In the final moments of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), Boston police Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) lies in wait inside the apartment of a gangland informant who has risen through the ranks of the department, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Sullivan has effectively concealed his identity from his fellow officers, thinking that he has left no one alive who knows his true allegiance. He does not count on Dignam’s ambush; dressed in a sweatsuit, Dignam raises a silenced pistol and fires at Sullivan, a bullet striking him in the cheekbone. Sullivan falls to the ground dead, and Dignam quietly leaves the apartment, his mission complete. The following year, Wahlberg would be on the other end of a gangland assassination attempt in James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007), a police thriller about two brothers on opposite sides of the law. This time, Wahlberg plays Captain Joseph Grusinsky, whose rough and tumble intimidation tactics irritate a group of ruthless Russian gangsters. Late one evening, while Grusinsky is coming home with a bag of groceries, he is ambushed by a gunman wearing a bag over his head. The gunman raises his pistol and fires at Grusinsky, the bullet striking him in the cheekbone, just as Dignam’s bullet hit Sullivan. Grusinsky survives the shooting, but bears the scar on his face after a lengthy recovery. Inside of a year, Wahlberg had been on the giving and receiving end of a gunshot to the identical part of the face; in each gunshot’s anatomical location, the filmmakers pay homage to the defining outburst of sudden violence that characterizes Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973). The film’s hero cop, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), suffers an identical injury after a drug bust goes awry, the facial gunshot leaving him deaf in one ear, stiff on his left side and given to occasional dizzy spells. He is wounded, but alive.
Though Lumet’s filmography had deepened considerably between his debut in 1957 with 12 Angry Men and Serpico, it is this 1973 effort that sets Lumet’s career on its most crucial trajectory. With Serpico, Lumet becomes a defining chronicler of American institutional corruption, most obviously within the justice system. Previously, The Hill (1965) had focused on a British prisoner of war camp and the brutal treatment of prisoners by sadistic guards, and just a few months before Serpico, Lumet released a British police thriller called The Offence (1973), starring Sean Connery as a violent police officer who kills a suspected child rapist while holding him in custody. Stateside once again, training his lens on the New York Police Department, Lumet mercilessly indicts the corruption exposed by one rogue officer, in a story based on true events. The film’s reliance on documentary realism, using real New York City locations and an embedded camera style that minimizes artifice, places it firmly among the New Hollywood films that opened up the cinematic vision of America by shooting on its real streets. It likewise follows in the footsteps of another landmark film, William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), which is a more traditionally structured cops-and-crooks story about a pair of narcotics detectives in hot pursuit of an international drug trafficker. The critical and commercial success of The French Connection inspired a great deal of interest in police thrillers, including The New Centurions (1972), The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The Seven-Ups (1973), all of which leaned on the aesthetic Friedkin established: real locations, rough cops and ripped-from-the-headlines crimes. With Lumet’s obvious interest in the justice system, as he’d made three films on the subject between 1957 and 1973 already, Serpico seems like a perfect fit for a director with a skeptical view of powerful institutions. More so than the three justice system films that preceded it, Serpico cements Lumet’s cinematic grammar; the template for his perspective on the justice system is forged here, in the story of a police officer who refuses, unlike his fellow officers, to take money lifted from drug busts or extorted from local small-time crooks. Serpico just wants to make detective and do his job honorably, but the corruption he sees on the job eats away at him, finally pushing him to testify against his fellow officers in an attempt to blow the whistle on the department’s widespread graft. Lumet opens the film with the face-shot Serpico riding in the back of a police car on the way to the hospital, and presents much of its narrative as a would-be deathbed flashback. He loops back around to show the shooting and its aftermath, with Frank’s survival and public testimony before the newly established Knapp Commission, charged with exposing and ferreting out NYPD corruption.
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Unsurprisingly for a debut, 12 Angry Men is Lumet’s most idealistic film; his jurors stand in awe of the justice system’s capacity to deliver fair outcomes, even admiring the process, as combative and messy as it is. Early on, Lumet’s vision of the justice system places his characters in relationship to the spaces they inhabit: in 12 Angry Men, it is the claustrophobic, overheated jury room; in The Hill, it is the absurd mountain of dirt at the center of the prison camp; in The Offence, it is the interrogation room where the cop and the suspect have their fateful, fatal encounter. The jurors, prisoners and police officers are all subject to the larger institutional forces around them. In 12 Angry Men, the architecture of the columns that mark the courthouse entrance stand for the highest American ideals, and when the characters are dwarfed by those pillars near the end after they have delivered their “Not Guilty” verdict, the images affirm the film’s belief in the system. By the time Lumet returns to the American justice system with Serpico after two films featuring British characters, his opinion of it has diminished considerably. Now, when his characters stand beneath enormous symbols of American justice, they look weak, with Lumet’s framing expressing the unlikelihood of changing an entrenched system that preserves the power of those who have climbed its ranks.
In Serpico, the NYPD is a closed system that is resistant to change and hostile to boat-rockers. Early on, when Serpico is just out of the academy and walking a beat, he stands with a suspect next to a sign on the wall that reads “Bribery Is A Crime,” an ominous warning of things to come. Things get worse, however, when Serpico witnesses a superior officer beat the suspect, first with his hands and then with a phone book. Throughout Frank’s time in the NYPD, he constantly chafes against its ingrained culture and customs; his stubborn refusal to accept bribes breeds distrust. One fellow officer, Keough (Jack Kehoe), the ringleader of a Bronx precinct’s protection racket, warns Frank, “No one trusts a cop who won’t take money.” Frank’s intellectual bent — he is always carrying a book on one esoteric subject or another — marks him as different from his fellow cops, leading some to label him a homosexual, a suspicion that further alienates him from the police. They are distrustful of Frank’s honesty because it threatens their sense of their own honor; in their attempts to persuade Serpico to take the bribes like the rest of them, they offer innumerable rationalizations for being on the take. They have families, they say. It isn’t really wrong, they say. It’s just gambling money, they say. No one will miss the money, they say. All of these post-hoc justifications seem like lies to Frank, who wants to do his work, his way. He dresses in plainclothes, grows an against-regulations mustache that eventually spreads into a Christ-like beard and mane of wild hair that allows him to blend in on the streets of 1970s New York. He is right at home in his Greenwich Village basement apartment, but in danger of being mistaken for a criminal himself. A couple of uniformed cops take a wild shot at him while he is trying to wrestle a burglar to the ground in an alley. He shouts wildly, identifying himself by waving his badge, but the cops only realize it is him at the last moment, another warning sign of things to come.
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Lumet’s structural choice to open with Serpico near death on a hospital gurney, blood gushing out of his facial gunshot wound, his clothes being snipped off by medical staff, invests the film with a creeping sense of dread. Every step of the way, as Serpico works with a handful of well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual colleagues to put a stop to departmental corruption, the effort feels like a losing game. During a conspiratorial meeting between Serpico, his politically connected fellow officer Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) and a suit from the Mayor’s office, Jerry Berman (Lewis J. Stadlen), Lumet adopts a low angle, placing the camera in the middle of the hushed triangular conversation. He cuts from low angle close-up to low angle close-up of the three men, as if the camera itself knows that the degree of opposition they are likely to face will be substantial. Though the meeting ends with Berman promising to get the mayor involved, two scenes later, the deal is off, as the Mayor is reluctant to alienate the police force before a summer season likely to see race riots and an uptick in crime. Lumet’s camera is once again low, but this time he contrasts these paranoid images with a high angle from behind the seated Berman, capturing the whole of his office from ceiling level. The image literally puts Berman back in his place in the institutional pecking order, with the Mayor’s office not only impotent in the face of corruption in the police department, but complicit in it through its inaction. Throughout Serpico, structures reinforce themselves, rendering Frank’s efforts to fight against them feckless. Lumet uses framing inside the offices where leaders look the other way to emphasize the police department’s bias towards order above all; the ironic use of rigid lines and straight-on cinematography creates a disconnect between the obvious illegality of the department’s practices and its instantiation of an ordered system. Lumet’s visual critique of the police department’s power structure is at its most lacerating in a short scene in the office of the Police Commissioner (Charles White). While three plaintive middle managers inform the Commissioner of their intent to use Serpico as a witness against his fellow officers in their stalled investigation into departmental corruption, Lumet frames the Commissioner himself in the middle of a wide shot, his white hair and ruddy face reflected in the glass top of his empty, magisterial desk. Windows frame either side of the Commissioner, harsh lines shooting vertically out of frame, creating imposing designs suggestive of rigid order on the wall behind him. His reflection undermines his obvious lies; when one of the investigators cautiously suggests that the Commissioner had previous knowledge of Serpico’s complaints and the Commissioner cagily admits it, his two-faced image betrays his dishonesty. He is playing two roles at cross-purposes, vowing to root out corruption while also working to preserve it. In sequences like this, Lumet establishes the visual palette he will return to throughout the rest of his justice system films, consistently undermining institutions’ total commitment to their own power.
Despite Serpico’s obvious link to The French Connection, Lumet’s classicism prevents him from fully embracing Friedkin’s run-and-gun style, with its shaky camera and wild visual improvisation. When Lumet is on the streets, his camera tracks and dollies smoothly, without Friedkin’s rough edges. In the occasional moments when Lumet goes handheld, it seems more out of practical concerns than cinematic ones; in one moment, a corrupt police officer chases down a suspect and shoves his head into a dirty bathroom toilet, trying to get the man to cough up a bribe. To capture the action at bowl level, Lumet’s camera is on the operator’s shoulder, panning shakily back and forth between the aggressive cop and the toilet-bound victim. Where Friedkin might have shot the whole chase with a handheld camera, veering wildly from action point to action point, Lumet reserves the shaky camera for this small moment, the culmination of a foot-chase through city streets. In his conservatism with the camera, Lumet shows his age; both of the New Hollywood generation and apart from it, Lumet would make some of the period’s most iconic films, but because he began directing during the live television era, he would ultimately retain an interest in organized, regulated form. His action sequences lack the vitality of Friedkin’s, but his overall visual style coheres into a substantive critique of institutional power.
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It is impossible to consider Serpico without discussing Pacino’s central performance. Lumet had previously established strong working relationships with actors he used repeatedly, including Henry Fonda, who would appear in 12 Angry Men and the nuclear annihilation drama Fail-Safe (1964), and Sean Connery, who starred in both The Hill and The Offence, with the heist comedy The Anderson Tapes (1971) in between. The first of two collaborations with Pacino, Serpico gives the actor an opportunity to deliver his first truly volcanic performance, with an extremity of emotion that Pacino’s critics would fault him for later in his career. In his film debut The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Pacino’s Bobby is all smirking charm and heroin-induced fog, a junkie chasing a fix but rendered numb through years of street life. His performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) is remarkably restrained, especially in contrast to the fireworks on display from James Caan, playing his powder keg older brother Sonny. Pacino raises his voice only twice: once, he shouts to his Sicilian wife to warn her, too late, about the bomb in her car; the second time, in the film’s closing moments, he barks “Enough!” at his American wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), when she repeatedly asks him if he is responsible for killing his brother-in-law. For most of the film, Pacino is all quiet intensity, as in the outstanding dolly-in on Michael, who sits in a chair amidst the more seasoned members of The Family and delivers a strategic monologue advocating striking back against the gangsters who have attempted to assassinate his father that culminates in his commitment to shooting the men himself. He never breaks. He never cracks.
In Serpico, the ferocious Pacino is more fully on display. During one argument with his girlfriend Laurie, who is frustrated with Frank’s all-consuming relationship with his job, she shouts at him, “You’re either catatonic or exploding!” Serpico quietly demurs whenever his fellow officers compel him to take a few bills, with Pacino’s apologetic delivery explaining that he prefers not to take money, but he does not intend to expose the cops who do. As the pressure builds, Serpico behaves more outrageously with his fellow cops, wearing his madness on his sleeve. One crucial scene midway through the film demonstrates Frank’s “catatonia and explosiveness”: he apprehends a small-time mobster, Corsaro (Richard Foronjy), in the act of making a drug pickup. On the street, Corsaro is incredulous, especially when he looks at how Serpico is dressed (in a white smock that makes him look like a butcher before clocking in). He goes along with the arrest, remaining amused at the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Frank drops Corsaro in the detectives’ bullpen for a moment, and when he returns, the gangster is yukking it up with the police officers. In a wide shot, Lumet aligns the corrupt detectives with the gangster, each dependent on the other to reinforce the system that protects them all from real consequences. As soon as Serpico reenters the office, a hush falls over the room, with everyone looking at the floor, some of the cops seemingly suppressing laughter that betrays their utter contempt for Frank. Sensing that his integrity has become a joke to his fellow cops, Serpico explodes, grabbing the gangster and hurling him against the wall, barking orders and screaming at the other officers to stay out of it when they protest. Frank throws Corsaro against a desk, then tears through his pockets, shredding his pants and briefly exposing his bare ass. Finally, Serpico pushes him into the holding cell and slams the chain-link gate, cuffing it closed. Back in the detectives’ bullpen, he picks up a wooden chair and smashes it on the tile floor in frustration until its front legs give way; all the while, the cops look on in shock. In this moment, Pacino’s performance captures the utter absurdity of Frank’s situation; he behaves outrageously, but his outburst is motivated by the incomprehensibility of his fellow officers’ behavior. They have chosen the gangster over the honest man because they more resemble crooks than cops. Their protection rackets, with bagmen and collections pickups, are indistinguishable from those run by the organized crime syndicates they are supposed to bring to justice. Frank is the one sane man in an insane system, a dynamic underlined by a parable Laurie relates to him of a king, his villagers and the water of a poisoned well. Moments like these solidify Lumet’s burgeoning reputation as an actor’s director, a filmmaker whose mostly classical style provides performers an opportunity to explore characters of psychological depth. Lumet shoots much of Frank’s explosion in wide shot, giving Pacino freedom to explore the margins of the frame and move freely. The result is a feeling of chaos, produced not by the camera itself, which remains mostly still, but the energy of the characters within it.
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The fateful shooting that hangs over much of Serpico finally takes place near its conclusion. Though Frank is shot by a perpetrator inside an apartment drug den and not by a fellow cop, his narcotics partners are suspiciously reluctant to intervene on his behalf before the gun goes off. When he hits the floor, the two detectives with him spring into action, but their crucial delay of appropriate backup almost costs Frank his life. The bullet hole beneath his left eye, in the cheekbone, remains throughout Frank’s recovery, which Lumet communicates through elliptical cuts, during which months pass. In the final scenes, Lumet affirms his belief in Frank’s nobility, but remains cynical about his inability to wipe out corruption in the NYPD. Frank’s public testimony before the Knapp Commission takes place in a massive room full of spectators and journalists. Lumet tracks across the room while Serpico speaks into a microphone; in the foreground, all the current members of the police department who have either frustrated Frank’s efforts or impotently tried to aid them, as well as the politicians who have turned a blind eye. In the background, there are portraits lining the walls of political figures from New York’s past, looking down as if presiding over a system they built. On the wall, the portraits illustrate the history of corruption in the city, and below them, the police and politicians of the contemporary moment repeat it. In the end, Frank is alone on a dock near the river with his dog, and a text crawl informs viewers that he resigned his position in 1972 and lives in Switzerland. He is an exile. The system remains.
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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.