Serpico 4K

by Charlie Largent May 20, 2023

Blu-ray 4K
KL Studio Classics
1973 / 1.85:1
Starring Al Pacino, John Randolph, Tony Roberts
Written by Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Paramount’s posters for Serpico resembled ads for the Fillmore East or the Whisky a Go Go—and that was the point. Featuring a kaleidoscopic Al Pacino in all his multi-colored splendor, the image reflected a uniquely 70’s phenomenon shared by that same year’s Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar: the saintly hippie.

Based on Peter Maas’ biography, Serpico was directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler. The film thrives on the populist anger of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the nerve-jangling authenticity of Scorsese’s early 70’s work, a quality found in Serpico’s opening frames; our hero is flat on his back with a bullet in his head and the police radio is buzzing—who shot Serpico and, more to the point, was it one of his own colleagues? The film turns back the clock to find the answer.

The 1959 incarnation of Frank Serpico is a very different animal. A wide-eyed Italian-American boy with dreams of joining the police force, the 23 year-old Serpico is more Boy Scout than no-nonsense enforcer and Lumet takes pains to frame him as the Good Samaritan of the neighborhood—he does everything except escort little old ladies across the street. In 1938 Serpico would have been played by Cagney or Garfield and had his hands full with just one shady cop on the corner. By 1960 things had changed—police corruption had become a pervasive, well-oiled machine, a shadow conspiracy amongst the boys in blue. Once Serpico earns his own badge he doesn’t have far to look for criminals, they’re sitting behind the wheel of a squad car.

A new apartment in Greenwich village opens his eyes too—his gradual transformation from straight arrow to East Village hippie modifies his appearance but not his idealism. The beard and the fringed jacket also come in handy—Serpico makes for a good undercover cop while demonstrating to his hipster neighbors that, hey, cops are people too. Ironically it’s the older members of the force who take a liking to the shaggy iconoclast, the younger cops realize he’s a threat.

Serpico’s refusal to sign up for kickbacks from mobsters and street hustlers puts a target on his back and the pressure to play the crooked cop’s game suffocates him. Drowning in self-pity and paranoia, his romantic entanglements fall like dominoes and real friends become increasingly scarce.

Fortunately he has a symbiotic relationship with police officer Sidney Green (played by the wonderful John Randolph), and two true-blue—and extremely patient—colleagues in Bob Blair, a fellow officer played by Tony Roberts, and an undercover cop named Lombardo played by Ed Grover. The two men use their connections to alert the authorities to Serpico’s allegations—and they meet resistance at every turn. It’s clear the only way to bring Serpico’s story to the surface is to go to the press. And that’s when Serpico gets shot: ‘He simultaneously heard the roar as the gun went off and saw the flash – an enormous burst of colors, merging reds and yellows – and felt the searing heat in his head, as if a million white-hot needles had been plunged into it.’*

Serpico may have had saintly motives but Lumet’s movie doesn’t deify him, no matter how soulful is Pacino’s gaze—and it’s plenty soulful (Raphael couldn’t have  painted a more beatific angel). Serpico was the first volley in a one-two punch from Lumet and Pacino, it and Dog Day Afternoon solidified the actor’s persona as a showboater with a method actor’s instincts while Lumet’s mastery of a particularly gritty art form—the New York City Movie—was confirmed.

As Sean Connery remarked, Lumet had “that vision thing.” It was the ability to orchestrate an epic tale in all its specifics that helped Lumet climb the mountain that was Serpico; the film’s original director, John Avildsen, was fired by producer Dino De Laurentiis and Lumet was given six weeks to prepare for shooting. The script, still in draft form at that point, left 107 speaking parts still to be cast and 104 locations to be found. Yet Lumet was able to complete as many as thirty five setups in a single day.

The 130 minute film moves like greased lightning and surely editor Dede Allen deserves a lot of the praise for the movie’s crackling energy (the movie reflects Allen’s creed: “You have to cut with your gut.”) Cinematographer Arthur Ornitz knew New York as well as Lumet—his portfolio included The Connection, Boys in the Band, and Next Stop, Greenwich Village—his work reflects the city itself in the early ’70s, unpolished, lurid, blunt, and beautiful.

When Serpico was released, print labs didn’t have the advantage of the digital magic being performed today; KL Studio Classics new 4K Blu-ray was transferred directly from the negative and it’s a significant upgrade. They’ve included several comprehensive extras including a new audio commentary from film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson, and several short documentaries including Sidney Lumet: Cineaste New York, and Looking for Al Pacino.

Here’s the complete rundown from KL Studio Classics

*Policing the Big Apple: The Story of the NYPD by Jules Steward

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