As a film purist, I believe movies were made to be seen where they belong – in a movie theater where, on a 60-foot blank white canvas, ghostly images projected in the dark can fully engage our imaginations. Watching a film on a TV monitor, no matter how large, still doesn’t duplicate the communal or emotional experience. There’s a reason those screens are so big: they’re larger than life – a visual waterfall. Movies are meant to overwhelm you. And watching a movie on a cell phone? It’s a total diminuendo effect. It’s like viewing an El Greco painting on a postage stamp.
I write this preface so that readers may forgive me if I occasionally indulge myself via cable television, particularly its various movie channels. Such channels are time machines, of sorts, taking us back to the past. I’ve lamented before how the ubiquitous showings of The Godfather on cable – even on smaller screens – perpetuates anti-Italian movie defamation for a brand new generation of viewers.
But, last week, I stumbled upon Serpico, the 1973 film which gave Al Pacino his first leading star role after The Godfather. Unlike Don Vito Corleone, Frank Serpico was based on a real person, a second-generation Italian American whose idealism wilts when he becomes a police officer. Serpico considered cops sacred public servants; one of his revered uncles back in Italy, in fact, was such one. But when Serpico joined the force in 1959, he quickly discovered that he was a small, honest fish surrounded by a sea of cynical, corrupt, and racist sharks, both fellow officers as well as top brass. He finally told his story to the New York Times, and the exposé which followed led to the Knapp Commission, one of the largest over-hauls of police reform in American history.
After quitting in disgust in 1972, Serpico went to Switzerland. His attempts at anonymity were short-lived, however, as a book about him by author Peter Maas hit the stands. Hollywood came calling via the Pacino film, which, when released in December 1973, was one of that year’s biggest box-office successes. In retrospect, it didn’t quite atone for Maas’s earlier book, The Valachi Papers, which stoked the public’s still-unhealthy obsession with mythologizing Italian criminals. But, it launched Pacino into super-stardom, and it gave us a true Italian American hero for the ages.
The past tense (“gave”) is not accurate: Serpico is still very much with us. At 84 years old, he has made a second comeback of sorts, speaking out against the issue of police brutality. Serpico’s concerns from decades ago, alas, are still relevant – specifically, corruption and racism. “Anyone who talks about minorities’ rights is considered a weirdo,” he said in the 1970s. And here, in 2020, he still notes that the criminal justice system will never change unless “honest cops outnumber the dishonest ones. It should be the corrupt cops who are afraid to speak out.” By the way, Serpico dislikes the term ‘whistleblower.’ He prefers ‘lamp-lighter ‘– a term which could have come straight from Renaissance Italy.
Watching the film, I didn’t know that another honest detective (Lombardo) gave moral support to Serpico, even agreeing to go public with him. And I then recalled that yet another honest Italian American cop, Robert Leuci, followed up on Serpico’s example a few years later via the even bigger criminal court system, exposing massive corruption. His life, too, was made into a movie, 1981’s Prince of the City, by the same man who directed Serpico (Sidney Lumet).
What’s interesting to consider is how Serpico’s story literally inspired an entire slew of positive Italian American police characters, particularly in TV shows. Peter Falk’s rumpled yet lovable Columbo, begun in 1970, was quickly surrounded by Delvecchio (Judd Hirsch), Toma (Tony Musante), Tony Calabrese (Tony Lo Bianco in Police Story), Baretta (Robert Blake), Sgt. Furillo of Hill Street Blues (Daniel J. Travanti) and Mike Torello of Crime Stories (Dennis Farina).
There have been a handful of such roles since the early 1990s, ranging from Jack Scalia and his dog in Tequila and Bonetti to Michael Chiklis as Jack Scali, aka The Commish. There have also been female Italian American cops such as Angie Harmon as Jane Rizzoli (Rizzoli and Isles), as well as the half-Sicilian, half-African American cop boss Al Giardello on Homicide (played by Yaphet Kotto). But, for every newer show like Law and Order: Special Victims’ Unit, which featured an Italian American cop who moved on to become a district attorney in the same series (Dominick Carisi, played by Peter Scanavino), the plethora of positive Italian American police officers has steadily been disappearing.
The ultimate point? These cop shows and movies reflected a genuine reality: There were – and still are – far more Italian police officers in America than there are Italian gangsters. And these officers took – and still take – their vows very seriously. And Frank Serpico’s call for racial and criminal justice wasn’t – and still isn’t – a solo voice in the wilderness. BDC