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Sidney Lumet
Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Bill McGuire, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Tony Roberts
Writing Credits:
Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas

Many of his fellow officers considered him the most dangerous man alive - An honest cop.
Rated R.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Actor-Al Pacino; Best Screenplay.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono

Runtime: 130 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 12/3/2002

• “Serpico: From Real to Real”
• “Inside Serpico
• “Serpico: Favorite Moments”
• Photo Gallery with Commentary by Director Sidney Lumet
• Theatrical Trailer


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Serpico (1973)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 10, 2002)

With 1973’s Serpico, we find another well-known flick that I never saw until it hit DVD. I knew of it as a cop drama that featured an early, well-regarded performance from Al Pacino, but other than some brief references offered by Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en, most of Serpico remained a mystery to me.

Actually, despite my lack of real knowledge about it, I had some expectations for Serpico. I figured it would offer a gritty police story, and that was what it provided. Serpico started with its end. At the very start of the flick, someone shoots Frank Serpico (Pacino), and he gets rushed to the hospital. While that occurs, we flash back to earlier parts of his career. These begin at the beginning, as we watch his orientation as a rookie cop. Serpico quickly learns of the corruption that pervades police life. He sees minor elements – such as a free food kickback at a local restaurant – and more troubling issues like the beating of suspects.

We rapidly see that Serpico won’t go down that path. He treats alleged criminals humanely, and he refuses to go on the take when the other cops divvy up their bribes and kickbacks. His honesty doesn’t endear him to the other offices, who view this straight arrow suspiciously at best. Essentially, Serpico follows Frank’s attempts to fight the corruption. We watch as it affects his progress through the ranks and also leads to the downfall of his personal relationships. Frank seriously dates a couple of different women, but his personal frustration with his career and the sleaziness of his cohorts inevitably ruins these romances.

All at once, Serpico seems both dated and timeless. On one hand, the movie’s fashions clearly place it in the early Seventies, especially in regard to the styles donned by Frank himself. An oddball cop, Serpico affects a look that will allow him to fit in with street criminals, and that presentation hasn’t exactly aged well.

In addition, Serpico feels very much like a piece from its era. The US really started to become cynical at that time due to the effects of the war in Vietnam and the then-developing scandal that surrounded Watergate, and Serpico reflects that burgeoning bitterness. Whereas Sixties counter-cultural efforts tended to take a more general stance against “The Man” – as represented in hippie-oriented flicks like Easy Rider and Harold and Maude - in the Seventies, the focus became more pointed. Later efforts like All the President’s Men and Network would become even more contemptuous, but Serpico clearly reflects the time in which it was made.

Not that I regard either of these as weaknesses. As for the dated fashions, if I criticized every movie for that concern, I wouldn’t like many films. The worst offenders are those that really seem to flaunt their period affectations; for example, 1983’s Staying Alive appears absurdly bound to its era and can’t be viewed outside of that realm. Sure, the clothes and styles seen in Serpico look silly at times, but they don’t negatively affect the film.

As for the movie’s cynicism, it should wear that as a badge of honor, for it produces that attitude honestly. Whereas something like Harold and Maude seems to take potshots at authorities in a gratuitous manner, Serpico comes from factual material and provides a real exposé of police corruption. Almost 30 years after the fact, I can’t say this seems shocking – we’ve seen too many films that followed similar territory since 1973 – but the still timely topics remain eye-opening.

It helps that director Sidney Lumet treats the subject without much sentimentality. More so than probably any other era, the best films of the Seventies adopted a nearly documentary-style tone that lent their drama more of an impact. Serpico follows in that mold. Though Lumet clearly wants us to empathize with Frank, he doesn’t force our emotions as he depicts the actions in a clear and even-headed manner.

Back before he became a professional ham and shouter, Pacino could really act, and he follows his terrific work in The Godfather with this star-establishing part. Frankly, I think his performance as Michael Corleone seems stronger, mainly because Michael offers a more complex part. Though both Lumet and Pacino avoid making him excessively heroic, Serpico does present a character we see as consistently positive, so he lacks a tremendous amount of nuance. His poor relationships with women hint at a lack of internal balance, but he remains a somewhat one-note personality much of the time.

Nonetheless, Pacino brings serious spark to the role. Actually, he seems to channel Dustin Hoffman to some degree. I won’t say that Pacino took from Hoffman for the part, but at times, the similarities seem strong. However, I can’t imagine the less street-legit Hoffman as Serpico, so while Pacino’s performance shows some Dustinisms, it doesn’t come across like an impersonation. Pacino makes the character fully his and really shines.

Serpico easily could have turned into a one-note film about a heroic cop, but it never degenerates into such simplicity. Instead, the movie provides a rich and compelling affair. It avoids simplistic patterns and fails to become the flat and sentimental affair that could have occurred. A fine police drama, Serpico continues to work well after almost 30 years.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio B+ / Bonus C+

Serpico appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For its age, the picture looked pretty good, but a mix of concerns knocked my grade down to a “B-“.

Sharpness generally appeared solid. Wide shots displayed minor softness, but those occasions occurred fairly infrequently. For the most part, the movie looked nicely accurate and distinct. Jagged edges created no issues, but I did notice some shimmering at times, mainly due to striped shirts. Edge enhancement appeared occasionally, and sometimes that issue became moderately invasive and prominent. Print flaws also caused more problems than I’d like. Actually, the film started off fairly cleanly, but the defects escalated as the movie progressed. Light grain showed up throughout parts of the movie, and I also saw examples of speckles, marks, blotches and grit.

On the positive side, the naturalistic palette of Serpico generally appeared positive. Many Seventies films seemed somewhat drab, and the occasional instance of that form of flatness affected Serpico. However, the colors usually came across as nicely bright and vibrant, and they seemed quite tight and concise as well. Black levels also appeared deep and well defined, but shadow detail created some concerns. Low-light sequences could be somewhat thick, and interior sequences demonstrated the highest level of problems. Not only did those look moderately murky, but the grain became more distinctive at those times as well. Much of Serpico really looked very positive, but enough of the movie demonstrated issues to lower my grade to a “B-“.

Although the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack came from a remixed monaural work, it provided a surprisingly lively and impressive piece of audio. The soundfield didn’t try to dazzle the listener, but it managed to spread the elements out nicely as it created a vivid and convincing sense of atmosphere. For example, an early scene in which Serpico rode in a police car on a rainy day melded the automobile elements with the precipitation and road aspects to create a tight and involving feeling of place. Music provided well-delineated stereo imaging, while the effects generally showed up in the appropriate places. Those elements moved smoothly across the channels, and street scenes came to life well. Those added the best reinforcement from the rear speakers, as the surrounds gave us a nice depiction of these settings.

Audio quality came across well for the age of the material. Although I expected some edginess and roughness to the speech, those elements seemed nicely clean and natural. They displayed no significant concerns, as dialogue seemed much more modern than I anticipated. During the rare occasions in which we heard score, the music sounded vibrant and bright, with good low-end response. Effects appeared distinct and clear, and they also provided good pop for the bass elements. The atmosphere and source music in the party scene seemed especially distinctive and convincing. Overall, the audio for Serpico really surprised me in a positive way. Most 5.1 tracks that emanate from monaural sources stink, but this one worked really well.

This DVD release of Serpico includes a small smattering of supplements. We start with Serpico: Real to Reel, a nine-minute and 56-second featurette about the film. It mixes movie clips, stills, and interview snippets from producer Martin Bregman and director Sidney Lumet. They discuss a number of issues related to the adaptation of the story, from the problems with original director John Avildsen to the integration of two screenplay attempts to the involvement of the real Serpico. Though awfully brief “Reel” offers an entertaining and informative examination of these issues. (Footnote: has any director been fired from as many prominent films as Avildsen? He also got the ax on Saturday Night Fever. Maybe he just shouldn’t try to work at Paramount.)

Another featurette shows up next. Inside Serpico runs 12 minutes and 53 seconds and picks up where “Reel” ends. It uses the same format and participants, as we hear only from director Lumet and producer Bregman. This one begins with the start of the shoot and progresses through the post-release reaction. Along the way, we learn about the rapid filming schedule, locations, the editing, and quite a few other topics. The absence of Pacino or others from the discussion creates something of a void, but “Inside” nonetheless offers a fairly interesting though brief examination of the movie.

After this we find out final featurette, Serpico: Favorite Moments. This two-minute and 37-second piece again highlights Bregman and Lumet, as they tell us which parts of the film stand out to them. This segment seems useful but not particularly special.

In addition to the film’s Theatrical Trailer - presented anamorphic 1.78:1 with monaural sound – we get a Photo Gallery. This presents the stills as a filmed piece that lasts four minutes, 23 seconds, and comes with commentary from director Lumet. The photos don’t seem all that interesting, but Lumet’s chat proves informative as he discusses the film’s score, or essential lack thereof. As always, Paramount provide English and French subtitles for most of the supplements that can use them.

A solid crime drama, Serpico influenced many other flicks in its genre, but it still seems fresh and compelling. The movie benefits from a lack of sentiment and some excellent performances, especially from its lead. The DVD provides somewhat erratic but usually positive picture along with a terrific 5.1 remix and a complement of supplements that lacks quantity but provides fairly good quality. A solid film and a generally positive DVD, Serpico seems a little expensive with a list price of almost $30, but I still have to recommend this nice package.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.7142 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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