Abel Ferrara’s bad lieutenant at 30 years old

(From left) Frankie Thorn and Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.

(from left) Frankie Thorn and Harvey Keitel at Abel Ferrara’s bad colonel.
Photo: lionsgate

Rosary beads dangle from the rearview mirror of his Crown Victoria. The howl of a call-in radio show bounces through the parked car. Outside, a swarm of children burst into the Santa Clara de Asís school. Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic bad colonel, which turns 30 this month, opens with this morning chart. At the center is a hurricane of a main character, The Lieutenant, or LT, played by Harvey Keitel, who brings equal parts spiritual longing and depravity to the role. He’s just dropped off his kids, but they’re barely out the door when he stuffs coke up his nose. This opening perfectly distills the despair at the heart of Ferrara’s meditation on faith and human folly. What we learn right away: LT’s never-ending appetite for vice taints everything good around it.

Fueled by a cocktail of illicit drugs and an almost paranormal angst that seems to drive his every action, LT, a corrupt New York cop, sleepwalks from one atrocity to the next. He chases a young dealer down the street and leads him to an apartment building, only to cordially trade crack rocks for cocaine at the crime scene with him, once sheltered by the darkness of the building’s stairwell. LT excitedly lights up on the spot as the dealer advises him to take it easy, saying, “TThat shit is going to kill you, man. LT responds, “WWhat the hell are you, a drug dealer or a drug counselor? You can hardly help but laugh at the severity of the exchange.

In a haunting and sublime sequence, we see LT stumbling naked, whimpering like a baby into the ghostly apartment of two prostitutes. The twinkling piano and lilting rhythm of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” give the gruesome scene a strange absolution. LT forgoes pouring himself a half glass of vodka and instead drinks it straight from the bottle. The liquor spills over his face and chest, burning his eyes. As good as Keitel is here, half the magic comes from the way Ferrara shoots the sequence. Everything is seen through this soft chiffon veil. As LT slowly dances with one of the sleepwalking prostitutes, a single light filters in from above and illuminates their naked bodies, giving the ensemble a dreamlike quality.

Harvey Keitel as LT in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.

Harvey Keitel as LT at Abel Ferrara’s bad colonel.
Photo: lionsgate

The script, co-written by Ferrara and cult actress Zoë Lund, who also plays LT’s savvy heroine connection, creates an unseen but crucial parallel line with a fictional National League Championship Series between the Mets and Dodgers. The series unfolds over the course of seven games that seep into the film through car radios and blurry dive bar TVs. It’s an exciting device that works to gradually build up the tension as LT, who has gone all-in on the Dodgers, falls further into debt to a shadowy mobster. When the Mets win two straight games to cut the Dodgers’ 3-0 series lead to one game, LT goes off the deep end and fires a round into his car radio while he’s stuck in Midtown traffic. He turns on the police siren and runs through the streets screaming. Keitel unlocks a new level of mad here.

But there’s a more essential plot point fueling Bad Lieutenant. Up in Spanish Harlem a nun has been raped, and there’s a $50,000 reward out for whoever finds the perps. In an oddly Giallo-style sequence, we witness two young men rape the nun, desecrate the church and steal a chalice for good measure. Soon the case worms its way under LT’s skin. Avenging the nun presents the troubled cop with a shot at redemption. But what he soon discovers is that the opposite is true: the nun doesn’t want revenge and has sworn to forgive her assailants, setting a Christ-like standard for empathy that we, the audience, are not even sure we can meet. “Jesus turned water to wine,” she says. “I ought to have turned bitter semen into fertile sperm, hatred to love, and maybe to have saved their souls.”

It’s hard enough to empathize with LT. It becomes particularly hard after he pulls over two teens driving without a license, and coaxes them into a frightening sexual pantomime in exchange for leniency. Very few films, and even fewer now, challenge their audience to empathize with a character this low-down and rotten. It’s a daring and provocative game the film plays, where we are pushed to empathize with LT much like he’s pushed by the nun to empathize with the boys who raped her.

Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.

Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.
Photo: Lionsgate

When he fails to convince the nun to accept his offer of vigilante justice, LT, mystified by her capacity for forgiveness, crawls the aisle of the church howling like a wounded animal. Keitel contorts his face into a blubbering mask of pure pain, stares into the camera and shrieks “I’m sorry!” He’s speaking to the hallucination of Christ in front of him but he’s also speaking directly to the audience and asking for their understanding, for their faith that he might find some way to turn this all around. “I tried to do the right things but I’m too weak. I’m too fucking weak!” he cries. “I did so many bad things.” No shit, we think. Hidden within this caustic film is a kind of radical idealism, a view that art can expand our capacity for empathy and love, and act as a means of soul-saving.

He crawls to the feet of Christ, pleading for forgiveness, but when the fever of his drug-induced mania breaks, he looks up and finds an elderly black woman holding the stolen golden chalice. Arm in arm she leads him to the dilapidated, basement apartment of Julio and Paulo, two local boys who pawned the chalice at her husband’s shop, and who therefore we can infer raped the nun. He stumbles into their lair with his gun drawn. Turns out they have more in common with LT than a penchant for sexual violence, as they are enjoying one of his favorite pastimes—watching baseball and smoking crack. It’s the seventh game of the series, and so he sits down to watch, even offering them some of his “good shit.”

LT then escorts them out to his car and on a drive downtown wonders aloud, with a slight smile on his face, how the nun could forgive these boys. The glimmer of optimism that flashes across his face seems to suggest a dawning realization that maybe he too can be forgiven. He drives them to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where he puts them on a bus, its destination unknown. For LT, this is a radical departure from his default mode of subjugation and cruelty, in this moment he’s not only giving these boys a chance to start over but he’s giving himself a chance to do the same.

But unfortunately for LT, it’s too late, and in a final act of martyrdom he’s gunned down outside Madison Square Garden when he shows up for the money exchange. This scene is a stylistic departure from the rest of the film, which is often defined by its medium close-ups and claustrophobic approach. Here, Ferrara chooses to place a still, hidden camera at a distance. When a town car pulls up and shoots LT dead you see what looks like the genuine shock of civilians who just happen to be walking by, along with a few well-choreographed extras. The first time you see it, despite how inevitable it feels, it hits like a gut-punch.

Bad Lieutenant – Trailer – HQ

For Bad Lieutenant, it’s all about the textures, the granular details that lend the film a frightening authenticity and further illuminate LT and the world in which he lives. The film was shot without permits, on the fly, with whole scenes improvised, and yet somehow manages to feel deeply considered. Credit goes to its creators—Ferrara, Lund and Keitel (who earns this distinction by delivering the closest thing to an onscreen exorcism in American film). All three New Yorkers had their struggles with addiction. Ferrara used during the film’s production, stating years later that “the director of that film needed to be using.” Lund’s storied relationship with heroin and cocaine would eventually kill her. For his part, Keitel had only recently kicked his coke habit in the wake of a messy, public custody battle with ex-girlfriend Lorraine Bracco.

In a kind of miraculous act of creative sorcery, the three of them were able to harness their shared anguish and create from it a deeply troubling and yet strangely life-affirming allegory for their own lives. This isn’t to say that any of these individuals personally plumbed LT’s depths of depravity or sadism, but you can sense that this material is personal for everyone involved—and that they’re hurling themselves into it fearlessly. It makes sense too. A story that revolves around themes of sin and forgiveness, of rebirth and redemption, of the cold hard confrontation one has to make with himself before making any changes would not simply appeal to these artists, but be cathartic. Thirty years later, it’s what gives Bad Lieutenant its enduring power and leaves it echoing in the hearts of those haunted by it.

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