In the 1970s and 1980s, Frank Serpico's name was shorthand for bravery, honesty, and standing up against your so-called friends and allies. Everyone knew his story. He was the son of Italian immigrants, a Brooklyn native who had such pride in his country that he fought in Korea and joined the NYPD. But once he joined the police force, he found that corruption and extortion was rampant. Anyone unwilling to participate in bribery was shunned, and anyone willing to speak against it risked his life. Serpico bravely stepped forward to testify, and was shot during a routine drug bust in 1971. It was clear his fellow officers had set him up to be executed. It was a shocking act of violence and betrayal that still haunts Serpico to this day. "I still have nightmares," he told the New York Times. "I open a door a little bit and it just explodes in my face. Or I'm in a jam and I call the police, and guess who shows up? My old cop buddies who hated me."
He survived the attempt, and continued his crusade against the police department before retiring in 1972. Though he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the rank of detective, the accolades were a hasty afterthought, and he still regards them with bitterness. "They never even had a ceremony for me. They handed it to me over the counter with the Medal of Honor, like a pack of cigarettes. The department never recognized me for standing up for what's right ... because I violated the omertà; I spoke out." Few outside of New York would have known his story had it not been for journalist Peter Maas, who profiled the ex-cop for a best-selling biography. The book was the basis for Sidney Lumet's 1973 film Serpico, starring Al Pacino.
Lumet's films are master portraits of realism, and Serpico is no exception. The film hasn't exactly fallen out of favor, but it's not name-dropped as a favorite the way Taxi Driver or Scarface is. While it didn't have much of an impact on filmmaking in general, it marked Lumet as one of the best directors of the 1970s, and sharpened his directorial focus to themes of corruption and social activism. Unlike the biopics of today, Serpico features no glamour, no grandstanding, no pulse-pounding action sequences.
It's the story of an idealistic young cop who joins the force because he truly believes in law and order. He's a good guy who doesn't believe in beating confessions out of suspects. He's pegged as suspicious by his fellow officers because he likes ballet, art, and literature and joins the 1960s counterculture. Even as he becomes aware of the routine payoffs and bribery, he refuses to surrender his optimism and morals even after he's physically broken. That's the tragedy and the terror of the film. It may lack edgy action scenes, but Lumet's film is still a jawclench of an experience. It doesn't tease you with Serpico's fate. The film begins with its hero, injured, glassy-eyed and bloody, his survival uncertain. The entire movie is a long, tense and paranoid ride to that crippling gunshot.
Serpico is difficult to watch as an outsider, but it's almost impossible for its subject to sit through. Serpico agreed to finally watch the Lumet film with Kilgannon, but still found it painful even after all these years. "As Pacino, near death, was rushed to Greenpoint Hospital, the real Mr. Serpico stared out the window, unable to watch - too painful, he said. He provided a running commentary: His own wardrobe was much better than in the film, as were his police disguises. The scene in which the police commissioner hands him a gold detective shield in the hospital bed was conjured; in reality, he picked it up from a clerk at police headquarters. Afterward, Mr. Serpico seemed spent ... 'They took the job I loved most. I just wanted to be a cop, and they took it away from me.'"
Though Lumet ends the film on a triumphantly somber note of reform, viewers are left uncertain of the fate of its hero. After his ordeal with the NYPD, Serpico's life hasn't been an entirely peaceful or happy one. He's still plagued by physical pain, recurring nightmares, and bitter memories. Though he's always been a hero in the public eye, a cinematic touchstone thanks to Pacino, and the instigator of reform, Serpico still lives in exile from his former department and fellow officers. The NYPD museum isn't interested in displaying his uniform or service revolver, and they dismiss his ongoing criticisms as ongoing post-traumatic stress. When it comes to real life heroes, it seems there's no such thing as a happy Hollywood ending.