Friday 21 May 2010

Obscurity Files #7 - Bad Lieutenant

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. With the new Nicolas Cage remake/sequel in cinemas this weekend, we thought it might be good time to look at the original 1992 version of Bad Lieutenant.
More after the jump...

Bad Lieutenant sees Harvey Keitel as the titular character on a self destructive binge in New York City. He lives his life with no remorse and no consequences, even stealing money off corpses to cover his gambling debts. But when a young nun is raped on the church alter by a gang of street thugs his Catholic duty kicks in, and finding vengeance for her may give his life meaning.

It's all there for you on the cover. GAMBLER. THIEF. JUNKIE. KILLER. COP. Keitel's Lieutenant is all of these things, but each vice is constantly threatening to topple or expose another vice. He needs to be a gambler to cover his drug addiction, he needs to be a thief to place his bets and he needs to be a cop to get away with it all. His problems are escalating, and threats against his family do nothing to stop his hedonistic ways. Here is a scene fairly close to the start of the movie where Keitel finds a moment of peace in the arms of a prostitute. Imagine what he's like by the end of the film. Oh, it's a safe bet that all the videos and links I've included are not suitable for work.

As Keitel descends towards madness, his frustration increases and begins to manifest itself with more violence. He's in way over his head and can't handle things not going his way. This next scene illustrates how brazen he is about it all. In his opinion he is above the law.

When you have escalating bad debts and use increasingly harder drugs, it's a lifestyle you can only keep going for so long. His hedonism will be his downfall, but maybe the nun can offer him some redemption. She uses her goodwill to forgive her attackers, but he wants to capture the men and deliver the revenge she herself cannot enact.

Perhaps the most infamous scene in Bad Lieutenant is when Keitel pulls over the two teenage girls, driving without a license. Instead of issuing them with a ticket and getting them into trouble with their parents, he convinces them to show him their underwear whilst he masturbates in front of them. His mind is so warped he doesn't see that he manipulated the girls for his own sexual gratification, essentially one stop short of what happened to the nun. It's too perverse for me to find a video for it, but here's the trailer to offer a better view of the world he lives in.
This is Abel Ferrera's follow up to The King Of New York, and continues his love/hate relationship with his home town. This is certainly not the New York of today, and perhaps not realistically the New York of 1992. When we see Keitel drive around, this is a dirty city covered in fly posters and grime, more recognisable as the city from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Ferrara has been sure to stick to the seedy areas, evidenced when Keitel shoots his car radio. This is filmed on a real street, and only one person stops to see what's going on.

Like most of Abel Ferrara's films, Catholicism and its imagery plays an important part. At the crime scene where the nun was raped, the Virgin Mary has fallen. In one memorable scene towards the end we see Keitel berate the image of Jesus for not helping one of his worshippers. Where was the lord and saviour whilst his church was being attacked? He blames Jesus for his own failings, even though there has been no evidence that he's been dealt a bad hand in life. The lieutenant eventually repents and begs Jesus for forgiveness, knowing that his debts are soon to catch up with him.

A film like this is always going to be judged on the performance of the lead actor, and Keitel is brilliantly disturbing. If I was to compare Keitel's performance to its Nicolas Cage follow-up, it's worth noting that Keitel wasn't known for manic lunatics in the same way that Cage is now. There's also nothing comedic about this Lieutenant, more sad. It's interesting to note that Bad Lieutenant was made in the same year as Reservoir Dogs, where Keitel's Mr White is the calm collected one, at least in comparison to the madness around him.

Come the climax, it's interesting to see where the Lieutenant finds himself. His debt collectors will catch up with him soon, but he's found some peace from the example set by the nun. He captures the nun's attackers but shows the leniency she asks for. The men are trying to atone for their sins, something that by the end, is too late for the Bad Lieutenant to do.

Save from obscurity? YES

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