The movie that made Harvey Keitel an icon at last, and without sacrificing a molecule of his mulish integrity, Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" (1992) was a high watermark for both men—an autopsy of a man's ruined life, and an examination of appetite and its consequences that fixed hell's location inside the human heart. The Lieutenant—whose real name is never revealed—is a worst-case scenario of hypermasculine weakness, a crooked, boozing, dope-shooting cop who hustles around New York trying to track down a couple of teenagers who raped a nun while simultaneously trying to avoid getting killed by gangsters to whom he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling debts. Judged purely as a spiral into darkness, it was damned hard to beat. Ferrara and Keitel were Bertolucci and Brando doing "Last Tango in New York," only this time, the suicidal hero fucked himself.
I first saw this movie when I was writing movie reviews for the Dallas Observer, and it didn't just impress me, it wiped me out. I believed then, and still believe now, that it's a classic, possibly Ferrara's purest and most direct statement of who he is and what his career has been about. In the repertory house of my imagination, I'd put it on a double bill with "Raging Bull," another study in rage, sexual dysfunction and Roman Catholic attraction-repulsion in the face of sin. Ferrara, I wrote in 1993 when the film finally played Dallas, "...is a spiritual man, but not traditionally religious. Raised Catholic, he has few good things to say about the church. Like Martin Scorsese, he's fascinated with sin, spirituality and redemption, but aside from that, he has little in common with Scorsese (except, perhaps, for the street milieu). Scorsese loves visual representations of sin; they make for gorgeous images, and he alternates between embracing them and jumping violently away from them. The visceral artist in him conflicts with the moralist, and this clash makes his detractors (and sometimes even his fans) livid."