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Bad Lieutenant (1992,USA)

04/09/2011

Director: Abel Ferrara    Starring: Harvey Keitel, Frankie Thorn

When I reviewed Werner Herzog’s take on the Bad Lieutenant concept way back in January I was rather disparaging about the Abel Ferrara original. Working from memory I described it as almost unwatchable due to the unrelentingly grim antics of the main protagonist and the all consuming grimness of the world which he occupies. The bits that did remain stubbornly lodged in my memory (in vivid technicolour) were hardly an incitement to watch the film again but a recent showing on television provided me with the opportunity to cast my reservations aside and give it another go, this time with another fifteen years of life experience to bring to the party.

Harvey Keitel plays the Lieutenant (he is never referred to by name), a New York homicide detective who juggles his day job of investigating crimes with a sideline in exploring his vices in wild style, gambling, womanising and abusing drugs like they are going out of fashion. An opportunist of the highest order he even exploits his position of power to coerce two young girls into gratifying his somewhat outlandish sexual proclivities in order to avoid a misdemeanour charge. No behaviour is too low, seedy or downright wrong for the Lieutenant. When a young nun (Thorn) is brutally raped however , the case becomes a fulcrum upon which his redemption is balanced and perhaps an opportunity for him to find forgiveness for his sins.

It turns out that I was right insofar as the film is horrendously grim. Its New York is a festering hell hole of murder, rape and robbery. The Lieutenant and his fellow detectives are ultra cynical, seemingly bereft of human emotions. It probes the recesses of humanity and shines a dim and flickering light on the weakness inherent in all of humankind. The Lieutenant becomes the personification of all that is wrong with the human race. The raw portrayal of his degradation is difficult to watch until it becomes impossible to tell which is worse – his abuse of himself or his abuse of other people. It is not until the rape of the nun occurs that we are presented with anything resembling compassion from anyone but this is not, as you might expect, compassion towards to the victim of this crime. Instead, it is the victim of the crime who feels compassion for those who committed it and who, in the spirit of her faith, feels compelled to forgive them their sins.

The entire film is steeped in Catholic symbolism and religious dogma. The Lieutenant himself is a (clearly severely lapsed) Catholic. He has visions of Jesus. In one of the most compelling moments in the film he is forced, when met with the placid forgiveness of the young nun he has set out to avenge, to face the darkness within himself as his fears and shame flood forth on the floor of the church. From this point on the film improves considerably I suppose the tragedy being that this scene arrives about ten minutes from the end.

The preceding hour and a half or so, shot like an episode of NYPD Blue, presumably to give it a “gritty” and “realistic” feel is something of an endurance test though. Arguably it needs to be for the conclusion to work and have any power whatsoever but there is only so much footage of Harvey Keitel fighting, fucking, masturbating, snorting, injecting, smoking and swearing that I can take before the novelty wears off. Don’t get me wrong, his performance is excellent and just as well as he occupies more or less every frame in the entire film but after half an hour his obsession with excessive vice becomes a little tedious. I don’t doubt the humourless execution is entirely deliberate (to inject any kind of humour would to, be fair, negate the descent into hell the Lieutenant experiences) but it does mean it takes an awful lot of effort for a minimal payoff.

It’s certainly much  better than I remember it. I’m a big Keitel fan (although to be fair I could have probably lived the rest of my life without ever seeing his penis again) and his is a sterling effort in the lead role. That level of sustained despair must be difficult to cope with as an actor. It’s just a shame that the execution feels so shoddy. Any argument that the low-fi production is necessary for the portrayal of a seedy and violent New York is immediately dispelled with a single glance at Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film that captures the depravity and menace of that city’s underbelly with elegance and grace. I suspect that here it is an indication of Ferrara’s limitations and that perhaps he should have spent as much time worrying about the execution as he obviously spent thinking up the content.

It remains, nonetheless, an interesting film and one not without its merits. The 2009 Herzog film serves as an excellent companion piece, a sort of comedic flipside to the intense seriousness of Ferrara’s work. It’s hard to judge one as better than the other as they are very different films although it is fair to say that Herzog’s film has mainstream appeal that Ferrara’s, one can only assume entirely by design, does not. If nothing else, its worth it for Keitel’s chillingly raw performance alone.

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