In Memory of Sidney Lumet: Celebrating ‘Serpico’

It’s difficult, and probably pointless, to try and isolate which film was Sidney Lumet’s best or most enduring. The fact that he made three of the best movies of the ’70s (three out-and-out masterpieces in one decade) is more than enough.

Although he was active for six decades, for me — and presumably many others — it was the ’70s when he did his best work, and that work does the near-impossible: it totally reflects its time and provides indelible commentary on — and for — that era; while managing to anticipate our world, almost 40 years later. This is beyond prescient and bordering on prophetic. Of course, it has as much to do with the screenplays as his direction, but it’s to Lumet’s credit, and indicative of the dilemmas that drove him, that he gravitated toward this material.

Network rightly gets the most attention, as it pretty much lays out the blueprints for everything our news and entertainment (infotainment?) media has become. That Paddy Chayefsky’s script was meant as (very) dark humor only underscores how easy, if depressing, it is to lampoon our foibles, avarice and collective appetite for destruction.

Dog Day Afternoon seems less shocking, or certainly much less surreal, after the O.J. Simpson chase (and trial) and the spectacles of scorned lovers/dancers/apprentices becoming reality TV superstars. Perhaps as much as any of Lumet’s films, this one showcases his penchant for making the environment as important as the actors: his Big Apple is a living, breathing, odor-emitting character actor, and in addition to being an honest depiction of the city as it was, it now endures as a historical document (like Taxi Driver) of the way New York City no longer is.

So while I maintain I could never pick favorites, if I had to, I would probably suggest that Serpico, the first collaboration between Lumet and Pacino, represents the best work that either of them ever did. There is an unnerving scene, near the end of the film, that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Almost every act of violence and venality that we read about is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Lumet’s last, wonderful effort, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely– and costly– war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic, and antiquated, American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be laughably implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him –which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity– the more scorn he is subjected to.

Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts –and conformity– of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole, the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: he is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly, and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redemptory (albeit redemptory in a way most directors would feel obliged to embellish).

Serpico is first and foremost an intriguing and unforgettable movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, if eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. The look on Serpico’s face when he is finally presented with his gold shield is a devastating piece of acting, as well as an uncomfortable commentary of the toll integrity often takes on the defiant.