There’s a genre of dirty cop movies: Prince of the City (which we’ve covered before), Serpico… and then there’s Bad Lieutenant. Wow.
Released in 1992 and directed by the notoriously quirky Abel Ferraro, Bad Lieutenant is like a trip through a doomed man’s id. The title character, inhabited — truly, inhabited — by Harvey Keitel, is a lieutenant of detectives in an unnamed unit who appears to have a citywide mandate. What he really has, however, is a voracious appetite for drugs, booze, sex, and gambling. The man is six months of overtime for any vice squad.
This is, in my opinion, Keitel’s most compelling performance. Watching the movie, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role (likely the truest test of great acting). The actor’s stupefied wreck of a face is like a topographic map of every day of this cop’s career, and Keitel shuffles through the streets of crummy 90’s New York like he’s going to the gallows. Which in a way he is.
The kernel of the story is based on a a true incident from the the time, in which a nun was raped and a church robbed in Spanish Harlem. Former NYPD detective Bo Deitl investigated the actual case, and in fact he appears here in a supporting role. While the movie seems to take place in an NYPD in which lieutenants are completely unsupervised, its undeniable slice-of-life realism is likely due to Deitl’s presence on-set.
The other compelling character in the film is New York City. Like similar movies — Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Panic In Needle Park, etc. — a great metropolis collapsing in on itself is more than setting here. It’s a menacing presence over everyone’s shoulder. No one is immune. Not the cops, the church, the workaday New Yorkers… nobody. (And for those of a certain age, the scene at the Limelight — aka the Slimelight — will induce a few painful flashbacks).
Isn’t it wonderful that today’s New York is heading in the same direction? (Um, no, it’s not).
Sure, it’s Scorcese-adjacent, and you might find it a tad unsettling at times — but you won’t look away. And in the end, there is a measure of redemption here, which the lieutenant seems to have been reaching for all along.
It’s an experience. Catch it now on Amazon Prime, free with commercials. Then maybe take a shower.
Meantime: Have a great weekend! (Because next week promises to be… interesting).