Wednesday, November 27, 2013

It's Back . . .

Hey, folks. Welcome back to RIDING THE WHIRLWIND following a longer-than-was-probably-necessary absence. Also back? The long awaited-return (with modifications) of the Netflix Pick of the Week, or as it now known, the STREAMING PICK OF THE WEEK.

With Netflix seeming to discard more and more of its film selections every day, a Netflix Pick of the Week felt awfully limiting. So now, I will be taking advantage of my Hulu Plus subscription to expand the confines of the feature, as well as taking into account that which can be found streaming on Amazon, YouTube, or other such services.

With that having been said, my next recommendation CAN be found on Netflix Instant Watch.

And that film is 1973's SERPICO.

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Serpico is an odd mutt of a film. 

It tells the story of Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino in an early performance, a New York City police officer who slowly rises up through the ranks of the NYPD only to find institutional corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, and downright brutality all around him. He finds himself increasingly unable to stand by while witnessing the abuses of power taken on behalf of his fellow officers, and in doing so, places himself face-to-face from powerful and seemingly unbeatable forces.

Is it a cop movie? Well, yes, I suppose. By any objective definition it is a cop movie. The main character is a police officer and most of the people he interacts with are other police officers or criminals. But it lacks the typical cop movie goals or structures. There is no big case to crack, no mystery to solve, unless that mystery is "How can Frank Serpico do his duty as a peace officer when everyone around him is corrupt?" 

Is it a biopic? Yes. By telling the true story of twelve years in the life of a real person the film should mark it as a biopic by any standard, but Serpico, directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet eschews the traditional rhythms and structures of the biopic in favor of a shaggy-dog almost Altman-esque vibe that initially provokes reactions of "Where are you going with this?" before one becomes used to and appreciative of the film's moody ambience. The thrust film's central plotline (Frank vs. corruption) does not even become clear until well into Serpico's 2 hour, 10 minute runtime.

What are the pleasures of Serpico? Plenty.

I won't be turning any heads, or shattering any firmly-planted monocles by saying this, but Sidney Lumet knew how to film New York City. The whole film is awash in the feel of the Old New York City, with its encounters in ethnic enclaves, its graffiti-coated walls, and its cold, rusted bridges and tenements. In fact, it looks rather like the Scorsese's contemporaneous Taxi Driver with that film's apocalyptic madman vision replaced with a journalist's eye for realism and the "big picture." One scene that has always stuck with me in particular is a conversation between Pacino and Tony Roberts' sympathetic cop that occurs on a spraypaint-splattered subway platform, where Lumet, along with director of photography Arthur J. Ornitz, using very few takes, allows the scene to play out in a subtle and naturalistic way that allows the viewer to take in either (or both) the dialogue between Pacino and Roberts, and the pre-gentrified urban environment that surrounds them.

The movie is absent of big stars, other than Pacino, instead utilizing a large cast of character actors whose beaten or besotted Irish and Italian faces form as much of the cityscape as the cabs and bodegas, while serving as the all-too-human gargoyles that watch over Serpico during his descent into a corrupt hell and his attempts to redeem and entire police force. 

Pacino's performance reminds one of a time when it was the highpoint of a film when he began yelling and showing his anger, and not a seemingly contract-necessitated standby. He successfully demonstrates Frank Serpico's moral indignation and slowly-building frustration by hiding it for most of the film, allowing Serpico's external front as a 'go-along' beta male to project most clearly while subtly portraying the anger behind the eyes. And as the film goes on, that facade is slowly chipped away to reveal, at the end of the film, a man who has been both broken and emboldened by his experiences, as the compliant man turns to a man of passion.

The music, by Mikis Theodorakis, is an unusual element of the film, but one that I think works to the film's unlikely benefit. The Greek composer uses an sweeping, almost operatic score to lend a heroic air to the proceedings, one that almost could subvert the film's realist tone, but instead provides, at first, an ironic counterpoint to the squalidness of the world before going on to give the film's little-guy-against-the-world hero a romantic theme of his own, one of Frank's few victories in a world that refuses to grant him many.

Serpico seems to be an odd mutt of a film, a mostly singular mixture of seemingly clashing tones and styles. And perhaps it is. But when the mixture turns out to be this engrossing, when the pleasures are so many, then why would one complain?



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