It’s the annual “31 Days of Oscar” at Turner Classic Movies this month, with Oscar winners and nominees screening in the days leading up to the 2010 Academy Awards. On Friday, February 26, it’s Serpico and I wrote a feature on the film for the TCM website.
The real-life Frank Serpico made headlines as the scandals broke and, as an independent commission delved into the scope of the corruption, he was almost killed on the job under suspicious circumstances. Peter Maas put his story into a non-fiction bestseller, which Martin Bregman optioned as his first feature as a producer. Previous films about police corruption tended to frame the issue in terms of bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel. This was very different, yet Bregman was more interested in the man and his experience than a story of corruption and investigation, and the episodic script follows Serpico as he is bounced from one precinct to another and becomes more alienated, frustrated and desperate. He found a collaborator on the same wavelength in Sidney Lumet, a TV-trained director with a reputation for strong performances, literary adaptations and, in films like The Pawnbroker (1964), creating a sense of street realism. The New York-born Lumet shot most of Serpico on the streets and in standing buildings rather than sets wherever possible, and he brought a distinctive sense of place with his choice of locations and his documentary-style approach to shooting. While that became a hallmark of seventies police dramas and crime thrillers to follow, it was still quite new at the time. Along with The French Connection (1971), Serpico was one of the films that brought this new realism to the screen portrait of American cops with its realistic portraits of procedure and systemic failure and flawed, human characters behind the badges.