Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Lobby Card #6: Bad Lieutenant

curcio david

Lobby Card: Bad Lieutenant, 1992 (d. Abel Ferarra)


Abel Ferarra’s  detailing of the last four days of a corrupt New York Lieutenant’s life will doubtfully never lose its shock value, or the bloodless but emotional violence that earned it its NC-17 rating in when it was released in 1993.  Harvey Keitel is the lieutenant in question, and his apple’s rotten to the core.  After a slow, mournful dance with a hooker and a tranny in a squalid room in the Mayflower Hotel, he unsteadily pours himself a glass of vodka, places the glass down and drinks half the contents of the bottle until the liquid spews from the sides of his mouth, then proceeds to stagger about in his most elegiac and brutal full-frontal nude scene to date (and there have been a lot).  He spoons coke into his nose after dropping his kids off at school; he jerks off in front of two Jersey girls while one of them is forced to mimic giving head; he is a gambler, a junkie (“…killer… cop” as the tagline has it), and to recount his reprehensible acts here would take up too much time and space, so suffice to say the litany is not brief.  A desperate attempt at salvation following the investigation of a nun’s rape culminates in a religious epiphany/breakdown and hallucination of Christ, who he alternately berates and begs forgiveness from, despite his wobbly sense of security in the salvation department due to his Catholicism (“I’m blessed… I’m a fuckin’ Catholic” he tells his bookie).  The drug-addled religious epiphany (though everything he does is drud-addled) prompts him, against his better judgment (thought that’s not saying much) to forgive the nun’s rapists after they all smoke some crack at their arrest and, in a maddeningly misdirected attempt at religious forgiveness and redemption (not to mention ill-advised policing), he lets them go free.

The movie tracks his final days as they play out during a Mets-Dodgers world series: convincing his fellow cops to bet on the Mets – who he is sure will lose – he gets ever-deeper into the hole as he sinks money he does not have into the Dodgers (particularly Daryl Strawberry, another great user) to the tune of $60k.  Having burnt all his bridges, none of his efforts can stop him from exactly what he has coming to him.

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A tense World Series on the car radio.


Ferarra wrote the screenplay with Zoe Lund, star of his early film Ms. 45, a cult classic and among the first (and far and away the best) of the 70s “rape revenge” sub-genre.’  He supposedly had Dean Martin (!) in mind for the lead role (this is according to an Esquire article on Keitel from the early-mid 90’s by the annoying journalist Nick Tosches, and a bit suspect as Tosches had just published his own biography on Dino).  Keitel did not initially want the role but eventually came around, throwing himself into it – true to his method roots – with his entire soul.


The movie has all the trappings of Ferarra’s gritty, pre-Guilianni New York.  The uptown apartments, Central Park foliage and wide avenues of Woody Allen are of another planet above the claustrophobic streets of the Lower East Side of the early 90s, where the streets were still littered with crack viles.  Ferarra is known primarily for a handful of films he did with Christopher Walken – The Funeral, The Addiction and (a close runner up for his masterpiece after Bad Lieutenant) King of New York.  His films capture both the grime, seething violence and eerie silences of New York populated with locals and real-life cops playing small rolls, as well as Ferarra/New York regulars Victor Argo and Paul Calderon.  The film’s shoe-string budget helps drive home the realism and brutality – much of it was shot without permission – and dozens of unpaid extras (including some staff at Bellevue Hospital and one NY Transit cop) are oblivious to the drama, much less the filming, unfolding before them.

To say that a director is only as bad as his worst film would be unfair to every working director. An artist’s job is to take chances. Some don’t always pan out.  In some cases the output of bad outweighs the good. Ferarra has made a number of dreadful films, but it is best in the case of this director to focus on his great works, of which there are many (all set in the New York he knows so well), and take a patient approach to his failed experiments and projects where studios meddled too much (or he was too coked out to give a shit).  Let’s watch the good stuff and remind ourselves that while he is not a genius, he is an original with at least a few masterpieces under his belt.

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Bad Lieutenant, 1992.


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