Sidney Lumet’s ‘Serpico’: One Honest Man’s Struggle Against the System

Sidney Lumet with Al Pacino on the set of Serpico. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features © Artists Entertainment Complex, Produzioni De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company, Paramount Pictures


By Sven Mikulec

The legend has it, when Al Pacino asked Frank Serpico why he had blown the whistle on New York police corruption, Serpico replied, “If I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?” Having joined the force in 1959, Serpico worked dedicatedly for 12 years, constantly dealing with the burden of knowing that a large part of the police force was dirty. When he finally decided he was done with it and spoke to his superiors, he was forced to endure a lot of harassment from his fellow officers, culminating in a suspicious, some claim police-orchestrated shooting in the face during a drug bust. Disillusioned, Serpico flew to Switzerland, and returned to the States only in 1980. But his story soon made the headlines and reached a much wider audience that he could have initially imagined. Sidney Lumet’s Serpico was both a critical and a box office hit, torpedoing Al Pacino to full stardom. He was already well-known for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, but Serpico was where he bloomed in all his passion and glory, carrying the film on his shoulders and giving the unmatchable performance of a driven, passionate and above all complex human being. At that time, Martin Bregman was a capable manager, representing a variety of people from the film industry, but he wanted to jump into the producing swimming pool. Having heard about Peter Maas and his book ‘Serpico,’ Bregman decided it was going to be his first producing gig, and immediately settled on acquiring the services of Pacino for the crucial part. Waldo Salt was hired as a screenwriter, and Norman Wexler soon joined the project with the mission of shortening the script and cleaning up its structure. Sidney Lumet reached the director’s chair only after filmmaker John G. Avildsen left the project because of some differences he had with Bregman. Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz was behind the camera, the legendary editor Dorothea ‘Dede’ Allen was hired, and Michael ‘Mikis’ Theodorakis provided the music. All the pieces were finally together, with all the right ingredients necessary for a true film classic.

The air of realism was especially important for Lumet, which is why he cast practically anonymous character actors alongside Pacino, so the audience wouldn’t get distracted and could ‘buy’ the story in its full capacity. The desire to make the movie seem as authentic as possible also drove Lumet to shoot Serpico on 110 different New York City locations. Even though the producer was warned it was not a good time to make a police drama, since there had been an abundance of low quality police flicks in the preceding years, it seems the audience was swept away. One of the main reasons Serpico was greeted so enthusiastically is precisely the time of its release. The United States was plagued by the Watergate scandal, a punch in the face that left a lot of Americans with the need to reexamine themselves and their faith in the government and the rule of law. It’s not difficult to imagine why a story of an honest, dedicated police officer rising against the corrupt system would ring inspiring to an average moviegoer. Serpico is still one of the most impressive performances of one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, a detailed character study only conveniently shaped in the format of a gripping police drama, and a masterfully executed film with a theme that’s still as relevant and stirring as it was in the seventies.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler’s screenplay for Serpico [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“I read the treatment and thought, another cop picture. Then Waldo Salt came over with a screenplay that I could relate to and I was there. Then I met Frank Serpico. The moment I shook his hand and looked into his eyes, I understood what that movie could be. I thought there was something there that I could play. I went out with the cops one night, did about five minutes of that and said, ‘I can’t do this stuff.’ So I would just sort of hang around Frank, long enough to sort of feel him. One time we were out at my rented beach house in Montauk. We were sitting there looking at the water. And I thought, well I might as well be like everybody and ask a silly question, which was, ‘Why Frank? Why did you do it?’ He said, ‘Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?’ I mean, what a way of putting it! That’s the kind of guy he was. I enjoyed being with him. There was mischief in his eyes.” —Al Pacino, the Playboy Interview


Serpico may be the quintessential Sidney Lumet film. A gritty blend of urban realism, character study, and concise storytelling, Serpico is also a great New York City film that makes expressive use of its numerous locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Al Pacino gives a riveting performance as the idealistic yet eccentric New York City cop who exposed corruption in the police department. Lumet’s engaging, unpretentious style is on full display in this wide-ranging discussion, which took place following a special screening of a new print of Serpico, just a few months after Lumet received an Honorary Academy Award [MP3, transcript]. Courtesy of the Pinewood Dialogues, Moving Image Source.

Did you meet the real Serpico? What was that like?
LUMET: Yes. I met Frank, and, he’s a fascinating guy. I always had a feeling about him. I don’t know, Al and I talked about it; I don’t know whether Al agreed with me. I always felt he was a rebel, period. That he would’ve behaved that way if he’d been a baker. (Laughter) That anybody above him was his automatic enemy. Thank God he was in the work that he was. But you know, again, Bob Leuci said a fascinating thing that—I believe it’s true, because Bob said it, and I believe him. Speaking of corruption, he said, “At any given moment, five percent of the police force is hopelessly corrupt; five percent will never be corrupt; and the other ninety percent will go by the atmosphere in the department.” And by that he meant, who’s police commissioner. Starting with that, and filtering down. And I always thought that was fascinating, because as it applied to Serpico’s situation, it was a terrible time. I mean, something like the Knapp Commission was not reported lightly—it was not organized lightly. Nor did they function lightly. And of course, nor were there any results. You know, for three years people kept their noses clean, but that was about it.

What about for you? I mean, what about making a film? That seems like an act of courage, too, to be making a film.
They love it! (Laughter) Everybody wants to be in the movies. I think they all want to direct. No, it was amazing, because, on this movie, I was shooting in precincts, working precincts, working hospitals. And not only no problem, loads of help, in every way. And you know, between this and Prince of the City and Dog Day and so on, people said, “Oh, you’ve done so many anti-cop movies.” The fascinating thing I found is that they don’t think they’re anti-cop. They not only like them, they feel terrific about them because, as they’ve said to me over and over again, “That’s the way it is, that’s the way it really is.” Because I’m careful not to make it melodramatic. I don’t over-dramatize it; I don’t put a score in with crashes and things. And they understand that. Serpico never ratted out any friends, because he didn’t have any friends. (Laughter) But Leuci ratted out the guys that he worked with for seven years.

You said in your book that you’re sort of ambivalent about the character, somebody who was such a pain-in-the-ass and always kvetching—this is the character Pacino played—but that Pacino made you love the character. And you sort of showed his odd eccentric side at the same time.
His eccentric side and his pain-in-the-ass side. It was very sad, because Al hung around with him for about a month, before we started shooting. And I came on the picture late, I replaced another director. So I only had five weeks of preparation. No locations had been picked, nothing had been done. But I knew one thing. I said to Al, “You know, Al, don’t get too close to him. Because he’s going.” And Al said, “What do you think?” I said—“you’re going to get whacked, with him watching from the sidelines?” And of course, he saw the point of that. And when I told Frank, I said, “Frank, I can’t have you there during the shooting, or the rehearsals. It would just make everybody, including Al, so selfconscious. And I broke his heart. He walked away. He hasn’t talked to me since.

Oh really. So you never got his reaction to the movie?
No, I was there when he saw it. I figured I owed him that much. And, he liked it.

One of the things that really gains over time is the portrait of the city itself, the locations. You’re everywhere in the city in this film. You’re in Queens, right nearby in Astoria; you’re in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan. Could you talk a bit about the location scouting and working in New York?
You know, you decide when you’re starting a picture, not only what it’s going to be about, but the way you want to tell that story, which is a very simple way of that terribly complicated word they keep using called “style.” Style is: how do you want to tell the story? The great thing about New York is that it allows you—staying totally on location, without even going into a studio—to pick any style you want. The city is capable of so many different feelings, so many different moods, so many different statements. Even today, I’ve got seven hundred locations up here that I’ve never used.

What’s the location scouting process like? Do you…
Boring. (Laughter) You drive around in the car, and you go to this block and this block, “Stop here.” Get out, look, make a note of it. Back in the car and, you know, it really is boring. Except. Except that it’s exciting when you start getting the accumulation of what you’ve looked at. There’s a point in a picture, when you’re working on it, where you want—you hope—it doesn’t always happen, by any means—you hope it’s going to start telling you. And one of the terrific things about location looking is when it tells you. If I have to change things, I just go onto another location. I don’t want to change it, I want what’s there to work for me. In almost every instance, any location I’ve wound up with allowed me to do more than I had in mind originally, gave me more than I thought of.

And I guess this goes also for costume. I don’t know how much you remember the selection of costumes or hats, but it’s a great part of this film. And you’ve talked about the importance of costuming for an actor to find his character.
Anna Hill Johnstone—who did this movie, and so many of my movies until she retired—one of the joys of her was she also had the ability to accomplish the style of the movie, without you ever seeing the style taking place. Thank God it runs a long time, so you never see the style taking place, because it changes over the time of the movie. But there, for example, after long discussions, Anna Hill came up with an incredible solution. And I’m thrilled that nobody has ever noticed it, which is that as we get into the further and further courtroom scenes, people appear blacker and blacker and blacker; the clothes all get darker, until finally in one courtroom scene, everybody’s in black. Except you never see it happen.

It struck me that the lighting also gets—that you use shadows more throughout the film.
Well, there’s a limit to your control on location. Interiors, you can do whatever you want, but on exteriors, obviously, it’s going to be dictated by sun or no sun and so on. There was no deliberate attempt to do that in the picture. There was an attempt, as you can see with Al, to get him darker and darker.

You’ve made three films with Dede Allen; I just want to ask about working with her. She’s a brilliant, brilliant editor. You did Dog Day Afternoon and The Wiz with her.
Well, what’s there to say about Dede?

And I’m assuming you’re very involved in the cutting process. I’m assuming you’re very involved with every part.
They can’t take the sticks off without me being there. (Laughter) But Dede is something else. You know, it’s fascinating. I don’t know how many of you are film students or get the more esoteric magazines and so on. People are always talking about editing. There’re only three people who know whether a movie is well edited or not: the director, the cameraman and the editor. Nobody else knows. Because it can look wonderfully edited, but God knows what was left on the floor; it can look terribly edited, but it was shot so badly that it’s a miracle that the story even makes sense. (Laughter) So you can’t know that. I remember once—I’ve forgotten what picture I did—a review came out, and talked at great length about Dede’s editing, and that they could see “The Dede Allen Style of Editing.” Well, the person who would’ve thrown herself off the Empire State Building would’ve been Dede, because she prided herself in becoming the editor that that particular director wanted. She worked totally different[ly] with George Roy Hill than she did with me. She worked totally different[ly] with Warren Beatty than she did with either of us. She became whatever the picture and the director were. And where she was brilliant was that if I had an image of the way I felt the scene should be edited, she could recreate my intention better than what I had. But it was my intention that she divined. It wasn’t out of left field, or something that she wanted to get into the movie. She saw what I was after, and she could get it better than I could, which is pretty hard.

How much of that work had to do with performances, looking at different takes and picking best performances or with more structural things?
Well, the selection of which take for a performance happens very early. We’ll sit in the rushes, and Dede will be sitting next to me, and we see the two takes or three takes that we’ve printed, and I’ll say, “Take one, take three,” you know. And that’ll be the selection. And the only reason we’ll ever change it is for a technical reason.

There’s been a lot of talk now, looking back, about the 1970s, and this period in the early seventies being a golden age, a very amazing moment in filmmaking. And as somebody who’s worked from the fifties till now, do you see it that way? Were you able to make more provocative, interesting films? Was there an openness in this early seventies period?
I don’t think so. It seemed to me that the same crap went on then as does now. (Laughter) The problem now is a very serious one, which is that it’s all corporate, that every studio is owned by something so much bigger than the studio. It’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it, that Columbia Pictures has rescued the Sony Corporation? Sony Pictures of that year provided the profit margin for Sony, which was losing money, with all of its iPods and whatever they do, their television sets. In fact, by now, after the sale of armaments, the biggest factor in the balance of payments in the United States is entertainment: armaments, number one; entertainment, number two. That means books, records, movies, DVDs, et cetera. But that’s how enormous it is now. That today, that a picture can gross—one picture—can gross a billion dollars: as the guy said in the movie, “That’s serious money.” (Laughter)

Well, one of the things that is said about the seventies is that there became a point when Hollywood really started looking for blockbuster movies. Do you feel that Hollywood was able to make more modest films before that?
Not at all. People’s memories are short. As you may know, the terms under which a picture plays in a theater or with a theater chain are all negotiable, always. It can vary everywhere from the studio getting ten percent and the theater getting ninety, to the studio getting ninety and the theater getting ten percent. And all of that’s open to negotiation, on every picture. So that for example, when I was growing up, when I was a kid, if you wanted your picture to play Radio City Music Hall at Christmas, they got ninety percent; you got ten—because they didn’t need your picture! They had the Rockettes. (Laughter) No, this is serious. And what it did give you was it gave you advertising over the rest of the country, “As seen in Radio City Music Hall.” But the theater itself was that powerful a factor in the release and the distribution of a movie. So the chaos today in exhibition is no worse than it always was. I went to see Capote the other day and in an eight-theater complex, it was playing in four of the theaters. You could see the picture ever half-hour, (Laughter) which was wonderful. But, that’s rough on the other pictures.

What was Dino De Laurentiis like as a producer?
Oh, ah. Great affection for him. He was gonif, and he was charming; and had great taste; was a good cook; and loved movies, loved movies. We had a terrific time on the movie, up until I’d finished it. I didn’t want any music for the movie. And I did not, in those days, have final cut. Dino wanted music, and I knew that if I didn’t do something about this, he’d take it back to Italy and Nino Rota would lay in a score like wall-to-wall carpeting. (Laughter) I found out by sheer accident that a wonderful composer and a great political activist by the name of [Mikis] Theodorakis, a Greek composer, had just gotten out of jail. The Greek government at that time was pretty much a fascist government, and he had served over a year in jail. And so I figured, well, what the hell, he has got to need money. (Laughter) And I found him in Paris, twenty-four hours after he got out. He left Greece right away. And I found him in Paris, and I told him the truth. I said, “Mikis, I don’t think the picture needs a score, but I’m terrified of what happens if I don’t put one in, because then Dino will put one in. And I thought this could be marvelous for you, because I know what’s in the budget and you could pick yourself up a fast seventy-five thousand bucks here.” And he said, “I’m taking the next plane.” (Laughter) And he arrived in New York the next day; his plane was late. I was waiting for him up at Technicolor, in the screening room; he arrived about two a.m. We ran the movie. He loved it. He said, “You’re absolutely right, it shouldn’t have music… however…” (I was hustling him, and he was hustling me at the same time. He was charming.) (Laughter) From his pocket, he took out a cassette. He said, “Many years ago, I wrote a little thing that might be right for the movie.” (Laughter) And I said, “Oh, great, great, great.” He said, “But there’s a problem. I wasn’t expecting this movie, and so I’ve arranged to make a tour in America with a small Greek orchestra, and we’re going to be gone for about four months.” He said, “So I won’t be able to be with you in the cutting room. I won’t be able to sit—” what we call a ‘spotting session,’ which is where we sit at the movieola and we go through the movie, and I say, “We should have music here,” and he says, “I’d like to try something here,” et cetera. We call that ‘spotting.’ He said, “So I can’t do a spotting session because I’m leaving the day after tomorrow… and I can’t be at the recording session…” In other words, he was going to—that was it. (Laughter) And I was charmed by it, and I said to him, “I don’t think you know him, Mikis, but we have a wonderful arranger here by the name of Bob James. He’s basically a jazz pianist, a brilliant musician. And I know he’d be honored to work with you. So I can do the spotting session with Bob, and as he does his arrangements, I’m sure Dino would be happy to fly him out to whatever city you’re in with your band, and…” He was also a great pianist, James, “And he’ll—I’m sure—play the arrangements, and you…” See, and that was the way we worked it out. The reason I wanted Theodorakis so badly was, number one, he had just come off a tremendous hit on the Jules Dassin picture Never on Sunday, (Hums the tune) that was his; and I knew that he had great panache in Europe, a solid left-winger, and served a jail sentence; (Laughter) and I knew that Dino would be so flattered that he would do this picture. And as you see, I think there’s about fourteen minutes of music in the whole movie. —A Pinewood Dialogue with Sidney Lumet



Another treat to devour as soon as possible: take a look at this rare article from Filmmakers Newsletter published in February, 1974. This marvelous issue contains interviews with associate producer Roger Rothstein and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz, who offer delightful insights into what it took to make Serpico, what it was like to work with Lumet, why Pacino was vital for making the film work, and many more. Enjoy!


As an NYPD officer in the late 60s and early 70s, Frank Serpico blew the whistle on the corruption and payoffs running rampant in the department, was shot in the face during a drug arrest, and most famously became the subject of Sidney Lumet’s classic film Serpico. Forty-plus years later, Serpico talks about his Southern Italian roots and upbringing, his time as an undercover officer, and his post-NYPD life in Europe and ultimately upstate New York. Adding their own recollections are his fellow officers, childhood friends, his West Side neighbors, and his admirers such as writer Luc Sante and actor John Turturro. With unprecedented access to its subject and augmented by original music by Jack White and an original score by Brendan Canty of Fugazi, Antonino D’Ambrosio creates a memorable, powerful portrait of an always-committed public servant who still walks the walk in his very own unique way.


Legendary director Sidney Lumet, who helmed 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, among other films, talks about directing, working with Paul Newman, and making movies in New York.


Sidney Lumet shares his book, ‘Making Movies,’ about the technique and job of filmmaking.



Film legend Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) tells his own story in a never-before-seen interview shot in 2008. With candor, humor and grace, Lumet reveals what matters to him as an artist and as a human being. The documentary features clips from Lumet’s films—44 films made in 50 years—including Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Peabody and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski combines these elements to create a portrait of one of the most accomplished, influential and socially conscious directors in the history of cinema. By Sydney Lumet reveals the spiritual and ethical lessons at the core of his work. First and foremost a storyteller, Lumet’s strongly moral tales capture the dilemmas and concerns of a society struggling with essentials: how does one behave to others and to oneself?


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s Serpico © Artists Entertainment Complex, Produzioni De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company, Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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