In a corrupt world where the law keepers are receiving kickbacks from criminals, and the cops are terrorising small businesses for protection money — every law enforcement officer is on the take, or accepting money that has derived from illegal activities. In such a world, it takes an extraordinary hero to fight against the complacency, incompetence, and the systematic abuse of power in a rotten police force. In Serpico (1973), that man is Frank Serpico.
Serpico chronicles the true story of a young policeman who joins the force, and refuses to acquiesce to police corruption, or to take his share of the department’s kickbacks. For the bent cops — almost everyone else — Serpico’s squeaky clean behaviour makes him a liability. How can they trust someone who is not part of the corruption that they have bought into? His colleagues act with deliberate negligence, sending him in to the dangerous situations, failing to provide effective backup, and exposing him to lethal danger. Serpico refuses to back down and continues to fight for justice — to expose the corrupt policemen.
Serpico was released in 1973, sandwiched between the classic Italian mafia films The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather 2 (1974). It presents a positive image of a working-class Italian American who is struggling for social justice — for what he believes is right — as opposed to the criminal families in the Godfather stories who murder one another for personal power and family vendettas. In the Godfather series, whole families are in it together, tacitly compiling with those directly involved in murderous rivalries and feuds. Unlike them, Serpico is on his own, he is one man against the system, and his girlfriend cannot take the emotional stress of being in relationship with a morally scrupulous man, dedicated to his work, who could be hospitalised or killed at any moment.
Frank Serpico has many of the traits of a classic hero: physically able, attractive, and popular — but he is also very-much an anti-hero: quirky, eccentric, righteous, unassuming, modest, in touch with his ‘feminine side’, a stickler for the whole truth, and a philosophical questioner. Although released in the early Seventies, and set mostly in the 1960s, Serpico epitomises the vibe of Seventies movie, revelling in the gritty toughness of the New York streets, and urban poverty. Its low budget approach has an almost documentary feel to it. The grimy, violent, mean world it portrays has parallels with The French Connection (1971) — but Serpico has more of a moral centre, this is the ethical heart within Frank Serpico, even if the film portrays his experience without much sentimentality. The story could have dwelled on his loss and sacrifice, but the outcome of his predicament is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way. He doesn’t come out with much at the end of the story: a failed relationship, a destroyed career, a police award, a disability pension for being shot in the face — his life in ruins. But this is what makes him a true hero, because he has done what must be done: he has corrected the wrongs — and done so without seeking reward. He has purged the NYPD of endemic, systematic corruption, and restored faith in justice — and once this has been achieved, like all classic heroes, he must move on.