts docudrama talkiness. For a story-driven film, Serpico sports some great cinematic moments, both comic (hippie-clad Serpico almost getting accidentally gunned down by some of his fellow flatfoots; Frank wearily shuffling into the station house in full Rabbinical drag) and heart-stoppingly dramatic (the riveting opening hospital scene).
Serpico deliberately sidesteps French Connection-style razzle dazzle in favor of a mounting atmosphere of dread; the atmosphere is so thick with tension you'll likely not notice the fact that there are only two 'traditional' chase scenes in the entire movie. And thanks to Lumet and cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, New York gives as versatile a performance--bursting with life one minute, swallowing cops in physical and metaphoric darkness the next--as any of the actors.
Not that there's a bum performance in the bunch. One ingenious touch in Serpico is its canny use of relative unknowns, all terrific, for most of its principals. Aside from Al Pacino, Tony Roberts (spot-on as one of Frank's few allies in the NYPD), and a few character faces like Emmet Walsh and Hank Garrett, there are no familiar presences on which a viewer can pin comfy pre-conceived notions. Like Serpico, we don't know who to trust, and the unease is palpable.
If you've ever wondered what the hell was so special about Al Pacino, the one-two punch of The Godfather I and II and Serpico should hammer the man's brilliance home sufficiently. His Frank Serpico exists relatively free of on-the-job tough-guy heroics. He's so fully fleshed out, you feel like you've known a variation on him your whole life; the hard-working, emotionally guarded, charming, but ultimately no-bull straight-shooter who's heaven or hell to work with, depending on which side of the fence you're on. When the world starts closing in around this put-upon cop, Pacino's coiled intensity and vulnerability ring completely true at every turn.
In an illuminating interview on the disc, Sidney Lumet and producer Martin Bregman talk frankly about the movie's rapid (five months from pre-production to release) genesis, Waldo Salt's and Norman Wexler's individual contributions to the screenplay, and the real Frank Serpico. Lumet admits that he forged a strong working relationship with Serpico during pre-production, and likely hurt the poor guy's feelings by stating in no uncertain terms that the ex-cop's job ended once shooting began. Not surprisingly, like the real Serpico, being honest has always been paramount in Sidney Lumet's mind, for better or for worse.