There are certain films that hold a unique place in history… and
Hollywood had better keep their grubby, remaking mitts off of them!
While the trend to “re-imagine” or “re-envision” everything around them
has been going on for some time, these films have so far managed to
escape the fate of some of their less fortunate compatriots. I speak of
course of…

SACRED COWS
The 25 Movies They’d Better Never Remake.

These films are not just near and dear to our hearts, they should be
considered OFF-LIMITS to those jerks at the studios. The films on this
list were special when they premiered and continue to be so today, and
we’re going to explain why they shouldn’t be remade – as well as why
they can’t be. So enough jabbering, on with the list!

Day Four

Serpico (1973)




DIRECTED BY:  Sidney Lumet
WRITTEN BY:    Peter Maas (book), Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler, Sidney Kingsley
STARRING:        Al Pacino, John Randolph, Tony Roberts, Bernard Barrow, M. Emmet Walsh

THE SACRED RUNDOWN
(WARNING:  SPOILERS!)



“Jesus. Guess who got shot? Serpico.”
“Think a cop did it?”
“I know six cops who said they’d like to.”

A police siren shrieks. Frank Serpico slumps in the backseat of a squad car, wheezing on his own blood.  He’s taken to the ER and stripped down for treatment as the call goes around the NYPD and the New York Times that Serpico, that thorn in the police department’s side, has been shot down.

We flashback to 1960, when a young Frank Serpico is being sworn in as a rookie NYPD officer. Wide-eyed and idealistic, he takes the code to heart. But his ethics are rocked on his first nights on the streets.  Here’s where cops eat for free, so shut up and take what Charlie serves you. Ignore that rape, it’s not in our sector.  He sees suspects beaten for confessions, and internal politics dictate when suspects are arrested.



“How you doin’ on the job?” his brother asks.  Serpico hesitates and glances away. “It’s got its problems.” With that, he moves to Greenwich Village, embraces the counterculture, and buys a puppy. He’s an oddball on the force;  a cop who is oddly sensitive and who takes classes at NYU. He aspires to be a detective, and is assigned to undercover work. On every level, he’s belittled for actually doing his job. He’s labeled a weirdo for his persistence in wearing plain clothes.  At one point, he’s even accused of being gay. But disdain from his fellow officers is a petty thing. It’s the corruption Serpico can’t ignore.  Every precinct is loaded with shakedowns and payoffs from drugs, organized crime, and gambling. He refuses to participate, and constantly has his arm twisted by every cop he works with.   “Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who doesn’t take money?”




He tries to report it. He keeps getting the runaround, and the police commissioner keeps dodging his complaints.  Serpico begins to fear for his life, and his terror and misery rips apart his personal life. But they’re suspicions that prove well founded after he testifies to the Knapp Commission.  He’s shot during a drug bust, but survives, and is offered that which he wanted the most: a gold detective’s shield.  Serpico turns it down, resumes his testimony, and walks away from the NYPD.

THE REASON IT’S SACRED

Serpico combines two of the best things in American cinema — Lumet and Pacino — and crafts a film that’s both a biopic and a satisfying thriller. It’s my favorite Lumet film, in part because it’s not talked about as often as Network or Dog Day Afternoon, but mostly because it’s a low key contrast to those seminal movies.  That’s a pretty weird fact. How do you make a film about a cop hounded for his honesty a quieter movie than a story about corporate media? Only Lumet could do it.



The talent alone makes it sacred territory, but it’s also its flawless construction.  This movie never rings false, because it resists any temptation to make things a little more slick, cool, or saintly. It’s a grimy, sweaty, and claustrophobic film with a very real man at the center.   Serpico’s name has joined Bullitt and Dirty Harry as a sort of byword for “upstanding badass cop”, and that’s ok, but that’s not exactly the figure portrayed here.  Pacino and Lumet give us a man who is defiantly eccentric and shaded with traits good and bad.   He can be kind, but he can also be a real asshole.  He’s courageous, but he’s also self-pitying and hungry for recognition.  He’s creative and intelligent, but it can manifest itself as pretentiousness. It’s the kind of realistic blend that you don’t often see onscreen because audiences and studios want their characters to be Very Good or Very Bad, even when you’re supposed to be watching a true story.



It’s also a very talky film, favoring long conversations and minute details such as Serpico giving his dog water or spending an afternoon in his garden over conventional police action.  Often, Serpico bursts into a scene having just come off some frenetic, crazy assignment as indicated by his disguises.  A lot of films would show you exactly why he was dressed as a Hasidic rabbi. And why not? It wouldn’t detract from the story, and it would punch up the thrills.  But Serpico doesn’t, and is no less of an anxious watch because of it.  Again, it shouldn’t be. Lumet plays his most powerful story card in the first frames.  But it’s a slow ticking until that point, and it constantly feels right around the corner. Are they going to get him in his house? His car?  Will someone with him get hurt?   How is it going to happen, and what is it Frank finally does that tips his officers to that awful point?

For a figure that has become such a shorthand label for honesty, there’s not a single triumphant moment in Serpico. Instead, it’s brutally honest about how much it can hurt to do the right thing. A lot of movies have cops that flout the book, but it’s always celebrated in a humorous or kickass fashion. This is real life. Heroism isn’t always hailed; it can bring hate, death threats, terror, and misery if you’ve crossed the right people.  Frank Serpico doesn’t even exit this film with his head held high as the final frames show him fleeing the country, a sad and hunted man to the last.



ICONIC MOMENTS
  • The opening sequence — the shrieking sirens, the tight Pacino close-up, and the fade away to a happier and more innocent time of his career.
  • Serpico the rookie goes into Charlie’s diner, where cops eat free. Instead of ordering creamed chicken, he orders a roast-beef sandwich.  Dirty looks abound.  Can’t he just conform?
  • McClain and Serpico meet under Hell’s Gate bridge. “It’s my life, you fuck!”
  • The shooting. Never has a cracked door been more terrifying.
  • Serpico refuses his gold shield, then breaks down in tears. “What’s this for? For being an honest cop? Hmm? Or for being stupid enough to get shot in the face? You tell them that they can shove it.”
  • Serpico’s final speech in front of the Knapp Commission.


WHY A REMAKE WOULD MAKE ME RUN OFF SCREAMING

As I already said, Lumet and Pacino make this pretty untouchable. But it’s a great cop story, and I could see someone out there itching to redo it for a new generation. That would be a huge mistake.  Serpico is not only perfectly told, it’s unique because it captured the story a mere two years after its hero made his final stand.  This is hot-off-the-presses filmmaking, and you can feel it.  The counterculture wasn’t a thing of history books, it was still happening, and it surrounds every scene.  This isn’t the glamorous and trendy New York, this was the filthy and seedy city that terrified the rest of America.



Anyone making Serpico today would be forced to make this as costume piece.  It’s not that you can’t create the 1970s authentically (see: Zodiac, Red Riding 1975, even Watchmen) or find lousy New York neighborhoods.  But this captures a slice of time so beautifully that to spend millions upon millions to do it again strikes me as not only asinine but futile.  Besides, who else would remember to dab yellow wound drainage all over a hospital pillow?

There’s also no way it would be allowed to be as chatty and slow as it is. Cop movies have screeching car chases, wisecracks, and sprays of bullets.

WHAT WOULD PLATINUM DUNES DO (WWPDD)?




Michael Bay’s been producing remakes all over town, using his Platinum
Dunes company as a front. So naturally he’d be the logical choice to
spearhead any attempt at remaking this classic. How would it pan out,
you ask?

  • Randall Wallace would write the screenplay, and load it with mawkish sentimentality. 
  • D.J. Caruso would direct.
  • James Horner would do the score.  Gone is the gentle guitar of Mikis Theodorakis, it is replaced with something that sounds suspiciously like Braveheart combined with A Beautiful Mind. 
  • There would be a shoot-out around every corner. Oh sure, the “honest cop” angle is cool and all, really touching, but where are the drug busts?
  • All women would be played by Victoria’s Secret models.  The girls at NYU? All models. The rape victim? A beautiful pouty blonde with breasts so perky that she was begging for it.  Serpico’s girlfriends? Both Megan Fox lookalikes with injected lips and flat-ironed hair.
  •  The mean 1970s streets would be rendered through a gritty blue wash. It worked for Bad Boys!
  • It would be gently scrubbed of all ethnicity (Why emphasize Italian immigrants? This is America!), but loaded with racist caricatures, the better to menace pretty girls.
  • Frank Serpico would be played by America’s favorite doe-eyed actor: Shia LaBeouf



BOVINE MISCELLANY

Frank Serpico is living in New York again. The NY Times recently caught up with him, and had him watch the film for the first time. He still can’t do it without closing his eyes.

REBUTTAL:

Nick Nunziata: Serpico is a great film and one that allows Al Pacino to model many
different pieces of headwear. When you put Sidney Lumet together with
the 70’s and a police film you’re in for a treat. Especially will Al
Pacino at his hairiest and most intense. It’s a perfect palette for
classic cop cinema.




But here’s the rub…




Because so many things have been influenced by Lumet’s
Prince of the
City
and Serpico and the dozens of other great cop stories of the 70’s,
it’s hard to compete. Half the shows on televsion are police procedurals
or at least twists on the concept and there seems to be at least one
Lumet wannabe each year (
We Own the Night, Pride and Glory, Brooklyn’s
Finest
, etc…) so audiences are a well worn bunch.



Serpico is standard now. Tame even. As much as it pains me to think of
the idea, it’s almost primed to be remade because of how accustomed
audiences are to nearly every beat of the film as its been borrowed
from, been given an homage, or referenced with a wink for three
decades. It shouldn’t be remade but it’s perfect fodder for a remake.





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[With the exception of the first 2, which were made by myself, the screen captures came from DVD Beaver.]