Isolation has afforded me to the time to binge not on the latest Netflix must-sees or HBO’s can’t-be-misseds, but on ’70s cop movies. The grittier and grainier the better; exactly the sort of ones that influenced Beastie Boys when they shot their Sabotage video, where maverick cops in outlandish undercover clobber go rogue and off-radar to bring justice, but only after being barked at by bent, bull-nosed Irish-American superiors with names like Frank O’Connor who throw metaphorical rule books at them as liberally as the swearing and testosterone that soaks the concrete and callous locker room culture within.
The Taking Of Pelham 1, 2, 3, Mean Streets, Death Wish (1 and 2), Dog Day Afternoon, Klute… they’ve all re-grabbed the attention, 35 years or so (!) since first seeing most of them. They’re mostly (exclusively?) New York movies, soundtracked by skittering, anxiety-inducing hi-hats and brass stabs, swathes of wah-wah and jarring strings, backdropped by beige, low-rent apartments, adult book stores and litter-blown sidestreets, where cars big as bars (as the song goes) screech round corners populated by scruffy numbers runners, flashy, floppy hat-wearing pimps or down on their luck hookers-with-hearts. Even the Times Square neon and Manhattan glass and steel skyscrapers seem grubby and off-colour, nothing like the uber-polished, high-rolling landscapes that the Kims ‘n Kanyes backdrop their social media feeds with today.
One that really left a big impression was Serpico. It’s based on a true story, Al Pacino playing the titular Frank with full-on method acting. In late ’60s/early’70s New York, Frank Serpico was, as the movie poster tagline and gravelly trailer voiceover confirm, the most dangerous man alive – an honest cop who refused to adapt to the culture of the times; from the free sandwiches at the deli to the never-ending stuffing of fat envelopes full of hundred dollar bills into glove compartments in exchange for a blind eye. “Take it, Frank. You’ve earned it!” his colleagues will drawl through Cheshire Cat grins, as Pacino returns his doe-eyed, stony stare in return.
Hellbent on his mission to call out police corruption from the very top down, Serpico incurs the wrath of every department across the five boroughs to the point where he’s led to a drug dealer’s house and shot, almost fatally. Was it bad luck that he was nearly killed in the line of duty, or are waters a bit murkier? Did, indeed, his fellow officers perhaps set him up? That’s the part of the puzzle that’s kept the actual Serpico living abroad ever since.
As a film spanning 11 years, it serves as a microcosm of the fashions of the time, a Mr Ben, as it happens, of all your favourite musicians and styles. Pacino begins the movie clean-shaven, lean, mean and handsome, with great hair to boot. He looks a wee bit like an Italian-American Johnny Marr, all healthy tan and quiet, cock-sure confidence. As the movie lengthens, so too does Pacino’s hair. A moustache slowly crawls across his top lip before drooping, from Crosby to Zappa in five frames.
The hair on his head; black, glossy, superbly conditioned, billows out into exactly the same hair do as the Get Back era Paul McCartney. Just as you’re noticing this, so too do you notice that the Crosby/Zappa moustache has at some point morphed into the very same McCartney beard as well. But hang on… Just as you’re getting used to that, he adopts a bucket hat, a cheesecloth top and a pair of gently flapping jeans and he’s suddenly transformed into a refugee from Spike Island, maybe even John Squire himself.
Then, the headwear changes, from bucket to beanie and back to bucket again, and he’s first Badly Drawn Boy then Jeff Lynne. At various other points, Pacino is a dead ringer for George Best, half of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and that illustrated guy in the tattered copy of The Joy Of Sex that John Crichton found in that hedge that day round by Berry Drive in 1980.
“Getchahaircut Serpico!” growls his superior in vain, which, ironically is how the movie was shot. Apparently, Pacino began the movie looking like one of the Furry Freak Brothers and everything was shot in reverse, a hairstylist and groomer on hand to shorten the locks and trim the facial hair until young Al was a fresh faced cop school graduate. Clever movie making.
Throughout Serpico, Pacino wears open-necked denim shirts, brilliantly fitted cord jackets, cool, dark aviator shades and never seems to have a problem with the ladies. Who wouldn’t want to be an undercover cop?