Al Pacino: Is he not America's greatest working actor? Pacino broke on to the screen in the early '70s, with his debut in 1971's Panic in Needle Park, followed directly by Coppola's 1972 The Godfather the latter put him in the spotlight as an actor who could hold his own against Marlon Brando. But The Godfather was labeled a Brando vehicle (the rest of the cast was largely unknown at the time), and it would take 1974's The Godfather Part II to establish Pacino on the American cinema's center stage. Avoiding typecasting, he took a variety of roles after the first two Godfather films (1975's Dog Day Afternoon being a notable turn), later starring in Cruising and Scarface in the '80s, films that since have gained cult followings. Certainly, most Pacino pictures during the decade were a blight or a blur, but he emerged in the '90s as one of Hollywood's elder statesman, earning his first Oscar for Scent of a Woman, collaborating with Michael Mann in Heat and The Insider, taking supporting parts in Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco and even pulp like Devil's Advocate. Pacino currently is delivering better work than such contemporaries as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, and he hasn't succumbed to the comic buffoonery of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. It's 30 years into his career, and we're still watching him closely.
Which may be why it's such a treat to revisit Sidney Lumet's 1973 film Serpico a full blast of Pacino at his height in the '70s. Based on a true story, Pacino stars as NYPD undercover cop Frank Serpico. Opening as he is taken to a hospital after being shot, the story then backtracks to reveal why Serpico took a bullet in the head. An honest cop who wanted to earn a promotion to Detective, Serpico found he could get closer to the street just by looking like an average citizen, rather than the clean-cut NYPD plainclothesmen that perps could spot a mile away. But once assigned to detective work, Serpico learns that every cop on the beat is taking bribe money naturally, he's supposed to be in on the take as well, since no cop will trust him unless he gets his hands dirty. Frustrated, Serpico turns a friend who can prod the higher-ups in the system, but the return message simply is that the top brass doesn't care about bribe-money in fact, their main concern is keeping Serpico from contacting "outside sources" on the matter. Uncorrupted, he finds himself alienated not only from his partners, but his girlfriends as well. And eventually, Frank Serpico gets pushed too far.
* * *
Made directly between the first two Godfather films, Serpico is a genre piece, and for that it's not entirely unique. Cops and corruption have been the grist of many films noir, but what Serpico brings to the screen is Pacino's intensity, as well as New York street-smarts. The further Serpico finds himself enveloped by corruption, the more he looks like a cross between a peacenik hippie and Jesus Christ, further alienating him from every straight-looking cop on the force. It's a smart gag for a '70s film, although Pacino has one pal in the straight-looking but oddly demeanored Bob Blair (played by Woody Allen regular Tony Roberts) nevertheless, it's Pacino's movie, as he's in every single scene. Serpico utilizes its New York locations to offer a realistic tone, which adds to the overall credibility. William Friedkin achieved something similar in The French Connection (1971), making The Big Apple every bit as important as the characters. In Serpico, the setting flatters Pacino, who remains completely watchable for more than two hours, commanding the screen with his poker-faced eyes. There are some quintessential touches from the decade that was trying to free itself from the Vietnam war and deal with social changes at home Frank Serpico is pushed around by cops who think he a homosexual or a criminal, and he finds the system protects those who don't try that hard to do their jobs. The reason the movie holds up is simply due to the fascinating central performance.
Paramount's DVD release of Serpico offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and the original mono (which has also been remastered). The source-print appears well cared for, and the overall good quality is what we've come to expect from Paramount. Extras include three short documentaries: "Serpico: From Real to Reel" (10 min.), "Inside Serpico" (13 min.), and "Serpico: Favorite Moments" (3 min.), all which offer interviews with director Lumet and producer Martin Bregman. Also included is a stills gallery with commentary from Lumet and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.