The Baddest Lieutenant - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Baddest Lieutenant

The Baddest Lieutenant

By Eugene S. Robinson

Harvey Keitel stars in "The Bad Lieutenant".


Because sometimes that Thin Blue Line that protects “us” from “them” gets awfully blurry.

By Eugene S. Robinson

There are certain people, places and things that wear the mantle of “uncompromising” much better than others. And then there are some for which the word was made.

Abel Ferrara’s 1992 flick Bad Lieutenant? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the latter.

Forget Werner Herzog’s bizarre “non-remake” remake. The original director, Bronx-born, Irish-Italian Abel Ferrara, turns an unblinking eye on co-writer Zoë Lund’s screenplay about a multiply addicted cop who’s at war with himself, substances and the city. The film’s key narrative thread is a case involving the rape of a nun.

Beautifully and desperately brought to life in a portrait that bleeds off the screen fast and hot…

Even without knowing that Lund herself died seven years later from the vicissitudes of extended cocaine abuse, the Bad Lieutenant ’s painfully real mise-en-scène makes the movie feel less like a film and much more like a documentary. Of police corruption, cocaine and heroin use and abuse, infidelity, rape, felony theft, gambling and, ultimately, murder.

The titular lieutenant, as played by a then-53-year-old Harvey Keitel, is all self-loathing id. He is both beautifully and desperately brought to life in a portrait that bleeds off the screen so fast and hot you imagine that the other actors are worrying about whether he’s going to stop when Ferrara yells “cut.”

Because it doesn’t seem like he can, so airtight is his take — which is why Ferrara’s handling of it is so deft. If you’ve ever known someone like this, whose candle burns super-hot on both ends, whose self-control is marked by no-control, or if you’ve been someone like this — then Bad Lieutenant is probably a not-necessary-to-see.

But for the rest of us? Well, walking on the wild side, by way of a viewing from the comfort of our couch, might be just the thing we need for seeing how the other half lives. 

”It’s a pretty compelling film in which the main character is a boiled-down male,” film critic Richard Von Busack says. ”Keitel was great and fearless, but I’m not positive other actors couldn’t have done it. I think of it as more of a Ferrara film than a Keitel film. I love it.” 

Yeah. So do we.


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