by Andrew Mooney
Serpico (1973) – Sidney Lumet (Dir.), Al Pacino
Next up. My friend Molly, a house guest for a few days, did the honors this time. When she removed the card from the basket, she read it as though this were a terrible game of charades (ed: redundant) and I’d just given her “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas“. After we all agreed that the film sounded harmless, I announced proudly, “At least you didn’t get one of the rapey ones!” Um…well…oops. From now on, I will assume that they’re all at least a little rapey.
So, this is Sidney Lumet’s retelling of a true story. The story of this New York cop, Frank Serpico (porn name, anyone?) who took the entire NYPD to task for corruption. Much like many of its 1970s brethren, this movie is well-acted, well-shot, kinda boring in places, has plenty of naked woman, and incredibly inappropriate musical cues. We see Al Pacino as the titular cop transform from a clean-cut golden boy into something more resembling a crazed hippie-Ron-Jeremy. We see him go from department to department, discovering that everyone is on the take and that he’s in danger for not doing the same. He stands up for his principles and fights for justice. Honestly, after my Mississippi Burning rant about police procedurals, this was a welcome breath of fresh air. We even witness his descent as the movie chugs along. In the first act, he looks away and leaves the room while one rapist (told you it was a little rapey) gets the ever-loving shit kicked out of him. He even buys the guy coffee. But, later, when he comes across one of the criminals protected by the cops because he’s paying them off, Pacino breaks into full-Scarface, stripping the guy ass-naked, throwing chairs and locking him in a cell. The juxtaposition is obvious and effective. Police work screws you up. Permanently.
The centerpiece of the movie is Pacino. In fact, the man has made a career of being the centerpiece of everything. Even if he isn’t, he will chew so much damn scenery until there is nothing left but him, a half-nibbled back drop and his costars fearing for their lives. Mutherfucker is crazy.
But he wasn’t always so…I remember watching the Godfather: Part I for the first and marveling at his subtle, restrained performance as the heir to a Mafia legacy. He was cool. He was calm. He was deadly. Man was cooler than a James Dean…before he died of course (though he was probably, body-temperature-wise, pretty cool afterwards. That’s logic.) What happened? How did we get from that to “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND?” How did Michael Corleone become Tony Montana? Did someone hurt him? Did he open his heart to some girl, a process difficult for a man with so much restraint, and then she discarded him like a used rag, forgetting to close that opened door, thereby letting his emotions run rampant for all time?
And now…what has he been reduced to? Jack and Jill? A movie where they couldn’t afford two main stars, so they just told Adam Sandler he could fulfill his sexual fantasies by dressing up as his sister? (That’s what that movie’s about right?) Pacino is in that movie. As himself. Selling Dunkin Donuts. But that’s only the turdish cherry on the pinnacle of shit-sundae. Lest I remind you of The Devil’s Advocate, the only time literalizing an English phrase into three act film didn’t work. Charlize Theron’s breasts and Keanu Reeves only facial expression aside…that movie was a satan-hot mess.
So, where does Serpico fit into this retrospective? Like that thing that looks like a monkey had sex with Courtney Love, it’s what I see as the missing link. We witness every shade of grey in this film. From the terse, distant, green cop all the way to the full-yell, chair-throwing Pacino we all know and fear. He’ll have a tense scene…and then he starts running. When Pacino runs (or dances, for that matter) he looks like a marmot trapped in a paint-shaking machine. Worth the price of admission alone.
As Serpico’s hair, both facial and otherwise, grows, so does his insanity. It almost becomes a fractal of his career at large. As his wife in the film tells him, the last person to take the crazy pills is seen as crazy by everyone else… Perhaps the world has descended into madness and Al Pacino is the last bastion of the old rationality. As he ages, he holds on with increasing tenacity, dressing like a homeless man and always seeming as though he walked into the wrong strip club. It’s a theory.
So, this movie. It’s good, like most of the films in the bucket. It’s slow and takes time. It employs many of the editing and narrative techniques seen in similar films such as The Conversation. Sometimes time just switches. Scenes change. You have to do the work to figure out what happened in the interim. I haven’t seen a film like that since last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a movie that if you aren’t paying attention, will whip you with the plot-mace. And it hurts, boys and girls. But, this is also the 70’s…so the costumes are hilarious. From Pacino’s porno get-up to the oversized, strip salmon, puce and cream-striped ties, this thing is an epileptic’s nightmare. Also, the music sounds like the drunk-end of a Greek wedding. And it always decides to begin at full tilt when someone is talking. Thank god that doesn’t happen anymore.
Also, one minor gripe. Early on in the film, Serpico buys a sheepdog from a neighbor. This dog hangs out at his house for the rest of the movie, wandering in and out of scenes with reckless abandon. This wouldn’t have been an issue for another breed. The problem with sheep dogs is that, due to their size and hair length, like Keanu Reeves, they only have one expression: “Derr, I’m a dawg.” The fluffy brute is completely unaffected when Pacino and his partner start screaming in each other’s face. He is content to just sort of lumber through thinking, “Me? I’m a dawg. Aw yeah. I’m a dawg.” Tension was broken more than a couple of times.
This is an important film, though, about an important man. It deals with that concept of police brutality and corruption on a very practical level. It depicts NYPD officers as warriors, most of them dirty. The randomness of the universe did well to place this movie right after Mississippi Burning. Both films depict progress and violence. And both films understand that sometimes, to effect change, the heroes have to fall. Those who do the work can’t necessarily enjoy the fruits of their labors. Serpico ended up quitting the force and disappearing. I guess he lives in a trailer in upstate New York, still crazy, still paranoid. I guess whatever floats people’s boats.
So, if you’re patient, see this film, if only to help chart Pacino’s descent into the Heart of Movie Darkness. It’s a hell of a ride.