Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) has been shot in the head, and is being rushed to hospital in a patrol car rather than an ambulance because the two cops do not think it is safe to leave him where he is until one arrives. As he is taken out of the car and into the operating room, he is barely conscious, and he finds vivid memories of his time in the police force swimming to the surface of his mind, back when he first graduated to a patrolman, and how excited he and his family were that he was going into the business that his father and uncle had excelled in. But he is not your average policeman as it soon becomes apparent he is far more law-abiding than most of his peers, not wishing to take small bribes from the citizens he meets every day...
This escalates as the over two-hours-long film unfolded, for as we have seen, Serpico winds up getting shot in suspicious circumstances, but once he had been up before a committee on police corruption, he quickly became famous across the United States as one of the most honest cops in the land, if not the most. By the time the book based on his exploits was released, the movie rights had been bought by Paramount and rushed into this adaptation which was clearly sped up into production in a strike while the iron was hot set of circumstances, with Pacino, who had become celebrated the previous year for his role in Oscar-winner The Godfather, consolidating his place as an exciting new face of the nineteen-seventies.
Director Sidney Lumet, a last minute choice, had to work fast, and achieved the seemingly impossible by getting the film into cinemas across the world within a year of the real Serpico's testimony and subsequent rejection of the force that he suspected had tried to kill him. The movie planted those events into millions of audience members' minds, as accurate as they could make it with a cast of unknowns to add to the authenticity and Pacino going full method in the role of the whistleblower, to the extent that he befriended Serpico the better to study him and get his quirky personality down pat. You had to admit that while watching this was far from a barrel of laughs, the star was compelling in one of his most accomplished performances.
Indeed, we warm to Serpico almost immediately: he has been established as the underdog straight from the start when we watch him in his dazed and injured state, but quickly thanks to what were effectively flashbacks we could see this was an offbeat young man who marched to the beat of his own drum, one which was avowedly on the law-abiding side of the corruption divide. The trouble with that being for him personally, almost everyone else he meets on the force, including those he has to work with every day, were on the other side, from the beat cops to the detectives to their superiors. There was a sense of one man trying to stem not merely a leak in a wall of wrongdoing, but stand firm against a tidal wave of damaging behaviour that had become a way of life for all those he came into contact with. Lumet made sure to add character business, so we get to see Serpico with two of his girlfriends, the latter of whom moves in with him, and he has a pet sheepdog which is almost as large as he is (he could ride it as a mounted policeman), plus a little with his doting parents.
However, the real story was with his stubborn refusal to go with the flow and behave as badly as the rest in his life were. There was no real religious angle, not overtly, but there was plenty of the martyr about this cop, who even as his life is growing intolerable thanks to the pressure he is under from the criminal element who pose as the pious, he is determined to continue on his moral course, never giving in to what starts as goodnatured ribbing for his ways, and ends up with threats and psychological torture that offered Pacino some early chances at the yelling he would refine to fine, if loud, art in his later stylings. You have to admire Serpico as the film makes it clear he had to look at himself in the mirror each morning and know he was doing the right thing, and his status as a plain clothes hippy cop made him cool with the audiences of the day (in Italy Pacino's look spawned countless police thriller protagonists' appearances), but there was a lot soul destroying about the manner this one good man in a sea of immorality was stamped on by the very people believed to be acting in the public good. Lumet would return to this subject with the even more accomplished, but not as successful Prince of the City; the minor effort Q & A in the nineties as well. Music by Mikis Theodorakis (a shade intrusive).
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.