Serpico (1973): One of Lumet’s Best Films, Thrilling Poilcier-Biopic, Starring Al Pacino in Oscar-Nominated Performance

The first collaboration between quintessential New York director Sidney Lumet and movie star Al Pacino, Serpico, proves to be most fruitful in “Serpico,” the exciting if not entirely accurate version of Peter Maas’s book, based on true-life accounts of New York undercover cop whose non-conformism and exposure of department corruption isolated him from the force.

In 1970, police officer Frank Serpico shocked the Knapp Commission investigating the New York City Police Department by testifying that there were many cops who took payoffs.

Peer pressure: The movie is effective in depicting how Serpico was distrusted and later harassed by his fellow officers, who suspected him for his honesty as well as for his hippie counter-cultural lifestyle. Serpico lives in the Village, and the story is set at the height of the Vietnam War and the anti-War movement.

Upset by the double-dealing and oppressed by the persecution, Serpico tried to inform police commissioner White of the corruption within the unit. When the official response is discouraging, he decides to take his story to the New York Times, and the ensuing reportage and scandals forced New York Mayor Lindsay to initiate a high-level investigation and call Serpico to the witness stand, increasing the criminals’ wrath and endangering his life.

The main tale unfolds in one long and uninterrupted flashback, with the movie’s beginning and end set at the hospital where the wounded Serpico resides. Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s scenario can be faulted by propagating the heroic, romantic myth of a single individual fighting against the whole system. Indeed, the script may be too shapely for its own good, alternating action scenes with romantic ones between Serpico and his girlfriend. Though a collaborative effort, it’s fair to speculate that Wexler wrote the humor-inflected scenes and the low-life dialogue, as he had previously scripted “Joe,” John Avildsen’s feature directing debut.

Apparently, for dramatic and emotional reasons, Lumet’s film violates the real-life character. Only Serpico and the New York Times Burnham are identified by real names. Everyone else has a fictitious name in consideration of potential suits for libel and invasion of privacy. The real-life Sergeant David Durk (called in this story Bob Blair) must have played a much more important part in Serpico’s story than is given credit in the film.

Lumet refrains from explaining what precisely motivated Serpico In the movie, he is described as the only officer who refused free meals, much less payoffs from gamblers and numbers racketeers. Though his direction is astute and assured, and he was the best choice for such material, Lumet was a replacement of John Avildsen (who became famous several years later, after he directed “Rocky”).

The movie is replete with mythic and religious symbolism, and as Vincent Canby observed, Serpico comes across as a character of Dostoyevskian proportions, an anti-cop cop. It may not be a coincidence that he is fond for wild disguises. In his private life, he adopts the look and manner of a flower child’s son of Christ.

In sequences, the film offers a provocative chronicle of one man’s rebellion against sleaziness, corruption, and unprofessionalism that has affected American life and its main institutions, including the ethics of civil servants and politicians; a year later, in August 1974, President Richard Nixon would resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal.

The closure is rather ambiguous, if not cynical. A title card informs that Serpico, a recipient of Medal of Honor, resigned from the police force on June 15, 1972 and now lives in Switzerland.

The soundtrack score by Mikis Theodorakis, who was popular at the time, was criticized for being redundant and inappropriate for this kind of story. There is also obvious choice of music, including Neapolitan street airs that play whenever Serpico’s Italian immigrant parents appear on screen.

Despite the writing flaws, Al Pacino is always riveting to watch, rendering a charismatic and complex performance that takes the movie to another realm, turning it into a much more than a cop-corruption drama.

The picture was made during the height of Pacino’s career, between Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather, Part II” (1974). Pacino would score even better in his next assignment for Sidney Lumet, “Dog Day Afternoon,” also made in 1974.

Commerially, “Serpico” is one of Lumet’s most successful films, grossing over $30 million in the U.S. alone.

The main cast is enlisted below, but you’ll be able to spot in small roles F. Murray Abraham, Mary Louise Weller, M. Emmet Walsh, and Hank Garrett.

Oscar Nominations

Actor: Al Pacino
Screenplay (Adapted): Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler

Oscar Awards: None

In 1973, the Best Actor Oscar went to Jack Lemmon for the melodrama, “Save the Tiger,” and the Adapted Screenplay Oscar to William Peter Blatty for “The Exorcist.”

Commercial Appeal:

Serpico was the 10th top-grosser of 1973.

Release date: December 6, 1973

Running time: 130 Minutes


End Note:

In 1976, a TV movie, “Serpico: The Deadly Game,” starred David Birney in the Al Pacino role, but stick to the original feature.


Frank Serpico (Al Pacino)
Tony Roberts (Bob Blair)
Chief Sidney Green (John Randolph)
Tom Kehoe (Jack Kehoe)
Captain McClain (Biff McGuire)
Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young)
Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe)
Pasquale Serpico (John Medici)
D.A. Tauber (Allan Rich)
Rubello (Norman Ornellas)


Paramount (Avco Entertainment)

Produced by Martin Bregman.
Directed by Sidney Lumet.
Screenplay: Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas.
Camera: Arthur J. Ornitz
Editor: Dede Allen, Richard Marks.
Music: Mikis Theodorakis.
Production design: Charles Bailey.
Art Director: Douglas Higgins.
Costume: Anna Hill Johnstone.

Running Time: 129 minutes