Serpico, Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1973, 130 mins
We’re staying in the 1970s one more time with Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, from 1973- the same year that High Plains Drifter was released, curiously enough. Serpico is one of those films that I hadn’t seen before, that slipped through the net, so to speak. I knew of it by reputation, naturally. So in 1972, Al Pacino appears in The Godfather, the following year he stars in Serpico, and the year after that in The Godfather Part II; I guess those were wild times for Pacino. and he was one of the hottest actors around at a time when some great films were being made. I think its likely true that his generation of actors benefitted from the 1970s being such a great decade for American cinema, it must have been so exciting for them to just read so many great scripts and work with such directors, I think it perhaps got trickier for actors in succeeding decades to make their mark in ‘lesser’ pictures.
Pacino looks so young in these films its almost alarming- I find it tricky to reconcile how he looks in these films and how he looks and acts later in life; its probably unfair of me, but perhaps its inevitable that an actor with his intensity can fall into the trap of a certain onscreen persona, like what seemed to happen with Jack Nicholson? It got to a point with Pacino that he rather irritated me with his increasingly larger-than-life intensity in later films – his Lt. Hanna in Michael Mann’s Heat is, for all that film’s greatness, one of the things that bothers me about that film. There’s something unnecessarily scene-stealing about it; in many of his later films, Pacino the actor becomes the thing rather than the character he’s playing? I guess its just his style, his screen persona… but I must say watching his earlier roles I enjoy his calmer intensity.
Because Serpico is a 1970s film, its brutally honest in its sense of time and place- New York was such a character all its own back then, as evidenced in so many 1970s films (The French Connection from 1971 immediately springs to mind, as does The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Taxi Driver, among many others). Its a city on the brink of ruin, before it was cleaned up and turned into something of a tourist-friendly Disney theme park. Its not that there’s anything endearing, exactly, about New York in the 1970s but there is something fascinating, a convincing reality about it that in turn just makes the films filmed on the streets of that decade so strangely appealing. Maybe its a neo-noir aspect, some nightmarish fascination. The dirt, the decay, there is some kind of truth to it which feels refreshing. Likewise the actors are all pretty great, looking as ‘real’ as the city does; balding, overweight, middle-aged, worn-out… drinking and smoking too much, nowhere near a gym…. and the women feel real, there’s no glamour here, just a different kind of beauty to that seen in Hollywood films in decades before and after.
Serpico was directed by Sidney Lumet, who also directed 12 Angry Men (which reminds me, I have Kino’s 4K edition of that yet to watch), Fail-Safe, The Anderson Tapes, and Dog Day Afternoon and Network, both of which are films I should have, but somehow haven’t, yet seen… Yeah there’s my credibility in the gutter, not having seen those two but hey, its great to think that, as with Serpico and Klute, there’s some great films from the 1970s still waiting for me. The thought that Serpico is fifty years old now and had escaped me all this time is rather alarming, mind, but hey, I got there in the end.