Serpico (1973)

“Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”

Serpico Poster

An idealistic young cop (Al Pacino) hoping to work as a plains-clothes detective is dismayed to find both rampant police corruption and a culture of intolerance for those who don’t participate.


Is there such a thing as an honest cop? After watching this adaptation of Peter Maas’s biography about NYPD officer Frank Serpico — whose refusal to accept pay-offs and attempts to expose endemic corruption nearly led to his death — you’ll scarcely believe it’s possible. The film is book-ended by Serpico’s career-ending facial shooting, so we know that what we’ll see for the next two hours will be nothing but a living nightmare for our would-be whistleblower — but watching his train wreck as it unfolds is morbidly fascinating, especially as Pacino shifts in and out of various undercover get-ups. Director Sidney Lumet and DP Arthur Ornitz make impressive use of seemingly countless (actually 104) New York locales — and while Mikis Theodorakis’s invasive, maudlin score mars many scenes, the film is still worth a one-time look.

Note: Check out this 2010 New York Times docu-short in which the real Frank Serpico comments on the film, and we’re updated about his current life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Pacino as Frank Serpico
    Serpico Pacino
  • Arthur Ornitz’s cinematography
    Serpico Cinematography
  • Excellent use of authentic New York locales
    Serpico NY Locales1
    Serpico NY Locales4
    Serpico NY Locales3

Must See?
Yes, as a finely crafted if disheartening character study and exposé.



2 Responses to “Serpico (1973)”

  1. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    One of four hugely influential US crime dramas made around this time; the others are Dirty Harry (1971) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, The French Connection (1971) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and Death Wish (1974) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

    This one like FC is based on truth and is a superb showcase for Pacino and it shows the grungy, seedy side of NYC and the corruption in the police force that was rife at the time.

  2. A once-must at least – for its subject matter; also as one of Lumet’s best films (with remarkable and quite natural ensemble acting performances) and as a solid example of sturdy ’70s filmmaking.

    First rewatch in many years.

    This from Wikipedia:
    When it was decided to make the movie about his life…Pacino invited Serpico to stay with him at a house that Pacino had rented in Montauk, New York. When Pacino asked why he had stepped forward, Serpico replied, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because…if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?” He has credited his grandfather who had once been assaulted and robbed and his uncle, a respected policeman in Italy, with his sense of justice.

    The film remains as solid as when I last saw it. It’s gripping and almost simply impossible to believe. It’s frightening to think of the amount of truth in it about ‘payola’. But it’s a fine, all-around ‘good show’ in all aspects. I’m esp. taken with the editing by Dede Allen…and I don’t find the music score particularly troublesome.

    When I was working at a literary agency in NYC, one of its clients was Frank Serpico. He was contracted to write his own book (which I don’t think he ever completed). He would come into the office once in awhile so I had the opportunity to speak with him at those times. I never mentioned the film; I guess I thought he might be more comfortable talking without the reference being made. He seemed like an extremely affable guy.

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