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Sunday, November 11, 2007

American Gangster & Serpico

- Crowe as Roberts

Today when my sister dropped by, she told me about a movie she had just seen - American Gangster - directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washinton and Russell Crowe. It's based on the true story of real-life drug lord Frank Lucas, who made millions in the late 60s and early 70s in New York City by selling heroine he imported directly from Vietnam, smuggled through customs in the coffins of dead US soldiers. The story is also about real-life police detective Richie Roberts who not only brought him to justice, but with his help revealed major corruption in the New York City police department. It sounds like a very good movie and if you want to read more about it, try Roger Ebert's review.

As my sister told me about the movie, my thoughts turned to a similar film of a real-life cop in New York who blew the whistle on corruption - one I liked very much - Serpico. Here's the New Your Times review of the movie ...


Early in 1970, two New York City police officers, Detective Frank Serpico and Sergeant David Durk, put their careers and their lives on the line. After getting the runaround for months from their superiors, who preferred not to listen, they called on David Burnham, a reporter for The New York Times, to tell him their story of graft and corruption within the Police Department.

Detective Serpico and Sergeant Durk had places, dates, and names, information that, when published, prompted Mayor Lindsay to appoint the Knapp Commission to investigate the charges, leading eventually to the biggest shake-up in the Police Department's history.

In his book Serpico, published this year, Peter Maas recalls this story exclusively from the point of view of Detective Serpico, the bearded, bead-wearing, so-called hippie cop who, in February 1971, under circumstances that were puzzling, was shot in the face and critically wounded while attempting to make a narcotics arrest. When he recovered, Detective Serpico resigned from the department, exhausted and fearing for his life. Today he reportedly lives abroad, the bullet fragments still lodged a few centimeters below his brain.

Sidney Lumet's Serpico, which opened yesterday at the Baronet and Forum Theaters, is a galvanizing and disquieting film adapted from the Maas book by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler. It is galvanizing because of Al Pacino's splendid performance in the title role and because of the tremendous intensity that Mr. Lumet brings to this sort of subject. The method—sudden contrasts in tempo, lighting, sound level—seems almost crude, but it reflects the quality of Detective Serpico's outrage, which, in our society, comes to look like an obsession bordering on madness.

The film is limited only by its form, which carries the limitations of the Maas book one step further. Only Detective Serpico and Mr. Burnham are identified by real names. Everyone else has a fictitious name, in consideration, I suppose, of potential suits for libel and invasion of privacy. I assume the filmmakers may also have been hampered by other people's consideration of personal gain. Why should a man give a movie company the rights to his life if he's likely to wind up playing a supporting role in someone else's film?

The use of fictitious names is not in itself disquieting, only the suspicion that we are getting the truth—but sort of. One must suspect that Sergeant Durk played a much more important part in the Serpico story than is played by the character named Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) in the film.

The form also prevents Mr. Lumet and the screenwriters from much speculation about the motives that sustained Detective Serpico and made him the one officer in the precinct who refused even free meals, much less thousands of dollars in monthly payoffs from gamblers and numbers racketeers.

Detective Serpico is a driven character of Dostoyevskian proportions, an anti-cop cop. It's no accident, I suspect, that he has a great fondness for wild disguises, and that in his private life he adopts the look and manner of a flower child's vision of Christ.

Mr. Lumet and Mr. Pacino manage to suggest such a lot of things about Detective Serpico that one wishes they could have enjoyed even greater freedom in exploring the character of this unusual man who, like the worker priests in France, tried to change the system by working within it.

Serpico was photographed (by cameraman Arthur J. Ornitz) entirely in New York, a city that Mr. Lumet knows better than any other director working today. He also knows actors and has surrounded Mr. Pacino with a fine cast of supporting players of whom John Randolph, as an okay Bronx police captain, is the most prominent.

Aside from a couple of romantic interludes that threaten to bring things to a halt, the only major fault of the film is the absolutely terrible soundtrack score by Mikis Theodorakis. It is redundant and dumb, the way English subtitles might be.

If you can stop up your ears to this musical nonsense, which includes Neapolitan street airs whenever Detective Serpico's Italian immigrant parents threaten to appear, you should find the film most provocative, a remarkable record of one man's rebellion against the sort of sleaziness and second-rateness that has affected so much American life, from the ingredients of its hamburgers to the ethics of its civil servants and politicians.


- Pacino as Serpico


Blogger cowboyangel said...

Serpico was great. You know, I should go back and watch it again. Haven't seen it in like 20 years.

Funny comments about the music in it.

I want to see American Gangster. Though I can have mixed feelings about Ridley Scott. (I keep reminding myself: "He did Blade Runner, dude. Blade Runner!")

7:50 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Hey, good to see your posts again. You've been cranking them out this week. I'm way behind. I hope that means you're feeling a little better?

And did you get my chapbook?

7:52 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

It seems like I've been watching a lot of older movies lately. Netflix has a good selection and it can take a long time to get the newer movies, so I've been looking back. Some hold up pretty well - this week I'm watching Mary Queen of Scots and the production values are still good.

Better Ridley Scot than Tony Scot :-)

I'm up and down. Poating stuff is cathartic so it helps.

Yes, got the book - thanks! :-)

11:28 AM  
Blogger Larry Clayton said...

Hi, Crystal; glad you still blogging. I haven't seen the movie, but one of my favorites is A Beautiful Mind. That's the only Crowe I've come across, not many movies for us, except the old timey ones on TCM.

God bless you, my friend.

9:47 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Larry :-)

It's good to hear from you! I saw that movie too (A Beautiful Mind) and liked it very much. Most of Crowe's movies are pretty good, I think.

God bless you too.

11:08 AM  

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