Saturday, 14 June 2014

Serpico - Peter Mass


My namesake! I must, however, inform you that for such a classic film, the book that it's based upon is a pretty dense affair and rather disappointing. Written by Peter Mass, Serpico is the story of Frank Serpico, a New York City cop whose boyhood dream of what a police officer should be clashes with the reality and the actual practises of those in that job. It's a story of morals, essentially. A story of non-conformity, bravery and above all, integrity.

Set in the 1960s and based on real life events, it details the progression of Frank Serpico from rookie to plainclothes cop and his encountering of entrenched, systematic corruption all along the way. Serpico's dream is to become a detective but the reality of law enforcement in New York comes at complete odds with his perception of what the role of a police officer should actually be.
The doubts start with just little things such as seeing how officers on the beat are given free meals at certain caf├ęs in return for special treatment as in swift, unquestioned action whenever there might be any trouble at the premises. Or how officers would physically assist bailiffs with evictions when they were meant only to be there to maintain peace. Or how officers would set up places around the city for them to sleep or to play cards with fellow officers when they were meant to be on duty. To Serpico these are all indications of 'a growing estrangement between the police and much of the public, a breakdown of respect - a feeling that too many cops were taking whatever they could and not caring what anyone thought'; exemplified by such comments from fellow officers as: 'The public, what does the fucking public know?'.

As Serpico slowly progresses up through the police ranks, the corruption he bears witness to becomes ever more pronounced and excessive; involving bribes from and extortion of racketeers, criminals and the general public alike. Gravitating toward the bohemian Greenwich Village area of the city he starts to identify and feel more at home with the community there than with his work colleagues. He grows a beard, grows his hair long and starts wearing bracelets and sandals ostensibly as his undercover police disguise but something else is going on: Serpico is going hippy and in more ways than one.
He comes to realise that marijuana is not the road to perdition and that his neighbours are by and large gentle and law-abiding. He starts to side with them and they in turn - little knowing that he's a cop - quickly accept him as one of their own, nodding and smiling at him on the street and saying 'Peace, brother' when walking by. On the other hand, when passing fellow police officers on the street whilst in his hippy garments all he gets is a sense of reflexive hostility.

Serpico refuses to take bribes, pay-offs or to take part in the police-run protection rackets and to his colleagues soon becomes an object of suspicion and contempt. When attempting to get the issue of police corruption addressed by his superiors he is met with rejection, avoidance and fobbing off, resulting in him becoming probably the most isolated man in New York: living a lie in his job and - because his neighbours don't know he's a cop - living a lie in Greenwich Village. Finally, after threatening to go to 'outside agencies' an investigation is set up but for Serpico this is just the start of his troubles.

Released in 1973, the film of the book featured another towering performance from Al Pacino in the lead role and perhaps it's because of this that the book is diminished? It's a good story and obviously all the ingredients were there for a good film but the book is just too dry, full of unnecessary detail. I was expecting or hoping for a good novel - a ripping yarn - but instead got a book-length magazine article.

The subject of corruption and whistle blowing is, however, just as relevant today if not more so than as it was when the book first appeared what with Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, (and in the UK) the Stephen Lawrence case, Hillsborough, Orgreave, cash-for-questions, Libor, parliamentary expenses and so on and so on and so on. It's shameful, really. Throughout both the public and private sector corruption is rife with apparently almost everyone out to get what they can for themselves. If it's a given that corruption is rife at the bottom - and I assure you it is - then it's a given that it's going to be far worse and far bigger the further up the chain you go. As has been shown.

Serpico ended up siding with the alternative values of the hippy community of New York at that time and it was these very values that - kind of - won out in the end with regard to the corruption at the New York Police Department. It's interesting to see then that nowadays any such similar values are denigrated, side-lined and belittled; viewed as naive, treated as a joke and ultimately truncheoned into submission. It's also interesting to see that modern-day undercover cops such as Mark Kennedy have not the slightest hint of integrity and do exactly as their masters bid; who these days actually view hippy/alternative/activist communities as an enemy within, to be tracked, disrupted and ultimately disabled.
So has all this come about by accident or design?

Our time on this earth is so very short so should we spend it trying to grab all we can or follow the example Serpico (and others as mentioned above) set and do what we know is right even if it means ridicule, ostracism, and potentially very real danger? Should we have the courage of our convictions or should we when in Rome do as the Romans?
Should we create? Should we rebel? Even though it's done in a long-winded way, these are the questions that Peter Maas's Serpico puts before us and leaves only for us to answer.

John Serpico

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