AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
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Serpico
Director: Sidney Lumet (Dir)
Release Date:   1973
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 5 Dec 1973; Los Angeles opening: 18 Dec 1973
Production Date:   25 Jun--late Sep 1973 in New York City
Duration (in mins):   129-130
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Cast:   Al Pacino ([Frank "Paco"] Serpico)  
    John Randolph ([Capt.] Sidney Green)  
    Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough)  
    Biff McGuire (Captain McClain)  
    Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie)  
    Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie)  
  And Tony Roberts (Bob Blair)  
    John Medici (Pasquale [Serpico])  
    Allan Rich (D.A. Tauber)  
    Norman Ornellas ([Don] Rubello)  
    Ed Grover (Lombardo)  
    Al Henderson (Peluce)  
    Hank Garrett (Malone)  
    Damien Leake (Joey)  
    Joe Bova (Potts)  
    Gene Gross (Captain Tolkin)  
    John Stewart (Waterman)  
    Woodie King (Larry)  
    James Tolkin (Steiger)  
    Ed Crowley (Barto)  
    Bernard Barrow (Palmer)  
    Sal Carollo (Mr. Serpico)  
    Mildred Clinton (Mrs. Serpico)  
    Nathan George (Smith)  
    Gus Fleming (Dr. Metz)  
    Richard Foronjy (Corsaro)  
    Alan North (Brown)  
    Lewis J. Stadlen ([Jerry] Berman)  
    John McQuade (Kellogg)  
    Ted Beniades (Sarno)  
    John Lehne (Gilbert)  
    M. Emmet Walsh (Gallagher)  
    George Ede (Daley)  
    Charles White (Delaney)  
    Judd Hirsch (Police lieutenant at hospital)  
    F. Murray Abraham (Detectice in stairwell when Serpico is shot)  
    Tracey Walter (Young man selling puppies)  
    Mary Louise Weller (Young woman selling puppies)  
    Sam Coppola (Policeman)  
    Kenneth McMillan (Desk sergeant)  

Summary: In New York City, police officer Frank Serpico, who has been shot in the face, is rushed the hospital, where Capt. Sidney Green places a twenty-four-hour-a-day guard at his door. While the doctors work to revive him, Frank, whose friends call him "Paco," thinks back to his first days on the force in the early 1960s: Upon his graduation from the police academy, Frank and his Italian-American family are thrilled. He joins a Bronx division and immediately makes waves with his brash demands and iconoclastic manner. When a rape in progress is called in, Frank hurries to respond, despite his partner’s objection that the call is not in their jurisdiction. At the scene, three men are assaulting a woman, and one warns the officers to put down their guns or he will slash her with a knife. When they flee, Frank chases one and makes the arrest. At the station, the girl recounts her ordeal quietly, after which the boy is badly beaten during his interrogation. Frank, who declines to hit the boy, later takes him out of chains and into a coffee shop to persuade him gently to confess the names of his cohorts. Frank then tracks down the other two men at a park, but because the case is officially under the supervision of a superior officer, he cannot obtain backup. Undeterred, he manages to arrest the two by himself and brings them in for booking, but is informed that the “collar” will be credited to the superior officer, as Frank is merely a patrolman. Soon, he applies to join the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, having learned that it is a handy route to earning a detective’s shield. After two years in the department, however, Frank remains an outsider, working harder than the other officers and affecting the look of the street hippies amongst whom he works in plainclothes. Despite his close family ties, he prefers his Greenwich Village apartment to their traditional life in Little Italy, where his father and brother Pasquale run a shoe repair shop. In his new neighborhood, he buys a sheepdog puppy and takes literature classes in Spanish, the language of many of the local criminals. In class he spots Leslie, who identifies herself as a dancer-singer-actress-Buddhist, and soon they are dating. Despite their growing attraction and his inclusion in her world of upscale artists, at work Frank is increasingly alienated, and when he reads the autobiography of ballet dancer Isabella Duncan, he is accused of being a homosexual by Lt. Steiger. Furious, Frank complains to the captain, and is consequently transferred to the Bronx, where his long hair and beard set him apart immediately, but his new captain, Tolkin, concurs that his appearance allows him more cover on the streets. His fellow officers, however, consider him an enigma, and during one shootout, almost kill Frank, not recognizing him as an officer. When the uniformed policeman then asks Frank if he can claim the arrest as his own, Frank agrees with great reluctance, frustrated with the incompetence and negligence all around him. At home, when Leslie threatens to marry her ex-boyfriend, Frank allows her to go. Soon after, he becomes friends with a charismatic fellow officer named Bob Blair, who has managed to move up in record time thanks to his political acumen. Frank is continually passed over for promotions, however, and one day is transferred to the 9th district. On his first day there, he receives an envelope full of cash, and not wanting to be part of the division-wide extortion, calls Blair for advice. Together they visit Blair’s friend, Inspector Kellogg, who counsels Frank over lunch that if he values his job, he will take the money quietly. Months later, Frank is dating his neighbor, a nurse named Laurie who shares his love of classical music, and struggling to gain a transfer out of the division, where he is assumed to be “on the take,” although he is donating the extorted monies to charity. At his urging, McClain moves him to the 7th division, which the captain, Palmer, vows is ethical. Working undercover there, he meets his old friend, Tom Keough, but is disappointed to learn that Keough is instrumental in the division’s extortion ring. Frank is partnered with Don Rubello, the “bagman” who collects bribe money from bookies. Despite Keough’s warning that Frank is considered by the officers to be untrustworthy because he does not take bribes, Frank refuses the monthly payout, allowing Rubello to hold his portion secretly. Although even Laurie suggests that Frank might be better off going along with the corruption, he remains steadfast and informs McClain of the goings-on. McClain passes the information on to Commissioner Delaney, but although the commissioner claims to be delighted with Frank’s integrity, nothing comes of the interaction, and Frank worries that the other officers will turn against him. He is paired with a new bagman, Alonso, a weary old-timer who once tried to quit but was threatened into staying. When Frank admits that he does not accept bribes, Alonso informs the others, and realizing the danger he is in, Frank demands that McClain introduce him to Delaney. When McClain refuses, Frank agrees to Blair’s suggestion that they go to Jerry Berman, an aide of the mayor. Although Berman is impressed and excited, he soon informs them that the mayor has declined to investigate, afraid of alienating the police force. At home, Frank rages to Laurie that the system is crooked from the top down, and fights with Blair, whom he blames for putting Frank in more danger. Soon after, his fellow officers call him to a meeting in the park, where they are furious to learn that Rubello pocketed all of Frank’s portion of the bribe money. Though Keough urges him to accept at least a token payment to prove his collusion, Frank refuses, earning their enmity. When he complains again to Laurie, paranoid and angry, she breaks down in tears, stating that she loves him but he has grown impossible to live with. One day, Frank arrests a loan shark who has been paying off the department. When he brings the man in for arrest, the loan shark scoffs at his earnestness, considering himself well protected. Despite the attempted intervention of Keough and the others, Frank throws the loan shark in jail, then in a rage brandishes the man’s record, which states that he once killed a policeman. Meeting McClain in secret, he demands to be moved and admits he spoke to the mayor’s officer. A furious McClain demands that he keep quiet, but soon the Deputy Chief Inspector calls him in to Capt. Palmer’s office to discuss his allegations. Although they are more concerned about the possible stain on the department than on fighting the corruption, they bring his complaints to the Commissioner, who agrees only to an internal investigation. Frank, who realizes that the department cannot investigate itself objectively and that only a few low-level policemen will bear the brunt of the inquiry, wants to stay uninvolved with the proceedings, so remains vague until Capt. Green takes over the case. Frank is finally won over by Green’s insistence that Frank testify and his reputation as an honest cop who has remained scrupulous despite intense pressure. At home, meanwhile, Laurie grows exhausted by his depression and fear, and leaves him, in spite of his last-minute avowal of love. During shooting practice one day, Keough warns Frank that his life is in danger. The grand jury hearing begins, during which Frank grows frustrated that the district attorney, Tauber, is not digging hard enough to convict the top players, such as Delaney and the mayor. Although Tauber insists that Frank will earn his detective’s shield for his actions, Frank declares that it is not worth his life. Soon, he is transferred to Manhattan, but refused a promotion. In the new division, he works with Lombardo, an undercover officer who admires Frank’s honesty. When they try to arrest a bookie, however, they learn that the bookies are paying off the police, and bring their discovery of the city-wide corruption to their chief, who refuses to get involved. Incensed, Frank calls Blair and, with Lombardo, they contact The New York Times , which then launches an investigation into the corruption. Frank is transferred to the Brooklyn narcotics division, where the plainclothesmen inform him that they regularly pocket tens of thousands of dollars in drug money, and warn him that if he objects, he will be killed. Soon after, he is with three other officers, tracking a drug pusher. When they finally locate the criminal, the others send Frank in first, and when Frank tries to force his way into the man’s apartment, the officers hang back, leaving him stranded. Trapped in the door, he is shot in the face. Back in the present, while Frank recovers in the hospital, the surgeon informs his parents that, although he will suffer long-term pain and hearing loss, he is stable. When Green visits, Frank requests that the guards at his door be sent home, as they distrust him, and shows Green the hate mail he receives daily. Green hands Frank his new detective’s shield, but Frank refuses it, breaking down in tears. Later, Frank testifies before the 1971 Knapp Commission, called in response to The New York Times series, stating that he hopes that his action will save future officers from banishment and reprisals, and urges the formation of an independent investigative body dealing with police corruption. After resigning from the police force, Frank moves out of his apartment and sits on the dock with his dog, waiting for a boat to take him away from New York. 

Production Company: De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company S.p.A.  
  Artists Entertainments Complex, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures Corp. (Gulf & Western Industries, Inc.)
Director: Sidney Lumet (Dir)
  Burtt Harris (Asst dir)
  Alan Hopkins (Asst dir)
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis (Pres)
  Martin Bregman (Prod)
  Roger M. Rothstein (Assoc prod)
Writer: Waldo Salt (Scr)
  Norman Wexler (Scr)
Photography: Arthur J. Ornitz (Dir of photog)
  Louis Barlia (Cam op)
  James Hovey (Asst cam)
  Willy Meyerhoff (Gaffer)
  Charles Kolb (Key grip)
Art Direction: Charles Bailey (Prod des)
  Douglas Higgins (Art dir)
Film Editor: Dede Allen (Film ed)
  Richard Marks (Co-ed)
  Ronald Roose (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: Thomas H. Wright (Set dec)
  Joe Caracciola (Prop master)
  Les Bloom (Set dresser)
  Jack Hughes (Scenic artist)
Costumes: Anna Hill Johnstone (Cost des)
  Clifford C. Capone (Ward)
Music: Mikis Theodorakis (Mus)
  Bob James (Mus arr and cond)
Sound: John J. Fitzstephens (Sd ed)
  Edward Beyer (Sd ed)
  Robert Reitano (Sd ed)
  Richard P. Cirincione (Sd ed)
  Richard Vorisek (Re-rec)
  James J. Sabat (Sd mixer)
  Robert Rogow (Boom op)
Make Up: Redge Tackley (Makeup artist)
  Phillip Leto (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Shirley Rich (Casting)
  Talent Services Associates, Inc. (Extras casting)
  Martin Danzig (Unit mgr)
  B. J. Bachman (Scr supv)
  Raymond Hartwick (Transportation gaffer)
  Cinemobile Systems, Inc. (Loc)
  Solters, Sabinson, Roskin (Prod pub)
  Shari Leibowitz (Prod secy)
MPAA Rating: R
Country: Italy and United States
Language: English

Music:
Songs:
Source Text: Based on the book Serpico by Peter Maas (New York, 1973).
Authors: Peter Maas

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Produzioni DeLaurentiis International Manufacturing Company, S.p.A. 5/12/1973 dd/mm/yyyy LP43047

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Technicolor
  Lenses/Prints: Filmed with Panavision equipment

 
Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Police
 
Subjects (Major): Alienation (Social Psychology)
  Idealism
  New York City
  Police
  Police corruption
  Frank Serpico
  Undercover operations
 
Subjects (Minor): Arrests
  Dogs
  Drug dealers
  Extortion
  Family relationships
  Grand juries
  Hearings
  Hippies
  Hospitals
  Investigations
  Italian Americans
  Marijuana
  Moustaches
  Narcotics agents
  New York City--Bronx
  New York City--Brooklyn
  New York City--Greenwich Village
  New York City--Little Italy
  The New York Times (Newspaper)
  Police brutality
  Police commissioners
  Rape
  Reporters
  Restaurants
  Romance
  Shoemakers
  Slums
  Threats
  Wounds and injuries

Note: The film ends with the following written statement: "Frank Serpico resigned from the police department on June 15, 1972. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for 'conspicuous bravery in action.' Serpico is now living somewhere in Switzerland." Most of the film's action takes place in flashback, while Serpico is recovering from his gunshot wounds. Near the end of the story, the action returns to the present as Serpico recuperates in the hospital, then testifies before the Knapp Commission. As noted in the onscreen credits, the film was shot entirely on location in New York City.
       The film, which began principal photography a year after Serpico's resignation from the police force, was based on Peter Maas's non-fiction book Serpico . According to a Var news item on 1 Nov 1972, Maas was paid $400,000 by producer Dino De Laurentiis in addition to "an active participation deal" on the film. According to a 14 Aug 1972 Publishers Weekly article, the film rights were sold to De Laurentiis more than six months prior to the Mar 1973 publication date of the book. The Var article quoted Maas as saying that he wanted to give De Laurentiis the first opportunity to buy the rights to his book because he "'had guts enough' to do 'Valachi' [ The Valachi Papers , see below, which was also based on a book by Maas] after no one else would touch it." DV and other contemporary sources variously reported the production budget for Serpico in the $2,500,000 to $3,000,000 range.
       Many contemporary sources reported that John Avildsen was originally set to direct Serpico but was replaced by Sidney Lumet in mid-Apr 1973. According to various news items, Avildsen and Laurentiis disagreed over location shooting and budget concerns. As reported in a 16 Apr 1973 DV article, Avildsen had stated that disagreements "came to a head Thursday [12 Apr]" when the producer "refused to accede to the director's demand that key scenes be photographed at Frank Serpico's actual boyhood home in Brooklyn," something that Avildsen felt was key to the realistic approach he wanted to take with the film. Producer Martin Bregman was quoted in a 9 Jan 1974 Var article as saying that Avildsen had withdrawn from the project on more than one previous occasion, but had always been asked to return prior to the mid-Apr disagreements.
       The film follows the real life story of Italian-American New York City police detective Frank Serpico (1936--) from the time he graduated from the police academy through his retirement in 1972. Although certain details, such as his marriages and other personal relationships, were altered, and some of the events that happened over the course of several years appear closer in chronology within the story than they actually were, the film remained relatively faithful to the facts. As shown in the film, Serpico testified first before a grand jury, then before the Knapp Commission, named for its chairman, Judge Whitman Knapp, who was appointed by then Mayor John Lindsay to investigate police malfeasance within the New York City Police Department. Fellow whistle-blower David Durk, who also testified before the commission, was not represented in the film, although the fictional character played by Tony Roberts, "Bob Blair," is somewhat based on Durk. According to a LAHExam article on 3 Feb 1974, some of the principals involed in the real case did not support the film's conclusion that Serpico was the sole person responsible for ending police corruption in New York City.
       As in the film, prior to his testimony before the Knapp Commission in Oct and Dec 1971, Serpico's frustration over his superiors' failure to act on the evidence of corruption he had uncovered led him to go to NYT . The first in a series of articles on police corruption in New York appeared as a 25 Apr 1970 front page story in the paper. The real life NYT reporter, David Burnham, also wrote several follow-up articles. Although Burnham is not mentioned by name in the film, it is implied that he is the reporter who telephones "Sidney Green" with the news that Serpico has been shot. In addition to NYT , New York magazine published a lengthy cover story on Serpico, "Portrait of an Honest Cop: Target for Attack," on 3 May 1971, three months after Serpico’s near fatal shooting on 3 Feb 1971. Many sources have speculated on whether or not Serpico was set up by his fellow officers on the day of the shooting, but no official charges were brought, and the film does not overtly suggest a set-up, relying instead on a sense that the policemen with Serpico were merely ambivalent about putting him in danger and subsequently coming to his aid.
       Serpico retired from the police force and moved to Switzerland. After residing in Europe for many years, he returned to Upstate New York, where he has remained active in civil liberties and police corruption issues. The testimony of Serpico, Durk and others eventually led to major changes within the department, including the resignation of Police Commissioner Frank Leary. Other members of Lindsay’s administration were also implicated in the testimony, although the mayor himself was not personally named, and he is not mentioned in the film. According to a 19 Jan 1974 New Republic article and other sources, following the release of Serpico , applicants for the qualifying exam to be a New York City police officer increased dramatically.
       Serpico marked the first producing credit for Bregman, who headed Artists Entertainments Complex, a personal management firm for star clients such as Pacino. As reported in the Var 9 Jan 1974 article, Serpico was also the first film in the star-producer partnership between Bregman and Pacino. The pair have worked together on a number of films since Serpico , including Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Scarface (1983), Sea of Love (1989) and Carlito's Way (1993). Cornelia Sharpe, who portrayed "Leslie" in the film, has been married to Bregman since the early 1970s. Actress Barbara Eda-Young, who portrayed "Laurie," made her motion picture debut in Serpico . Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Don Billett, Raleigh Bond, John Brandon, James Bulleit, Roy Cheverie, Marjorie Eliot, René Enríquez, Frank Gio, Trent Gough, Paul E. Guskin, Richard Kuss, Tony Lo Bianco, George Loros, Stephen Pearlman, Tim Pelt, William Pelt, Jaime Sánchez, Franklin Scott and Tom Signorelli.
       Serpico received excellent reviews, with most critics singling out Pacino for his performance and Lumet's direction. The picture received two Academy Award nominations, one for Pacino in the Best Actor category, and one for Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler for Best Adapted Screenplay. Serpico was the ninth highest grossing film of 1974 [although the picture opened in New York and Los Angeles for 1973 Academy Award consideration, it did not go into wide release until Feb 1974], grossing more than $14,000,000 in North America.
       The public’s fascination with Serpico has continued through the years, with newspaper and magazine articles about him appearing periodically, and an episode of the A&E cable television network’s Biography dedicated to him. Maas’s book and the subsequent film also served as the basis for a 1976 television movie, Serpico: The Deadly Tracker , starring David Birney as Serpico, and a television series, also entitled Serpico and starring Birney, that was broadcast in the 1976-77 television season. Both the television movie and the series were produced by De Laurentiis for broadcast on the NBC network. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   28 Aug 1972.   
Box Office   10 Dec 1973   p. 4648.
Daily Variety   1 Nov 1972.   
Daily Variety   28 Nov 1972.   
Daily Variety   16 Apr 1973.   
Daily Variety   3 Dec 1973   p. 2, 8.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Aug 1972.   
Hollywood Reporter   20 Mar 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   6 Jul 1973   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   28 Sep 1973   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   3 Dec 1973   p. 3, 8.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner   19 Dec 1973.   
Los Angeles Herald Examiner   3 Feb 1974.   
Los Angeles Times   16 Dec 1973   Calendar, p. 1, 48.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   12 Dec 1973.   
New Republic   19 Jan 1974.   
New York Times   6 Dec 1973   p. 61.
New York Times   16 Dec 1973   Section II, p. 3.
New York Times   6 Jan 1974   Section II, p. 16.
New York   10 Dec 1973   p. 93.
New Yorker   17 Dec 1973.   
Newsweek   17 Dec 1973   p. 91.
Publishers Weekly   14 Aug 1972.   
Variety   1 Nov 1972.   
Variety   5 Dec 1973   p. 20.
Variety   9 Jan 1974.   

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