Serpico (Blu-ray Review)27 Jan, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Rated ‘R’ for.
Stars Al Pacino.
The more pronounced Al Pacino’s hair, including the facial kind, becomes over a 130-minute running time, the more his Frank Serpico retreats into himself as the kind of maverick loner who just won’t “go along.” It’s the kind of visual correlative the older Sidney Lumet movies didn’t always have but would in the better works from his later career — a period which to me pretty well began with this still popular screen version of Peter Maas’ bestseller about undercover sleuthing against New York City police corruption, a book that everyone seemed to be reading at the time.
As for Pacino, his career chronology goes like this. Following an explosive screen debut (in a major role, that is) in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, the box office failure of that admirably filmed depressor about heroin addiction was substantially more than equalized by the industry-altering success of The Godfather, the kind of breakthrough of which actors can only dream. Then came Schatzberg’s Scarecrow in the early summer of ’73 (another commercial underperformer but a cult movie from its opening day on) and then Serpico, which got a year-end opening and Pacino his second consecutive Oscar nomination (this time in a lead). There are a lot of good New York actors in the cast, including F. Murray Abraham in a show-up late in the film – 40 years before sporting makeup that looks as if he’s visually auditioning for a Mitch Miller biopic in Inside Llewan Davis. But Pacino is the show here.
For a narrative running over two hours, the pacing is very fast, and I’m again amazed that for a director who always worked fast, there are often a substantial number of set-ups in a Lumet film. Some of the scenes seem tossed off here, which is not the case with Lumet’s other police corruption saga — 1981’s Prince of the City — which has a lesser male lead but is otherwise a contender for the most potently directed movie of Lumet’s career. But there are many things Serpico does very well, including dramatizing the title cop’s increased isolation from his colleagues. (Not only will he not accept payoff money as virtually all of his colleagues do, he solidifies his flakey credentials with his peers by carrying around a pet mouse.) Another of its virtues is convincing us that this is a guy who has trouble maintaining relationships. The real Serpico, still alive, was divorced three times and widowed once. In the movie version, he attempts and fails to find meaning with a dancer (Cornelia Sharpe, of the Faye Dunaway cheekbones school) and a neighbor (Barbara Eda-Young) who gives her hopes for their future a real shot but finally bails in despair. It’s to the movie’s credit that the romantic parts of the movie don’t seem like obligatory commercial tack-on’s and are, indeed, a germane part of the story.
I seem to recall the theatrical rendering of Serpico looking somewhat washed-out or muddy, a not uncommon affliction with the color movies shot by Arthur J. Ornitz (didn’t Pauline Kael take out after him, one time?). Matters have improved with what has always appeared to be some tweaking in the home entertainment era, and this is the best I can recall the movie ever looking. The young Frank Rich was yet to comment in a review of 1974’s Lovin’ Molly that Lumet always directed as if he had to take a pee, but truth is, his films eventually began to look a little more polished and that time wasn’t far off. With actors, though, Lumet had few peers, and you can see it with Pacino right here.