In the 1960s and 1970s, New York City hit its nadir. Summer riots where as expected as sticky August humidity. It was a time when the sanitation worker strike led to 10-foot high piles of trash stacking city streets, a time when affluent and middle class whites fled the city for the suburbs, depriving the city of its tax base. Years after the events of the movie, the city avoided bankruptcy only after a federal bailout. And police engaged in widespread corruption. As the New York Times wrote about the corruption of the era: “From organized shakedowns at bars and construction sites, to payoffs from gamblers and drug dealers to ignore their growing influence, no officer seemed to be immune from the scourge of a department found to be riddled with graft and unable to police itself.”
Serpico tells the story of Frank Serpico, a plainclothes officer who refused to participate in this culture of graft and corruption. He instead became an NYPD whistleblower, and as a direct result of this, a pariah.By the last frame of the movie, he is deaf, stoically sitting against a railing as he awaits for a boat to take him to Europe. The movie portrays Serpico, played by Al Pacino, as an idealist who became a cop out of love for his New York and fellow New Yorkers, and for the rush of fighting crime. Throughout the movie, Al Pacino possesses empty, anxious gaze and frequently avoiding eye contact with his fellow policemen (at this time, they were all men). He is burdened in sprit by the omnipresent corruption around him, and by the anticlimax that is the end result of his lifelong goal.
Subtly, the movie suggests that Serpico is the type of person so purely independent of—or, depending on one’s semantic choice, isolated from—clique, group, as to be a bit of a loner. He is the Greenwich Village-living counterculture guy who worked as a cop; he was a cop who wore long hair, listened to opera and liked ballet, and hung out with drugged up dreamers. His obsession with being a straight cop cost him relationships both romantic and professional.
Most relevant to the money blog is also how the movie illustrates the luxuries of living without the constraint of money, and its branches/ tentacles of career, family and children, status, and debt. A couple scenes I found to be illustrative of this aspect of the movie:
One scene has him following, while still on duty, his plainclothes partner, Don, into an apartment. “I keep this place for socializing,” quips the partner. “Someday we’ll get a couple of broads, huh? Have a little party.” When the partner attempts to hand Serpico his cut of the money, Serpico waves him off. “Look, Don … if I was broke, if I had a family … I don’t know. But I’m not broke, and I don’t have a family. So why the fuck stick my neck out? You know what I mean?”
Don responds: “It’s already out, Frank, not taking the money.” People, generally, act rationally, and when they act irrationally, there’s a fundamental misplaced rationality to it. For Serpico to decline the kickback money was to expose himself as a troublemaker in the eyes of both his peers and supervisors; to become the “corrupt” deviant. Besides the career and financial incentives, the fact was that in these neighborhoods, the pimps and drug dealers officers accumulated more patronage power than the officers themselves–a textbook precondition to police corruption.
Obviously, self-interest wasn’t what trigged Serpico to wave off the money. Instead, it was being true to his self. In most circumstances, people are constrained by adulthood and responsibility, by children, family, debt, career, status. Not Serpico. He lacked a domestic life; had no debt; his career, status, and identity derived from working as a straight cop in the city of New York—not income levels and status within the NYPD.
Two other separate scenes gel in mind as one. Serpico attends a Greenwich Village party with the woman he was dating at the time. She wants to be an actress, she says. At the party he meets her friends: The poet who works for an advertising agency, the actress who works for a photographer, the novelist working for an insurance company. Upon learning that he is a cop, incidentally, the friends slink away. “How come all your friends are on their way to being somebody else?” he muses to her between meeting people.
Later on in the movie, they’re bathing together. She announces that unless he marries her, she will marry somebody else and leave for Texas in a few weeks (it is counterculture, you know). Serpico asks her about her intent to pursue her goals. “A girl has to get married some day,” she says. “You’re a long way from some day,” Serpico says. He never answers the question about marriage, and she is never seen nor heard from in the movie.
The scenes suggest that everybody has goals, hopes, and dreams we want to pursue. But money, life, and adulthood constrain the pursuit of the goal. She had to give up her dream at some point, as did the poet and novelist, as do most of us when we realize that we are merely tilting at windmills. But again, not Serpico. He was free: No money, career ambition, no ambition but to be honest cop, and no constrains. He possessed the iconoclastic personality that was attracted to being the outlier. For Serpico, that “some day” never came.