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The brilliance of an insightful Radio 3 monologue on Serpico’s Sidney Lumet

By Antonia Quirke

Shoot me, but I reckon there could be few things on the radio more appealing than an intense and information-dense monologue discussing the movie Serpico (15 July, 10.45pm). I owned a bag once with Al Pacino’s face on it – the famous hair-flowing, gold-hoop earringed headshot from that film, which had a particularly weird magnetism (the face, not the bag, although I hauled it around until the zip broke).

In that image, Pacino manages to look Greek, Argentinian, Russian, Mexican,

Israeli, Arabic and Italian-American all at the same time. Which other actor has quite done this? That utterly chameleonic ethnicity? It’s what made him infinitely powerful, I think, as a global star. And why that image – specifically his face – continues to be found on pavement-stall posters all over the world.

New Yorker Michael Goldfarb, in a consistently brilliant essay about the films of Sidney Lumet, pointed out that a movie like Serpico (1973) takes most of its energy not just from a 33-year-old Pacino at a high-point in his career, but from its revolution-stoking central “dilemma of liberalism”.

If you’ve seen it you’ll remember that Pacino’s good and honest NYC cop is repeatedly hung out to dry by his corrupt superiors. He tries to implement reform through reasonable, democratic means – but it’s a pointless exercise. Nothing but endless betrayal. Screw the system, you think, repeatedly. Screw it. Goldfarb also notes that Lumet, having suffered during McCarthyism, fuelled the movie (and others, such as Dog Day Afternoon) with the “paranoid intensity” of that time. How true, and it was fascinating to hear about Lumet’s stint with the post-Depression Group Theatre.

Goldfarb drew repeated attention to Lumet’s sense of the bootlessness of structures… And I wondered, was this at the very root of his famed brilliance with actors? Lumet’s films earned countless award nominations for their performances. He liked long rehearsals, short periods of filming, and championed absolute individualism in performance, more than most directors. (“Good acting is really self-revaluation,” he insisted.) Be radical, explorative, free; make your mark. In effect: work outside the system. Only there will you thrive. Right on. 

Sidney Lumet and the Crisis of Liberalism
BBC Radio 3

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This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation