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Film: Serpico
"It's my life you fuck!"
Frank Serpico

This 1973 film directed by Sidney Lumet is based on the non-fiction novel by Peter Maas. Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is an idealistic New York City Cop who dreams of becoming a detective. In order to qualify for the famous 'gold shield' he joins the Plainclothes Division, where Serpico's tendency to dress like a hippy — and refusal to take bribes — earn first the bewilderment, and later the active hostility, of his police colleagues. Equally disturbed by the corruption that surrounds him, Serpico keeps trying to inform his superiors of the situation, but all are reluctant to open a can of worms that could jeopardize their own careers or alienate their fellow officers. Eventually Serpico is forced to go public — an action that puts his life in danger from those who are sworn to serve and protect.

The Real Life Frank Serpico has said of Al Pacino's performance "Pacino played [me] better than I did."


This film provides examples of:

  • All Crimes Are Equal: In the novel Serpico arrested a cop who tried to shake down his brother for a $2 bribe. Later another cop is furious, asking "How could you do that to a cop over a lousy $2?" Serpico replied "Just because it's only $2, that makes it right?"
  • Badass Beard: Serpico grows a very impressive one halfway through the movie, becoming a virtual trope setter for future undercover cops both in fiction and real life.
  • Big Applesauce
  • The Big Rotten Apple
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Serpico's efforts against corruption are a complete failure until he goes to the press.
  • Dirty Cop: Both inverted and played straight.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Played straight. A rapist is beaten up by the detectives and doesn't talk; Serpico tries a softer approach afterwards and gets the names of the other criminals. Then after arresting them, Serpico is threatened with a reprimand for not having his notebook written up, unless he allows the detectives to claim the arrests.
  • Handsome Lech: Played down in the movie; the real Serpico has been married and divorced four times.
  • Heroic BSOD: Serpico has been told an investigation is "ongoing", but no-one appears to be doing anything while his fellow officers are becoming increasingly suspicious. Serpico then finds himself getting into shouting matches with his Love Interest who eventually breaks up with him.
  • Holier Than Thou: Serpico approaches a staunchly Christian superior in the belief that he will be shocked by his allegations and do something about it. He turns out to be worse than useless, getting Serpico's hopes up by claiming to have gone directly to the police commissioner, and then when nothing happens revealing Serpico's allegations to the precinct captain of the department that Serpico has already told him is entirely corrupt.
  • Irony: The police department only launches a belated investigation into Serpico's allegations after he reveals that he's been to "outside agencies". The truth is those agencies are just as reluctant to investigate the matter as the NYPD.
    • Further irony in the fact that they refuse to actually do something until Serpico leaks the story to the newspapers, as opposed to preventing him from talking to the papers by investigating.
    • Serpico wants to become a gold shield detective, but can't get in because it's assumed that all plainclothes detectives are corrupt. By the time he does get his gold shield, Serpico no longer cares as it's just a political move after he's shot in the line of duty.
  • Knight in Sour Armor
  • MAD: Supercool.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title
  • More Dakka: Serpico buys a 9mm Browning Hi-Power (13 + 1 rounds) when he thinks his life is in danger from his fellow officers.
    "Are you expecting an army?"
    "No, just a Division."
  • New York City Cops
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The movie changed the name of the police officers accused in the book.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Serpico's efforts to both fight crime and get something done about police corruption are hampered by petty regulations, and his superiors who are more interested in maintaining the image of the department than getting to grips with the problem.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: The plainclothes officers dress in polished shoes and short haircuts, making it obvious that they're cops. Serpico tries to avert the trope by dressing like a hippy.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: After years of superiors who regard him as an embarrassment, Serpico finally meets a precinct captain who genuinely admires him. The two team up to fight crime, but find their own precinct also has a corrupt network and the brass are still reluctant to do anything.
  • The Seventies
  • The Stool Pigeon: A heroic whistleblower to the outside world, but a rat to his colleagues for breaking the code of silence.
  • Unfriendly Fire: One of Serpico's fellow officers pleads with him to drop his corruption allegations because his life will be in danger. "They don't even have to shoot you. They just have to not be there when you need them." This is played out when Serpico is caught by a closing door during a drug bust, and his police colleagues don't do anything until after he's shot.
  • Treachery Cover Up: Serpico is repeatedly told that the NYPD "cleans its own laundry"; instead corrupt officers are just transferred so they will be someone else's problem. Moreover corruption is so widespread the officers can simply join another corrupt network in the unit they've been transferred to.

School of RockCreator/ParamountSeven Days in May

alternative title(s): Serpico
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