“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier.”
When I first came to the United States to study in 1978, I had a poster of “Serpico” (1973) the way that Tony Manero had one in his bedroom in “Saturday Night Fever” and later on Dirk Diggler did in his room in “Boogie Nights” (1997). I liked it because it was Pacino, with that beard, the long hair, soulful eyes, and those casually placed aviator sunglasses on top of his head. He represented to me the non-conformist, the anti-establishment. Visually it reminded me of Che Guevara. I loved it because he just looked so cool. I wanted to be like him. I was infatuated with this film when it first came out. I couldn’t get enough of it. To me, living in celluloid dreams, Pacino represented the 70s, “The Godfather,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.”
“Serpico” arrived at a time when the country was questioning authority, since we were in the middle of the Watergate scandal. We could no longer see the institutions of government as pillars of morality and goodness. And here was Frank Serpico, an idealistic rookie cop who believes in honesty, and lives by strong ethical values. The film was timely then, and watching it on the anniversary of the George Floyd’s murder it feels more prescient. Prior to sitting down to immerse myself in it, I read an interview with Senator Corey Booker in which he said: “Policing reform legislation must hold police accountable for egregious misconduct, increase transparency, and reform police practices to prevent police violence from occurring in the first place. “
The story, by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler and based on the book by Peter Maas with the help of its real life subject, details Serpico’s struggle with corruption in the New York City Police Department during his eleven years of service, and his work as a whistleblower that led to the investigation by the Knapp Commission. The five-member panel was formed in April 1970 by Mayor John Lindsay to investigate corruption within the police department. The commission confirmed the existence of systemic and widespread corruption problems, and made a number of recommendations.
Sidney Lumet captures a New York that is gritty and energetic. Working with master editor Dede Allen, the first 30 minutes move at a quick clip. We’re first introduced to Serpico as he’s rushed with a wound to his face on an ambulance, and we move to flashbacks where we watch him graduate from police academy and start to grow frustrated with his fellow officers’ laxness and their willingness to be take bribes. At home, Frank is an iconoclast. He takes Spanish lessons, where he meets Leslie whom he starts dating. She introduces him to ballet. On an impulse he buys himself a sheepdog. He’s a rebel and he has a very particular, eclectic way of dressing. A hippie might be a way to describe him.
Eventually, he befriends Bob Blair (played terrifically by Tony Roberts) who works for the Mayor’s Office, and the main conflict of the story takes place. Can Serpico continue looking the other way at the sight of cops performing violence, extortion and collecting payoffs or is he willing to be a snitch? Pacino conveys this turmoil in both internal and physical ways. His acting is intense and virtuosic in this, and you can’t take your eyes off him. He underplays the first half of the movie, but we see the rage and outrage simmering inside of him. In one scene where he discovers a suspect he arrested receiving special treatment by the other officers, he’s had enough. The actor explodes. With so much pent up frustration, he seems like a caged animal ready to destroy the precinct. Lumet shoots this in long takes as we watch Pacino grab a wooden chair and slam it up and down onto the cement floor, his counterparts stunned by his volcanic reaction.
Lumet and his cinematographer Arthur Ornitz use several compositional techniques to show us the sense of isolation and alienation that Serpico feels, and the city of New York serves as a perfect backdrop to achieve this. As the movie progresses the colors of the film become darker and darker, including the clothes worn by the cast. Towards the end the color has been drained from the screen. Lumet didn’t want a score to the film. Mikis Theodorakis, legendary Greek composer of “Z” and “Zorba the Greek” gave a hauntingly lyrical theme that plays intermittently. It’s poignant and unforgettable.
Bob Blair : “You’ve got a feel for the streets, I got a feel for the politics, I guess.”
Serpico : “Oh, yeah?”
Bob Blair : “And you and me and one Batmobile, we could clean up the whole city in no time.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO Max and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Apple TV, YouTube, and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler
Based on the book by Peter Maas
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Starring Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Tony Roberts, Ed Crowley
Director Sidney Lumet on “Serpico”
“In a sense, you start with suspicion. There had been another director working on ‘Serpico’ who wasn’t working out. And we talked, and Al was very careful. It wasn’t a very long meeting and Marty [Bregman, his manager] called me a couple of hours later and said, ‘Come to work.’ Waldo Salt’s script was superb. However, it was 240 pages. But whoever had done the rewrite had somehow gotten it down to 130. We could do nothing about the start date because Al had to be available for Godfather II. But Al did something quite brilliant. When we started rehearsal he knew Waldo’s original script better than I did because he’d been with it for a long time. So he came in with Waldo’s dialogue and he’d say, ‘Sidney, can we read this?’ And we’d read it and it was often better. And in rehearsal we put together a new structure with Waldo’s dialogue. I think that Al saw that I was open to him and not playing turf games and things like that. That, and the first day of shooting, spun us close together because he had never shot that much on the first day—we had three different locations in three different sections of Manhattan. He didn’t know where he was at the end of the first day except that he knew that somehow or other six pages had been done.” (dga.org)
About Screenwriter and Playwright Norman Wexler
The son of factory workers in Detroit, Wexler had a flair for creating realistic down-to-earth characters with rough edges and a degree of grit. His career was dogged, though, by periods of mental illness which resulted in manic outbursts of temperament and which led to a prison sentence when, on a flight from New York to San Francisco in 1972, he made threats against President Richard Nixon. His later Hollywood career achieved notoriety when he had a well- publicised feud with Sylvester Stallone, whom he accused of mutilating his script for a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever.” Born in Detroit in 1926 and educated at Harvard College, Wexler moved to New York in 1951 and worked in an advertising agency as a copy-writer. He started to write plays in his spare time, and by the mid-Sixties several of them had been produced off-Broadway and in regional theatres. His breakthrough came when he wrote the script for “Joe” (1970), a low- budget film about a construction worker who forms an uneasy relationship with a businessman whose daughter (Susan Sarandon in her screen debut) has become involved with drug-addicts. Directed by John Avildson, the film became a cult hit, bringing fame to Peter Boyle, who played the title character. Howard Thompson, of The New York Times, called Wexler’s script “uncannily knowing and observant in staking out and stalking two human species”. Wexler collaborated with Waldo Salt on the screenplay for “Serpico” (1973), directed by Sidney Lumet and based on Peter Maas’s best-selling biography of a New York cop who bravely fought corruption within his unit. Al Pacino played the real-life policeman who refused to join in the bribe-taking that was rife in the force and risked his life to expose not only his corrupt colleagues but many of their superiors, an action which had resulted in a 1970 hearing that rocked the New York Police Department.
The film’s screenplay was praised for not only providing a thrilling story, but also vividly conveying the off-beat personality of the bead- wearing, ballet-loving hero. “Norman Wexler is responsible for most of the hip humour,” wrote Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. “He writes virulent low-life dialogue with a demented lift.” “Mandingo” (1975), scripted by Wexler for the director Richard Fleischer, was equally successful at the box office though loathed by critics. Based on a best-seller by Kyle Onstott, it was a steamily melodramatic account of slavery, sex and sadism in the old South, and the following year Wexler adapted a similar Onstott novel, Drum, though this time the public agreed with the critics and rejected the luridly sensational result – the director Burt Kennedy left the project midway and it was completed by Steve Carver. Wexler next wrote his biggest film success, “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), adapting Nik Cohn’s magazine piece “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, the story of Tony Manero, a clerk in a Brooklyn paint store who escapes from his humdrum existence when, on Saturday nights, he transforms himself into a sleek, pomaded stud and displays his sensational skills as a disco dancer…the film became one of Paramount’s top-grossing films of all time. After this highspot, Wexler’s career faltered. He was one of four writers who worked on the shoddy adaptation of Bob Randall’s thriller “The Fan” (1981), starring Lauren Bacall as a Broadway star stalked by a psychotic admirer, and Wexler’s own mental problems resulted in his being diagnosed as manic depressive. When in 1983 John Travolta asked him to write “Staying Alive,” a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever,” Wexler clashed disastrously with the film’s director, Sylvester Stallone, who put Travolta through a course of body-building and drastically revised Wexler’s screenplay…His last film, “Raw Deal” (1986), on which he collaborated with Gary Devore, was an undistinguished action movie for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Wexler continued to write for the theatre and in 1996 his last play, a comedy called “Forgive Me, Forgive Me Not,” was produced at a theatre in Los Angeles. (independent.co.uk)
About Screenwriter Waldo Salt
Salt, the child of a suicidal mother and right-wing extremist father, came to Hollywood after graduating from Stanford at age eighteen. Among his early adaptations for the screen were Fannie Hurst’s “Humoresque” and Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.” He was friends with Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and worked on films with some of the period’s best known stars, including Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, and Virginia Mayo. In 1950, as his “The Flame and the Arrow” was showing throughout the country’s theaters, Waldo Salt seemed on his way to being one of Hollywood’s major screenwriters. But, for Salt as for many others, the 1950s meant the stifling of their creative talents by a paranoid and restrictive government. In April of 1951 Salt was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee — Senator Joseph McCarthy’s brainchild for the investigation of Communist infiltration of America. Though never held in contempt of Congress, like a number of his colleagues, Salt was clearly identified as a card-carrying Communist and blacklisted for many years. Of that time, Salt said, “I wish we had done something to deserve being blacklisted. I wish we’d had that much influence on film or on politics at that time. I think the world might have been different. But we didn’t.” Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Salt wrote primarily for television and commercials. Using a pseudonym, he worked on a number of films, keeping somewhat in touch with the industry, but no longer at the center of it. Though the blacklist had been lifted, much of his life had fallen into ruin. Divorced, and sick with pneumonia and despair, Salt was living in a cheap New York hotel trying to write television scripts. “I ended up at fifty, over-the-hill, thinking I had no future,” Salt explained. “Finally, I realized that I had allowed myself to write less than I could.” According to fellow writer Ian Hunter, “From then on, Waldo approached screenwriting as an artist.”
Struggling for the next four years to find his voice as a writer, Salt was poised for a comeback when, in 1968, he got the chance to write the screen version of “Midnight Cowboy.” Winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, the film also earned Salt the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It had taken nearly twenty years, but Waldo Salt returned to Hollywood the way he had left it — with dignity. Beginning with “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), Salt’s lifetime of experience culminated in a series of brilliantly written, critically-acclaimed screenplays, including: “Serpico” (1972), a film about an honest cop who must choose between loyalty to friends and his moral convictions; “The Day of the Locust” (1975), Salt’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s novella; and “Coming Home” (1978), the story of a marine wife who falls in love with a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, for which Salt won his second Academy Award. Less than six months before his death in March of 1987, Salt received the Laurel Award for Screen Achievement, the highest accolade the Writers Guild can bestow. His acceptance speech proves to be a fitting epitaph: “As writers true to ourselves, it will always be hard, and if we’re good, we’ll always be in trouble. Let’s be sure we deserve it.” (pbs.org)
About Author Peter Maas
Born to Dutch and Irish parents in New York, Maas first became interested in journalism while studying political science and history at Duke University. Working for the student newspaper, he got his first scoop – and $1,000 – after sneaking into a hospital to interview labour leader Walter Reuther, who was recovering from an assassination attempt. After graduating in 1949, he worked for the New York Herald-Tribune in Paris, before joining Collier’s magazine in 1955. Although drafted into the US navy during the Korean war, he saw no combat, and, after completing military service, worked for a variety of magazines before evolving into an investigative and campaigning reporter. Maas was among the founding contributors to New York Magazine and considered himself part of the new journalism movement, with fellow writers Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, bringing the flourishes of fiction-writing to news stories during the early 1960s. But he insisted that he cared less about the storyline than what motivated strong characters. He drew national attention for his story about a black man who had served more time on death row than any other US prisoner. It was, however, organised crime that made his name. His big break came in 1963, when he learned that an important underworld figure had turned government informer. Joseph Valachi was the first person to reveal the existence of the Mafia, at a time when there was great argument in America about whether it existed at all. Maas broke the story, and followed his series of articles with a book.
Three years later, he enjoyed another big success with “Serpico,” the story of the undercover New York police officer Frank Serpico, who refused to accept payoffs. The book gave rise to a shortlived television series, and Sidney Lumet’s Academy Award-nominated film, starring Al Pacino. Although “The Valachi Papers” brought Maas fame, his first book, The Rescuer, had been published two years earlier, in 1967. The true story of the admiral who developed the diving bell and masterminded the world’s first submarine rescue on the eve of the second world war, it sold badly because, according to Maas, “it was Woodstock and nobody was interested in a submarine that went down in ’39”. A reworked version, “The Terrible Hours” (1999), topped the bestseller list. Other titles by Maas included “Killer Spy” (1995), about the capture of turncoat CIA agent Aldrich Ames; “King Of The Gypsies,” an inside look at a power struggle within a Gypsy family; and Marie, about the Tennessee official Marie Ragghianti, who exposed widespread corruption…Maas returned to the theme of organised crime with Underboss: Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s Story Of Life In The Mafia. Another bestseller, the book also courted controversy, when Gravano testified in court that he had received a portion of Maas’s advance – a claim denied by the writer – and stood to make money from the sale of the film rights…Mass passed away in 2001… (theguardian.com)
About Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz
Mr. Ornitz, whose father was the screenwriter Sam Ornitz, was born in New York and studied film at U.C.L.A. His first important credits were for the black-and-white films ”Requiem for a Heavyweight” and ”The Goddess.” Among the many other films for which he was cinematographer were ”The World of Henry Orient, ”A Thousand Clowns,” ”Charly,” ”Midnight Cowboy,” ”The Boys in the Band,” ”The Anderson Tapes,” ”Serpico,” ”Death Wish,” ”Next Stop Greenwich Village,” ”The Chosen” and the made-for-televison movie ”Playing for Time.” (nytimes.com) Mr. Orniz passed away in 1985.
About Director Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet was a master of cinema, best known for his technical knowledge and his skill at getting first-rate performances from his actors. Literally born into the business as the son of actors from the Yiddish theater, Sidney Lumet began acting at the age of four, and made his Broadway debut at age 11 and first film appearance at 15. But it was as a director—first in the new medium of television and later in movies—that he found his true calling, drawing on his experience in front of the camera to become the very definition of an “actor’s director.” From “12 Angry Men” in 1957 to “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” in 2007, Lumet averaged a film per year, leading 17 performers to Oscar nominations (six of whom won), and running the gamut from scabrous satires and fever-pitch melodramas to iconic police stories and even a musical—more often than not with the city of New York as his canvas…In 2005, Lumet received a well-deserved honorary Academy Award for his outstanding contribution to filmmaking. Sadly, he tragically died of cancer in 2011. (filmlinc.org)