WHY I HADN'T SEEN IT
To be honest, I didn't even know about it ::fails::. For many reasons that are now obvious, it's not considered one of Sidney Lumet's great films, despite a fantastic performance by Al Pacino.
I found out about the film through The Savage City, T.J. English's fantastic account of police corruption and race riots in the 1960's and 70's. Frank Serpico's a minor character in the book, but his importance to changing the culture of the NYPD cannot be over-stated (in fact, the real-life impact of his actions are weirdly understated in the film).
The movie covers the 12ish years of Frank Serpico's life with the NYPD, from the clean shaven days to the full-blown hippie madness.
Serpico's shown as a paragon of virtue in his professional life, though we're given little context as to where his ideals come from. Certain scenes clearly inspired the original Life on Mars series, but somehow the idealism of the protagonist makes more sense in that more fantastical scenario. What gives Serpico the strength to maintain his virtue even when his sanity's at stake?
The film's tight focus on Serpico's greatest moments of stress gives Pacino about 90 minutes of Oscar material. I can't help but think how the film would have benefited from a slightly broader scope. We play ample witness to corruption within the police departments, but we're not shown how scary the '70s really was in NYC. The problem isn't just that policemen were corrupt; the entire politics of the city created a patronage system where entire populations turned to crime as a substitute for their self-worth.
I fully recognize that some of my issues with the film may have to do with the datedness of certain details, but it also seems like a case where Lumet's commitment to "issue-raising" takes precedence over making a deeper study of the setting. Also, Tony Roberts. Can't take that guy seriously. Which is definitely the Woodster's fault.
All that said, the film has many pleasures. Lumet gives New York so much attention that Woody Allen might be jealous. The West Village doesn't look like that anymore, and we can be sure that it never will again. Look at Dumbo, for godssake!
And now, a tour of Al Pacino's ridiculous outfits (Frank Serpico, ever the egoist, claims that Pacino doesn't nearly do justice to his "forward-thinking fashions):