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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Serpico is a 1973 biographical-crime film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino. The screenplay was adapted by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler from the book of the same name written by Peter Maas with the assistance of its subject, Frank Serpico. The story details Serpico's struggle with corruption within the New York City Police Department during his eleven years of service, and his work as a whistleblower that led to the investigation by the Knapp Commission.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the rights from Maas. Agent Martin Bregman joined the film as co-producer. Bregman suggested Pacino for the main part, and John G. Avildsen was hired to direct the film. Pacino met with Serpico to prepare for the role early in the summer of 1973. After Avildsen was dismissed, Lumet was hired as his replacement. On a short notice, he selected the shooting locations and organized the scenes; the production was filmed in July and August.

Upon its release, Serpico became a critical and commercial success. At the same time, the film drew criticism from police officers. It received nominations for the Academy Awards and BAFTA Awards. Pacino earned the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, while Salt and Wexler received the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.


NYPD Officer Frank Serpico is rushed to the hospital, having been shot in the face. Chief Sidney Green fears Serpico may have been shot by another cop. In a flashback, Serpico graduates from the police academy, and he becomes frustrated with his fellow officers' laxness. On patrol, he confronts three men raping a woman and apprehends one of the assailants. When the suspect is beaten during interrogation, Serpico declines to participate. He later persuades the suspect to give up the others. Serpico breaks protocol to arrest the suspect himself, but is coerced not to take credit. He is then assigned to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He moves to Greenwich Village and begins dating Leslie, a woman in his Spanish class. For his appearance, interests and a misunderstanding in the men's bathroom, he is accused of being homosexual. Serpico clarifies the situation to Captain McLain, and he requests a transfer.

At his new precinct, Serpico works in plain clothes. While chasing a burglar, he is nearly shot when other officers fail to recognize him. Serpico later befriends Bob Blair, who has been assigned to the Mayor's Office of Investigations. Meanwhile, Leslie leaves Serpico to marry another man in Texas. Serpico is offered a bribe and informs Blair, who arranges a meeting with a high-ranking investigator. He is told that he must either testify or “forget it”. He turns the bribe over to his sergeant. Serpico then requests a transfer, and begins recording his phone calls. At the time, he begins a romance with his neighbor, Laurie.

He is reassigned to the 7th Division, but he immediately discovers corruption. Forced to accompany fellow plainclothes officers as they perpetrate violence, extortion, and collect payoffs, he refuses to accept his share of the money. He informs McLain, who assures him that the police commissioner wants him to continue gathering evidence, and that he will be contacted by the chief's office. Serpico becomes impatient waiting for the promised contact, fearing for his life. Serpico and Blair go to the mayor's assistant, who promises a real investigation and support. Their efforts are stymied by political pressure, and Serpico dismisses Blair's suggestion to go to other officials or the press.

Serpico's colleagues try to convince him to take the payoff money, but he declines. The strain takes a toll on him, and his relationship with Laurie. When Serpico discovers a suspect he arrested receiving special treatment, he brutalizes the man, who reveals he served fifteen years for killing a cop. Frustrated after a year-and-a-half of inaction, Serpico informs McLain that he has gone to outside agencies with his allegations. In front of the squad, Serpico is sent to meet with division inspectors, who explain that his charges never made it up the chain of command. The inspectors inform the commissioner, who orders them to investigate the division themselves, and acknowledges that McLain told him of the allegations.

As the investigation proceeds, Serpico is threatened by the squad, and Laurie leaves him. The district attorney leads Serpico to believe that if he testifies in a grand jury, a major investigation into rampant department corruption will happen. During the grand jury, he is prevented by the DA from answering questions that point up the chain of command. Serpico becomes more frustrated. Knowing his life is in danger, he, Blair, and an honest division commander go to The New York Times. After his allegations are printed, he is reassigned to a dangerous narcotics squad in Brooklyn, where he finds even greater corruption.

During a drug arrest, Serpico is shot in the face when his backup fails to act. He recovers, though with lifelong effects from his wound. Serpico receives a detective's gold shield. He then testifies before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into NYPD police corruption. An epilogue reveals that he resigned from the NYPD on June 15, 1972, and that he was later awarded the NYPD Medal of Honor for "conspicuous bravery in action". Its conclusion states that he moved to Switzerland.


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Serpico" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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