Serpico (1973)

(In French, On Cable TV, February 2018) As I watch more and more movies from the sixties and seventies, it seems to me that the characteristic grittiness of the seventies was as much of a reaction to the breakdown of the Hayes Code (and associated social conventions) as anything else. Suddenly free to show the world is as much unpleasant detail and harsh language as they wanted, filmmakers went far overboard and the result speaks for itself. (The tendency corrected itself in the late seventies with the rise of the audience-friendly blockbuster, but that’s a thesis best discussed elsewhere.) Serpico clearly redrew the classic template for most undercover-cop movies, delving deep into matters of police corruption through the eyes of an idealistic young police officer played by the explosive Al Pacino. (Sadly, the worst consequence of catching the film on a French channel is losing Pacino’s distinctive voice.)  The film feels grimy and ugly, set during New York’s increasingly desperate period and reflecting the exploitative atmosphere of the time’s films. It’s still rather good, but some of the atmosphere can feel overdone at times. Pacino himself is very likable, which helps in navigating the bleak moral landscape of a police force thoroughly corrupted by a culture of graft and payouts. It’s not quite as violent as expected, but the atmosphere does help in creating an atmosphere in which the worst can always be expected. Sidney Lumet’s direction is solid enough that the film only feels a bit too long today—and much of that length is due to sequences that have been redone so often that they feel like clichés today. It may not pleasant, but there is an undeniable atmosphere to Serpico that still resonates.

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