Serpico: The Hero as Freak – Review by Pauline Kael

What could be a more appropriate subject for a 1973 movie than the ordeal of Frank Serpico, the New York City policeman who became a pariah in the Department because he wouldn’t take bribes? Serpico, whose incorruptibility alienates him from his fellow-officers and turns him into a messianic hippie freak, is a perfect modern-movie hero.

by Pauline Kael

What could be a more appropriate subject for a 1973 movie than the ordeal of Frank Serpico, the New York City policeman who became a pariah in the Department because he wouldn’t take bribes? Serpico, whose incorruptibility alienates him from his fellow-officers and turns him into a messianic hippie freak, is a perfect modern-movie hero; Serpico is a far from perfect movie, but there are probably few who will care about its technical crudities or the frequent slovenli­ness of the staging. The theme is richly comic: Reacting against the brutality and bribe-taking and hypocrisy of the Police Department, Ser­pico moved to the Village, let his hair grow, changed his style, and began to costume himself as an outcast. Considered a weirdo because he believed in the oath of office he’d sworn to, he began to act the weirdo; since he could no longer talk with the other officers in any way that made sense to him, he became a put-on artist. The put-on is the paranoid’s favorite form of joking: who can say what he believes and what he doesn’t, or if he himself knows? Serpico wasn’t just playing a nut — he was becoming one. We have no word, as yet, for justifiable paranoia — that is, for the sane person’s perception of a world become crazily menacing — and in terms of behavior there may not be much difference between living in terror of actual enemies and living in terror of imaginary enemies, particularly if the actual enemies represent the whole system of authority. When Serpico tried to reach higher-ups within the Department in order to report on the links of crime and vice and the drug traffic with the police, he discovered that the higher-ups were part of the criminal system, and when he went to outside agencies and to the Mayor’s office, he couldn’t get any action, either. But he became a marked man: brushed off and balked at every turn, he was an informer in the midst of the New York City Police Department. He was considered an informer; actually, he couldn’t find anyone to inform to — no one would act on his information. He was like Kafka’s Joseph K., living in terror in the midst of bureaucratized criminality, where the irrational has become the ordinary. That’s the story of Serpico — except, of course, that he and an officer who had a contact at the Times and a police inspector willing to give corroborative evidence finally broke the scandal, the Knapp Commission was formed, and police heads rolled, in one of the largest shakeups in American police history. It’s a superlative story-legend, combining Judas and Jesus in one small, wiry figure, who sacrificed his career and his health and lost his girl, but who survived and is, despite the bullet fragments he carries in his head, probably a stronger man because of what he went through.

The movie, adapted from the Peter Maas book by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a hugely successful entertainment; it’s a hit, no question about it — a big, big hit — and I can’t imagine anyone, except some thousands of cops, not enjoying it, and it’s so energetic and funny it might carry even them to laughter. Serpico doesn’t have a full, satisfying narrative development, like The Godfather: it’s more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon of Serpico’s career, with the people and issues so simplified they seem exaggerated. When you think it over, you may miss a fuller development, particularly of Serpico’s agitated character, but while you’re seeing the movie the story itself and the fresh central figure, played by Al Pacino, and the pungent dialogue (never has a cast wrung so many meanings out of one four- letter word, and I don’t mean “love”) seem just about enough. Yet we never fully empathize with Pacino’s Serpico — never imagine what it might be like to five in a snare, constantly apprehensive, and frustrated at every turn — because his situation is played not for the horror in the comedy but, rather, for a put-down of the society. The film keeps us in the position of the knowing; it’s the way Mort Sahl might tell the story — making Serpico a poor schnook who didn’t know what everybody else knew. Conceivably, greater artists could have put us right inside Ser­pico’s paranoia, trying to cling to our sanity and experiencing the lon­er’s panic as a dizzyingly sly joke. (That’s how Kafka affects readers.) What has been done in the film is great fun, but it’s a single-note joke, and there’s no pain in it. What the film didn’t do might have been tragicomic and reverberant — a true howl.

We don’t get a clear view of Serpico as a rookie, to see in what ways he was different from the other rookies, and we are never brought to identify with his year-in-year-out doggedness; we merely observe it, and so it’s easy to enjoy the humor in his situation when he’s hated and isolated and lives fuming in rage. Pacino’s poker face and offhand, fast throwaways keep the character remote; this Serpico is spry and laconic, and though we’re always on his side, we’re as far outside him as we would be if Groucho were playing the part. Groucho comes to mind because Pacino’s tilted walk goes even farther down than Groucho’s; he’s practically at a forty-five-degree angle to the sidewalk, and I’m not sure what keeps him on his feet. Pacino’s walk has finally found a character. It’s as if Serpico couldn’t straighten up, because he was physically locked in his obsession; his crazy pusher-saint look becomes a cartoon of his state of mind. Pacino doesn’t seem to have the moral conviction that would make us take the character seriously, but he’s charming and brisk as the seething master of the put-on except for one blot on his performance: he is often indistinguishable from Dustin Hoffman. He uses a high, nasal voice and wrangling New York speech, and as he got longer-haired and more bearded, I began to lose track of who it was under the foliage; there were scenes in which I actually thought I was watching Hoffman, and had to remind myself that it was Pacino. (If this shaggy, covered-in-hair look becomes the newest thing, we won’t know who anybody is; it will be like living inside the Duck Soup mirror routine.) Pacino didn’t turn into Hoffman in The Godfather, but Coppola, who directed that, probably exercises much more control over his actors than Lumet, whom many actors love to work with because he lets them do what they want. Without much guidance, and with a short shooting schedule and a character who’s written to be played on the surface, Pacino must have fallen back on hero-worship of Hoffman.

Once again, Lumet brought a picture in ahead of schedule, although scene after ragged scene cried out for retakes. “He completed the film in ten weeks and one day — incredible, considering the logistics,” the publicity boasts, as if making a film were a race and the speedy Lumet the champ. He wins the prize this time, because the cynical, raw, but witty script is right for him and he gives the material the push it needs. But, except for Pacino, almost all the casting seems aberrant, and the actors playing smaller roles — there are around thirty of them — suffer, since they can’t direct themselves and work out a conception when they’re on for only a scene or two. In some cases, actors with good reputations, such as Lewis J. Stadlen, come off abominably; and Barbara Eda-Young, making her movie debut as Laurie, the nurse who loves Serpico but can’t stand the pressure of his flare-ups, is given the worst lines in the film and allowed to emote as if she were in a different sort of vehicle altogether — she’s chewing the wrong scenery. Visually, the movie is unpleasantly harsh — it might have been lighted for a police lineup. The music — the first score for an American picture by Mikis Theodorakis — is incongruous and is used disastrously; the tunes may be Italian, but the instrumentation sounds’Greek, and why this metallic- sounding folksy music is rattling on while Serpico is testifying before the Knapp Commission I can’t imagine — unless it’s insultingly assumed that no one is interested in what he’s saying.

The movie retains Peter Maas’s spotty narrative: the episodes are flashbacks from the shooting of Serpico, even though that shooting isn’t central to the main theme. Waldo Salt wrote the first script, and his general outline has been followed, but the rowdy spirit and the dry, wacked-out humor come from Norman Wexler, a former advertising man and political speech-writer, best known for Joe (and for his arrest for idly remarking on a plane that he was going to shoot Nixon). Wexler and John Avildsen, who directed Joe and was to have done Serpico, went to Switzerland and lived with Serpico, and, for an intense week high up in the mountains, they all worked on it together. It was to have been a labor of mad love, but Avildsen got into disagreements with the executive producer, Dino De Laurentiis, and was replaced by Lumet, who thus came into the biggest commercial picture of his career. Probably it wouldn’t have been very different if Avildsen had made it; the picture has some of the same temperament as Joe. Wexler’s talent, which is a little like Terry Southern’s, dominates the mood. He writes virulent lowlife dialogue with a demented lift, and Lumet sends the comic scenes across. I remember thinking that Joe, the beady-eyed fascist, had so much audience appeal that he could return as the hero of an animated cartoon (“Joe the Hardhat,” “Joe Goes Through Changes,” “Joe Grows a Beard,” “Joe at the Commune”), and Serpico has the same cartoon stridency and the same basic view of this society. The flat-out contempt for most of the characters makes the laughs come fast and easy; the laughter isn’t deep or lasting, the way it might have been, but it’s good and rude, and there’s lots of it. The momentum that builds as Serpico gets more irascible and freakier carries you right up to the last fifteen minutes or so, and then you realize that the picture has set you up to expect more than it will deliver. Wexler and Lumet sacrifice Serpico’s story to a cynical, downbeat finish — undermining Serpico’s accomplishment by closing on his own sense of disgust with the whole scene.

They have worked toward this all along, not necessarily deliberately but in their attitudes — for example, by showing the corrupt police not as self-hating and miserable or as tormented by guilt and fear (why else would they be so down on Serpico for refusing to be like them?) but simply as crude, rotten villains. Yet one is still unprepared for this dim conclusion, which isn’t dramatically sound and isn’t sound in historical terms or in plain human terms. Suppose that Serpico didn’t really change the system very much, suppose that he only pinked it; nevertheless, he survived, and he demonstrated to rookie cops that it was possible to stand up to corruption. The movie leaves out such details from the Maas book as that thirty-five cops wanted to give blood for him the night he was shot; it leaves out the cops who told him they wanted to be straight, like him. The Maas book is a popularizing account of Ser­pico which practically deifies him, but it also conveys a sense of what his example did for others; it’s an account of an authentic hero. Wexler and Lumet, who enjoy chortling at corruption, are not the kind of men who believe that anything can be done. And so they leave him a broken loner, sitting with his sheepdog — a man who sacrificed everything, and for what? The movie can easily make you feel: for nothing. That’s how things are, the ending seems to say, and there’s no way to change them; it wasn’t even worth trying. The message — as in Joe — is that it’s all crap. Had Wexler and Lumet been men of greater vision, they might have seen that they could serve Serpico’s intransigence and boiling anger — and the dedication and hope for change behind it all — by showing that his survival was in itself a triumph. And, in fact, he did more than survive. Apart from accomplishing what he did (which wasn’t everything he hoped for but was something: busting all those high- ranking officers must have had repercussions in the behavior of the police force), he learned that busting crooked cops was only a beginning.

Wexler and Lumet have imposed their own careless cynicism on Serpico’s life — the last place it belongs. That cynicism goes with the popular new pose about how America is coming apart at the seams and should — a pose in which corruption is some sort of retribution for Vietnam and everything else. But if corruption has become a matter of peer pressure and of being part of the team — Peter Maas says that most people who talk to him about Serpico ask, “What was wrong with him?” — that’s just what Serpico was fighting. The movie Serpico, showing us normal corruption to get a smart laugh of recognition, may be exactly contrary to Serpico’s purposes — and not even consciously but because of its exploitative, hip, cynical temperament. Basically, the movie’s attitude is like that of the people who think there had to be something the matter with Serpico — who think he had to be crazy to be honest. The wonderful joke of Serpico’s life is that he’s a winner, and one of the few fighting heroes that the disaffected can accept. The movie is great fun, but — to put it on a moral level — Serpico’s crusade becomes Wexler’s and Lumet’s debauch. They had themselves a ball, and so will the public, but the movie turns this hero into a mere freak, and turns one of the rare hopeful stories of our time into an entertaining downer.

* * *

If one looks at a photograph of Frank Serpico, or at the sketch of him on the cover of the Peter Maas book, one sees a much stronger, more worldly face than that of the Christlike Pacino in the movie ads, and Frank Serpico, whom I had coffee with last week, is trim and wily. He’s a disgusted man, all right, but he’s not a man who has given up, like the character at the end of the movie; he’s disgusted because he doesn’t feel he’s done enough. It’s one thing when he says nothing came of his long fight — that’s an outraged idealist talking. It’s something quite different when the movie says it. What Serpico hoped for was more than a personnel overhaul, and if he is bitter about having accomplished so little, it’s because his visceral defiance grew into a fuller understanding and he began to get some perspective on how big the job really is. He’s only thirty-seven, and, from his conversation, which is full of ideas and hopes for reorganizing the training of police recruits, it seems very possible that his major effectiveness is yet to come. He said he was sorry that the movie didn’t give a sense of the frustration you feel when you’re not able to do anything. Although he was referring to most of his eleven years on the police force, it’s clear that he still feels frustrated, because he’s’ looking for ways to make changes that go far beyond the scope of the Knapp Commission. He said that in the Police Department “anyone who has anything to say about civil liberties or minorities is considered a weirdo,” and that the treatment of minorities is even worse than it is in the brutal episodes shown in the movie. He was angry about one invented bit in the movie — a policeman shoving a black prisoner’s face into a toilet bowl. “What was that for?” he asked. I said that it seemed to be the latest thing, since it’s done to a white prisoner in another new film, The Laughing Policeman. He said, “The truth was so much better. The incident took place in a South Bronx tenement hallway; a couple of policemen were beating a black man, and a little old black lady opened her door a few inches to see what the noise was about. We were in plainclothes, but when she saw us she knew what we were and exactly what was going on — and she closed the door.”

Serpico went on, “I’m really down on cops. Whatever the ratio of dishonest to honest, it’s the dishonest who rule, because they go all the way up to the top. Pat Murphy couldn’t do anything, because he’d been a member of the Department too long; a man like Ramsey Clark could have done it. The police are always saying, ‘It’s not our fault, it’s the public.’ This has to be corrected. Cops don’t have the right kind of training. The whole system of values has to be overhauled. You ought to be involved in how many people you can keep out of trouble, not how many you can arrest.” My impression was that Serpico is desperate to do something, but that perhaps he still harbors that old sad dream of men of goodwill that somebody high up will invite them in and say, “You have the power; do the job.” But he’s a tough little devil — tough enough to go get that power’on his own.

The New Yorker, December 17, 1973


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