Some actors have their peak period in the very beginning of their career which continues for a decade or so and then kind of slows down. Two such actors — Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel — had a great run decades ago when Martin Scorsese introduced them to the world through his masterpiece Mean Streets. De Niro and Keitel continued to do some great films in the 80s and 90s until someone decided that we can’t afford to do films like that anymore. Mean Streets was both De Niro and Keitel’s breakout film and although Keitel was praised for his role as a young Italian man dealing with Catholic guilt, it was De Niro’s performance as the completely reckless and wayward punk that got noticed the most.
The two would work together once again in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver but Keitel’s role was relatively much shorter and he only had around three or four scenes. But he still managed to hold his own in them as well. Now you must be wondering why I’m mentioning these two films. I will tell you. At the same time that I discovered these two films, I wondered if Keitel had done a film like Taxi Driver – a powerful film that was a breath-taking display of one man’s acting prowess. Being already familiar with De Niro’s work, I wanted to see if Keitel had similar capabilities. That’s when I chanced upon Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant – a film that I was initially hesitant to watch given the subject matter. To me, Bad Lieutenant is Harvey Keitel’s Taxi Driver or to choose a more apt example, Raging Bull.
It’s not the kind of role that many actors would dare to take on. In what I call Abel Ferrara’s most artistically accomplished film of his entire career, he introduces us to one of the most despicable characters ever put to celluloid: an unnamed New York City detective who has sunk deeper and deeper into the depths of hell and has lost his sense of identity — and it’s only apt that Ferrara has opted to not give him a name. Ferrara establishes the character and gives us a small taste of what he is like right in the first 15 minutes. He is a family man with two school going boys and as he is taking them to school, he has a conversation with them that is peppered with more than f-word. He doesn’t care. Later, he snorts drugs while still parked in front of the school and, again, he doesn’t care.
The ‘family man’ aspect is only touched upon once or twice. He is not bothered by these things, seemingly. He is more concerned about the betting on the baseball game that’s been going on between the Mets and the Dodgers. But his favorite team always loses and the bookie is constantly after him demanding his money. He doesn’t pay and instead wants everyone to bet on the next day’s game. Meanwhile, he is busy visiting drug dealers and prostitutes and pumping all kinds of drugs into his system. Whenever he shows up at a crime scene, he takes one look at it and then goes on to discuss the betting with other cops. This is followed by a repeat cycle of episodes of self-loathing and crying. How he turned out this way and what demons bother him – this we don’t know. We are only given a hint. Ferrara’s films all have been about the downfall of human beings but sometimes the reasons are left vague.
Perhaps, it’s an intense and prolonged disillusionment with the system he is part of. He turns a blind eye to some crimes and takes advantage of some of the others. He is no different than the criminals he is supposed to put away. For example, take the scene where he asks two black robbers to hand him the money they had just stolen from a Chinese store owner. Instead of giving it back, he pockets it himself after the owner is escorted away. Whatever he is seeking, he is unable to find. He is so intoxicated that, at times, his movements and manner resemble that of a zombie’s. This is self-destruction at his finest. One scene in particular — involving two young girls driving around without a license — is so vile that I don’t think any other actor would’ve had the courage to do it. But it’s also this scene where we get to see what Keitel is really capable of.
Things take a turn when a nun is brutally raped by two young men and the lieutenant is tasked with bringing the culprits to justice. He learns that these two men are juveniles and that if caught, they’ll walk in no time. He doesn’t want that. He has his own brand of justice. When he approaches the nun, he is flabbergasted when she tells him that he has forgiven them. He can’t understand it. “How could you forgive them?” he asks her repeatedly. She tells him about the weakness inherent in every man and these two boys were only being “human”, as per logic. On hearing this, his anguish only intensifies. How does an already conflicted character react to a situation like this? This is where things get really interesting and the film’s profundity is revealed to us. Whether it’s acceptable or not — this depends entirely on the viewer.
Now this is where I see the Mean Streets connection. Scorsese has named Bad Lieutenant as one of his favourite films and I can see why. The lieutenant feels like the extension of Keitel’s character from Mean Streets but with negative shades. The lieutenant says at one point that he is Catholic and we see him go to church more than once but we don’t see him pray. His mind is preoccupied with other things and in one scene, he is talking about betting. We can sense that something has happened to him in the past that made him lose faith in God. This is a character who is fully aware of the weakness inside him and it’s only when he conducts another self-analysis that he finally gets the gist of what the nun said to him, even though it’s something that he doesn’t like to confront. But therein lies the path to redemption and if it doesn’t come to him in any other form, what else can he do?
Indian director Anurag Kashyap’s recent film Raman Raghav 2.0 had one of the main characters, a police officer named Raghav, who seems to have been strongly influenced by Keitel’s character. The only difference between Raghav and Keitel’s character is that the latter isn’t shown committing any murder (and also the absence of the religious themes in RR 2.0). Maybe he has and Ferrara left us to ponder on it. If he is capable of committing other deplorable acts, why not murder?