Directed By: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, and Tony Roberts

"The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry - it just gets dirtier."
-Frank Serpico (Al Pacino)

Since Al Pacino turned 74 recently, I’ve been reflecting on all the cinematic memories this storied veteran of the screen and stage has given us.  Whether telling Fredo to never take sides against the family, telling the crooks of Miami to say hello to his little friend, or letting his demonic son know that vanity is his favorite sin, Pacino has given us plenty of moments we all can love.  With that in mind, I decided to pull one of his 70s classics out from the vault, the gritty crime drama Serpico.  If the quote above proves anything, it's that Pacino's tough-talking character has no problem calling out his colleagues on their dirty laundry.

For young police officer Frank Serpico (Pacino), the sky's the limit.  A gutsy officer of the law, he quickly makes a name for himself.  Part of the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI), Serpico is on the career path to become a detective.  There's just one problem.  He's known as an honest cop.  It doesn't exactly help his career that he's been practicing the ballet he's learned from his new girlfriend around the precinct or that rumors are swirling about some male-on-male action in the men's room at the precinct involving Serpico.  Because of these tensions, Serpico gets transferred to another division where he gets to wear plain clothes.  For a guy who likes to rock a beard and mustache, that's not too bad at all.  For an honest cop, it's just the opposite as all Serpico finds is corruption.

In his new division, Serpico continues to make a name for himself, but not necessarily in a good way.  The tough cop quickly learns that nearly all the cops in his new division are on the take.  A clean cop to the utmost extent, Serpico refuses to accept these illicit payments.  That leads to mistrust amongst his colleagues and plenty of angst for Serpico himself.  After sometime, Serpico reports the activities of his counterparts and believes that his message has been relayed to the commissioner.  He believes that the commissioner will reach out to him and address the festering problem amongst his police force.  The commissioner never does.  As Serpico continues to work in a division of corrupt cops, he arrives at the conclusion that he must take far more drastic measures if he's to extinguish the corruption amongst New York's finest.

Watching Serpico once again with a more contemporary viewpoint, I can undoubtedly say that Sidney Lumet's gut-wrenching crime drama rings as true today as it ever has.  Police brutality, bribery, and unjust applications of our nation's drug laws are all immense problems facing America today.  Interestingly enough, New York is still at the forefront of all this.  The stop and frisk policy of the NYPD and the excessive force that frequently accompanied this policy are what first come to mind.  The fact that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by the so-called drug war also comes to mind.  Most recently, however, there was the Twitter trend in which users posted scathing tweets about New York's finest using the hashtag #MyNYPD instead of the wholesome community photos the department was expecting.  All of this points to one irrefutable fact.  Serpico is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

Director Sidney Lumet crafts an explosive film in which he continuously weaves a web of corruption.  As this web becomes larger and larger, he builds this ever-growing sense of paranoia and suspicion.  We as viewers can’t trust anyone given the lies, deceit, and threats that leave a lingering suspicion of imminent danger from any and every police officer not named Frank Serpico.  With this, Lumet brilliantly fuels the suspense and creates plenty of poignant movie magic.  Lumet juxtaposes all of this with a rather pleasant melodic score.  The lovely recurring tune takes on a different meaning every time we hear it, but it always serves to remind us of the rosy outlook of NYPD's finest at the beginning of the film (which in turn reflects Serpico's own innocent perspective).

For his part as our titular lead Serpico, Al Pacino is on fire.  A year after his landmark performance in The Godfather, the acting legend gives an electric performance as this unwavering cop who will never fail in holding himself or his peers to the highest moral standard.  What's interesting about this particular performance from Pacino is the direction in which he takes the character.  At first, Serpico is this happy-go-lucky guy who plays with the neighborhood kids and knows how to have fun.  As he becomes more and more disillusioned with the men who serve and protect alongside him, however, Pacino's Serpico becomes a far different character.  In one moment, he's exploding with rage about the dire situation at anyone and everyone.  In others, he's a catatonic bum who looks like a hobo on the streets.  All in all, this dynamic performance from Pacino is a real cinematic gem, one that's been forgotten by many unfortunately.

Like Lumet's later collaboration with Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico is a sharp drama that gives us a chance to take a look in the mirror at ourselves.  It challenges us to make a better society in which those who swear to protect and serve the people of their communities actually do just that.  Some 41 years later, this is a message our complacent society needs to hear all over again.  Serpico gets a strong 0.03% rating.