Artwork by Aaron Clements, November 9th 2020.
To continue on with the theme of Noirvember, we’re now going to talk about a film that I went into without any prior knowledge other than “Hey, Harvey Keitel is in this!”. A film that’s not really addressed anymore, as it had been (sort of) remade in 2009 under the same name and stars Nicolas Cage (called Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans). It can also be argued that another film by Harvey Keitel came out that year, and may have done a little better and left a little more of an impact on the culture…the film? Resevoir Dogs. But anyway, lets dive into this visual time capsule, which perfectly presents the seedy underbelly of 1992 New York City from the perspective of an incredibly corrupt cop. This is Bad Lieutenant.
As said before, it’s 1992 in New York and our star is Harvey Keitel, whose character has no name. Since Joe, Manco and Blondie have been taken, we’ll simply call him Lieutenant. Lieutenant is…quite the character. We can joke about corrupt cops on many levels, even in this current political climate, but with this one it’s no laughing matter (much like this current climate). We’ll start by giving a profile of the Lieutenant because this film’s plot takes a backseat, and instead it’s a character piece with numerous themes. The Lieutenant is a family man, and lives with his Wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, two sons and two daughters…or maybe it’s 2 sons and 3 daughters. I don’t think that was mentioned. On top of this, the Lieutenant is a Baseball fan and a Roman Catholic. But this doesn’t stop him from the life he lives. He is an alcoholic, a Drug Pusher (using police evidence, no less), a Junkie, a Gambling Addict, an Adulterer and a Sex Addict. His approach to the law is so corrupt that it’s actually quite spooky. Criminals avoid jail time, as long as he keeps the drugs or the money, and girls he catches breaking the law are let go when they do him a ‘favour’ for the moment. So anyway, there are several stories happening at once which the Lieutenant is involved in: He is placing bets on the Baseball World Series between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers, which is an ongoing thing. He is trying to stay sane and high functioning as a cop and family man by getting high through sex and drugs. And lastly, he is trying to find 2 young men who raped a Nun in a church, which is effectively the main part of the story.
Now to talk about the smaller aspects to make the bigger picture.
We’ll start by saying how much of an acting powerhouse Harvey Keitel is. He may not be the only actor in this film, but he carries his role in such as way that the other actors either fade into the background or they have to do something to really stand out. Outside of him, I can remember the skinny red headed Heroin dealer (played by the film’s co-writer, the late Zoe Lund), partly because she injected herself with real heroin for her scenes. And of course we also remember the Nun (played by Frankie Thorn), who has quite the revelation ahead of her. The casting decisions are also very interesting; because one of the Lieutenant’s daughters is Harvey Keitel’s own daughter, and his daughter’s real-life babysitter was one of the two girls in the car he stopped…knowing this information makes it a very morbid scene. To add more fuel to the fire, Abel Ferrera had this film as a comedy in his head, and was going to choose between Harvey Keitel or Christopher Walken…Walken could have fulfilled that comedy aspect…but Keitel would not…and maybe that was for the best.
The characters…The only character that really matters is the Lieutenant. Because without him this film wouldn’t be connected in any way. Today this character could be compared to various others of a similar demeanour; including Sergeant Gerry Boyle from The Guard, Rick Sanchez from Rick And Morty, and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Despite being the worst kind of cop out there, Keitel manages to create an element of sympathy with this character. That’s he’s not really a ‘bad person’, just a slave to his addictions and wants to find peace and happiness. The characters outside of him are left quite open, as you can slot in any number of people into their roles. The children are any children. His wife is anybody’s wife. The junkies are anybody who got hooked. Making the focus all about the Lieutenant. Simple.
The story is that of a Roman Catholic Morality Tale…only this is not a Movie you would show an Alter Boy to convince him to be a good. Most of the film’s dialogue was not in the script, and was often decided upon shortly before it was shot. There is a coherence to the flow of the film, and the visual storytelling is outstanding – to the point that you could take in about 90% of the film from it. Some could argue that without the 2 main themes of forgiveness and redemption, this film would have been pure smut…and they’re right.
The music consists of 2 contrasting music styles: Church organ music and early ’90s Rave, giving us an authenticity in our viewing since we’re either on the streets, in quiet hotel rooms, in Night Clubs, in the Church or in his home. I can’t pinpoint who made any of it, and I’m pretty sure that with the $1 million budget and paying for Harvey Keitel, it was better to just go the Dogma 95 route.
The cinematography, lighting, location choices, colours…everything about the technical side of this film…Is absolutely fantastic. And the reason for this…it’s all real. It was shot in a Guerrilla style. Director, Abel Ferrera, did not get official permission to shoot anywhere (other than in certain rooms), instead they planned the shoot and then did it on the spot in the location. Those are not extras – they are real New York Civilians. That Night Club that the Lieutenant goes through was shot on a busy evening. On top of this, the editing gave us some moments of twisted humour. There is one scene in the whole film that the Lieutenant is not in, and that is the Rape of the Nun at the alter. It is a drastic and unpleasant moment in the film, and then right afterwards we cut to the Lieutenant’s young daughter watching a sweet and innocent cartoon on TV…This edit was straight out of both Bambi and Full Metal Jacket. To instantly switch between two polar opposite scenarios.
Would I recommend Bad Lieutenant? That’s a good question. There’s a reason why this film received an NC-17 rating in America and was once banned in the UK. Because visually and audibly it is gritty, sleazy, grotesque, dirty, hopeless, depression-inducing and sad…while at the same time it is a very twisted Catholic morality tale about forgiveness and redemption that was shot in very gripping and attentive manner. Even scenes that would have been boring were shot to make us curious. In terms of showing off skills, I would also say that this film is Harvey Keitel’s pique acting performance. However…I’ll put it this way; If you have been desensitised by the likes of Game Of Thrones or True Detective or The Wolf Of Wall Street – Bad Lieutenant might be ‘enjoyable’ but also seen as a little tame if you’re looking for something ‘extreme’. But we keep in mind that in 1992, this was very much a well made video-nasty (minus any huge amounts of gore). But if your family and friends prefer Disney movies…don’t ruin their lives with this one. And if you’re watching movies for escapism, this probably isn’t the one for you either. If you adore cinema and can watch anything then talk about it maturely, then yes, it’s a good movie.
Acting: **** (***** for Harvey Keitel)
Characters: *** (***** for The Lieutenant)
Art Style: *****