All it takes is one honest man in a sea of corruption to make a difference. His name was Serpico and he was a good cop. Sidney Lumet directs one of Al Pacino’s best performances in this gritty iconic police drama. Kino Lorber Studio Classics delivers an exceptional 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with terrific new Dolby Vision transfer and impressive audio to match along with a fine assortment of bonus features. Highly Recommended - if not Must Own - for fans needing this in 4K
Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) just wanted to be a cop. It’s all he ever dreamed of. To protect and to serve. But right out of the academy and on the streets as a patrolman, he starts to see the dark underbelly of the job. Not the muggers, murderers, or rapists he arrests, but the men in blue he works with on a daily basis. By refusing to take payoffs, he paints a target on his back. When he complains to his superiors he’s met with indifference. Passed from division to division, Serpico quickly learns the corruption is worse than expected and every person he tells about it puts him that much closer to catching a bullet.
The 1970s was a hell of an era for dynamic filmmaking. With the new MPAA ratings system firmly in place, a more diverse and interesting range of topics and genres could be thoroughly explored. Horror films got bloodier. Dramas became more intimate. Comedies were more suggestive. And police films became grittier and far more realistic. Cops were tougher (Dirty Harry) and edgier (The French Connection) than ever before. And in a film like Serpico, they could even be incorruptible.
Based on the story of the real-life New York Detective, Serpico went through a bit of an intense development process before reaching movie theaters. News broke of Frank Serpico and the corruption that gripped the New York Police Department in 1971 during the Knapp Commission and it was a big story ready to be filmed. Dino De Laurentis quickly picked up the rights to Peter Maas’ book Frank Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System and snagged John G. Avildson to direct. Only Avildson often disagreed with the direction the film was going in and was fired (or frequently quit and came back depending on the source you look at). Veteran director Sidney Lumet was hired as a fast replacement and the film rolled in the summer of 1973, mere months after the book’s publication, with Al Pacino as the titular police officer.
The film was a hit and would score Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations for Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt with Pacino picking up a Best Actor nomination which he lost to Jack Lemon for Save the Tiger. It’s bizarre to me that in a career spanning over fifty years, he’s been nominated nine times for an acting Oscar, four in the 1970s alone, and has won only one - for Scent of a Woman of all films.
And speaking of Pacino, it’s hard to peg a single great performance for such a versatile dynamic actor, but I would say his work in Serpico stands among his very best efforts. Long before his “loud period” of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, this is a prime example of Pacino getting lost in the character to the point it doesn’t feel like he’s acting. But he’s also not so far into the character that it feels overwrought or "showy," it’s just effortless. He can do as much with his eyes to communicate a character’s feelings and intentions as he can by rattling off slick dialog. He was already a star on the rise by this point, but he’s giving this role everything he’s got like a hungry actor proving to the world he’s legit and that The Godfather or Panic in Needle Park weren’t flukes.
The other star of this film that deserves ample credit for how it turned out is Sidney Lumet. I’ve always wondered what Avildson’s version could have looked like considering what he did with Rocky, Joe, and Lean On Me, but Lumet was a fantastic choice. A natural-born visual storyteller, he knew how to bring the gritty and grimy sides of New York to life while pacing his actors into authentic-feeling performances. He’s not about flashy camera moves or stylish editing. He’s up close and in person on the ground and the audience is along for the ride. The fact he only picked up an Honorary Oscar for his decades of incredible work feels almost insulting. He wasn’t even nominated for Serpico. Granted, this was a year that saw George Roy Hill, William Friedkin, Ingmar Bergman, George Lucas, and Bernardo Bertolucci all recognized for their efforts so it was decidedly a packed field. This isn’t to suggest that Oscar nominations and wins are the end-all, be-all defining markers of a career. But when you look at a classic piece of work, one that’s left an indelible impression, those little gold statues do stand as recognizable headstones honoring a body of work.
To that end, Pacino and Lumet weren’t the only stars of the film. In addition to their efforts and the great script by Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt, the film is a mass of recognizable character actors. Tony Roberts turns in a great performance as Serpico’s only friend Bob Roberts. Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharp each turn in solid appearances as Serpico’s dedicated but exhausted love interests. Jack Keough gives a delightfully wormy performance as a paranoid officer on the take. He may not get a lot to do but John Randolph turned in another excellent performance as the fatherly Sidney Green. Also keep an eye out for F. Murray Abraham in one of his first roles proving early on that he had the chops for playing the intimidating bad guy.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, Serpico is one of my favorites. It hit me at that right impressionable era in my mid-teens and hasn’t let go. I’d heard it talked about, seen it joked about, but I had no idea what it was when I got to sit down and actually watch it. From those opening scenes of Pacino’s titular character near death with a bullet hole in his face, I was hooked. It’s a compelling piece of work from beginning to end. Endearing, funny, and tensely thrilling from beginning to end. In the years since that first of countless viewings, I’ve read the Maas’ book a few times and I enjoy that well into his 80s Frank Serpico hasn’t completely gone away. I love that he’s still out there making noise today. It makes coming back to this film worth the journey knowing Frank is still out there being Frank.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Serpico signs up for its first tour of duty on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray stateside with a new two-disc release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The 4K is pressed on a BD-100 disc with a Region A BD-50 saved for the 1080p edition. The discs are housed in a standard two-disc black case with identical slipcover artwork. The discs load to static image main menus with standard navigation options.
Serpico already appeared on 4K Ultra HD in various European territories with a transfer prepared by Studiocanal. This edition from KLSC was given a new Dolby Vision HDR master from a new 4K scan by Paramount - and thank the cinema gods it was. To be blunt, the European release - like a number of Studiocanal efforts - looked like the Easter Bunny took a leak on it. As we saw with Cat’s Eye, Red Sonja, and so many others, their transfer for Serpico had an ugly pastel sheen. Skin tones were peached. Whites were a pale sickly yellow. Black levels looked brownish-green, and there was a weird haziness that just made the overall image look flat and ugly. The only good thing it had going for it was a healthy grain structure and details, but that wasn’t enough to save it as I despondently shelved away the Arthaus SteelBook I imported. None of those problems are apparent for this disc.
This 2160p 1.85:1 Doby Vision (with HDR10) transfer simply leaves that disc in the gutter. Film grain and details are cinematically healthy throughout without any signs of modulation or tinkering. The bitrate is strong and high throughout with numerous peaks well into the 100mbps range. Facial features, clothing textures, and the grit and grime of New York are all appreciable and just damned impressive. I had a liking to the 2013 Blu-ray that Warner Bros. released, it was a welcome upgrade over the old DVD, and this disc easily leaves that one behind.
Best of all with this HDR grade, the film actually looks normal and correct. Skin tones are human and natural without looking peached out or hot-red boiled. Primaries are appreciable - especially with Serpico’s range of outfits - leaving blues, reds, and yellows looking natural with some lovely highlights but not overblown. Black levels are right on point - as seen in Serpico’s first patrol arrest - the correct deep inky shade we like to see with lovely shadow separations for a terrific sense of depth and dimension to the image. Likewise, whites are bold and crisp - and actually white. This is how the film should look and I’m glad KLSC and Paramount partnered up for it. The best I can say for my import disc is I like the SteelBook art, so I might keep it for that. But if you need Serpico in the collection, there’s no doubt about it, this is the disc to get.
This release of Serpico arrives with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. The 2.0 mix is the default and honestly the best way to go. Playing it against the LPCM 2.0 stereo track of the Import 4K, they sound very similar, so much so I couldn’t tell any significant difference. The original theatrical mix was mono, so I’m not sure where/when this got moved up to a stereo track - with how minimal the surrounds were used for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track from 2013, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was actually a fold-down - but it’s an effective one. I’ve asked for details on this front but haven’t heard anything back yet.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is still a very good option for this film. Not my preferred, but still very good. It’s mostly front/center focused with the surround channels opening up for busy city streets and some of the action chase sequences. It may be a minimally used score, but Mikis Theodorakis’ melodies sound great, and feels like there’s a little extra care and attention paid to the motifs that weave in and out of the film. Through both tracks, the dialog is clean and clear without issue and levels are spot on without any need to keep a thumb on the volume. Free of any hiss or issues, these are clean tracks without any distractions.
On the bonus features front, KLSC really dug into this title for a nice selection of new and archival extras. Some of these were available only on the import StudioCanal discs and have finally made their way here. Leading the Pack is a very informative and fun new audio commentary featuring film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The trio talks fast and covers a lot of ground, sometimes they can get lost in their appreciation of Lumet and the film, but they each offer interesting facts and insights. Definitely well worth the listen. After that we get a nice selection of featurettes, Sidney Lumet: Cineaste New York is one of the port-overs from the foreign editions and it’s a nice look at Lumet and his shooting films in the Big Apple. The Looking For Al Pacino featurette is also a nice addition analyzing Frank Serpico as a character and how Pacino got the part and prepared for the role. The rest of the extras are carried over from the older WB disc.
4K UHD Disc
Simply put, I think Serpico is one of the best movies ever made. It’s among those very few films that it could be most of the way finished and I’d have to sit down to the end rather than grabbing my disc and starting it over. For Al Pacino, I feel it's one of his very best performances as he dives deep into the character giving it everything he’s got. He was already a star on the rise after Panic in Needle Park and The Godfather, but it’s the back-to-back-to-back runs with Serpico, The Godfather Part II, and reteaming with Lumet again for Dog Day Afternoon that cemented him as a major star of his generation. This is also my favorite Lumet movie even taking on classics like Network and 12 Angry Men for top spot. And now we have it on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics and it looks amazing. This new Dolby Vision HDR master is the clear and obvious winner over the European market release offering up bold but natural colors with clean crisp details and solid audio to match. Bonus features are a nice highlight of new and old and that commentary is well worth the listen. At the end of the day, it’s easy for me to say Highly Recommended if not a Must Own for those who need this film in their collections.