Thursday, October 15, 2009


"Serpico" (Sidney Lumet, 1973) Early on, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino, famously) fresh recruit in the NYPD, is asked what made him want to be a cop, (fergahdsake!). He tells the tale of an incident in his neighborhood when the cops arrived and the curious youngster kept looking at them asking himself, "They know! What do they know?"

Immediately, the NYPD is established as "the other,"* an elite fraternity apart from the common citizens. And
Frank Serpico wants to be a part of that group apart. He wants to know what they know.

He'll be sorry when he finds out.

The film starts at the worst point in Serpico's career: in an ambulance, hovering between life and death after being shot in the face during a bust-gone-wrong, in which his partners stood by while his arm caught in a door, he must stand and wait for the bullet to come.**

We flash back to the start of his career—
literally, his graduation from the police academy—fresh with accomplishment and theory and homilies about service, that become shattered as soon as he hits the streets for real. The shattering of illusions is what the story of "Serpico" is all about. The illusions of the streets, the illusions of the work, the illusions of honor, and the brasses' ability to do something about the bribe-taking that seemingly infests the entire NYPD. What starts out as a quest for Truth ends up being a continual confrontation with lies, and it is only at the point of death that the detective stops believing the best and taking actions against the worst. A naive belief in "The System" keeps his protests within the echo chamber of the Department. And it's only when The System tries to have him killed, that he turns to the outside agencies with the information.

For Serpico, it's a journey that comes full-circle, starting as an outsider who joins the elite group, only to find himself considered an outsider within it, even though he now knows "what they know."

In that search for truth, Lumet shot the film almost documentary-style in every borough of New York, excepting Staten Island.
The character of Serpico was romanticized, somewhat, but the facts are fairly close to the truth as outlined by Peter Maas in his book, about Serpico's career and his cooperation with The Knapp Commission. Timelines were shuffled and people combined to simplify the story.

You can read Serpico's blog here.

* Part of Serpico's work as a detective involved breaking down that "otherness," by working in street-clothes, rather than a respectable suit and tie, tipping suspects off to their identity.

** It might seem unfair to say that the cops deliberately held back for Serpico to be shot, but consider: of the three cops on the bust with him, not one of them called in the shooting, or made the "officer down" call. A tenant in the apartment building made the emergency call, and Serpico was taken to the hospital by a second squad car of cops—who did not know his identity at the time they did it.

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