Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's 1992 movie about a corrupt cop on the streets
of New York, receives its first television screening on Sunday. Some of us never thought
we'd see the day - forget Tarantino's efforts, getting this past the censors must've
really taken some work.
It's like this. Having graciously paid tribute to Scorsese's Mean Streets,
Bad Lieutenant throbs its way through opening scenes detailing a descent
into depravity - Harvey Keitel on a terminal nosedive into corruption, drug addiction,
gambling. Stylistically extraordinary, the film frees itself from dialogue to observe in
shuddering, mutant close-up.
So far, so ugly. But harsh and potent though it is, masterpieces are made of much more. Halfway
through, Ferrara takes on new agendas. He stops making an excellent Scorsese clone, he
starts making King Lear for the nineties.
Like Lear on the heath, Keitel is left to wrestle with his conscience. He gives the
performance of his life, dredging up dreadful shrieks and howls from the bottom of his soul. No longer
hedging his bets or pleasing his sponsors, Ferrara goes with it. The themes get no
bigger - sin, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, all tackled with a monstrous force that slams
into you and leaves you almost physically winded. For all this, it is a film of
hope - indeed, that's why it's so difficult to take.
The first time I saw it, it took everything I believed in and scattered it in the wind. Brighton
Marina is a desolate place at the best of times - Charter Place by sea, if you like - but it
was bleak beyond comprehension on that afternoon. It crushed me, it left me unable to
focus on anything, staring out to sea and stumbling home.
Like I say, watch it if you want.