Abel Ferrara has always labeled Bad Lieutenant - his '92 masterpiece involving a nameless cop's descent into sin and madness - a "documentary", even though it stars Harvey Keitel, and is obviously a work of jangly NYC grime fiction. However, Ferrara was shooting what he knew: the streets of New York, emerging from the '80s when crack was still king, and the NYPD had been revealed over the last few decades (from with the infamous Knapp Commission on) to be just as scummy and corrupt as any pusher on the corner. Based on the director's previous picture - the Christopher Walken-starring King of New York ('90) - with its hyper-stylized Manhattan answer to Brian De Palma's Scarface ('83), he probably respected the kingpins more. At least the enigmatic villain in that cold opus acknowledges he's putting poison in the streets, and tries to counter his actions by erecting a hospital with his ill-gotten gains in the run down slums.
But let's back up for a minute. One of the keys to understanding Ferrara's filmography is how it's both observational and voyeuristic simultaneously. His first proper feature (following the truly scummy '76 porno, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, shot under the nom de smut "Jimmy Boy L") was the fear-mongering slice of avant garde horror, The Driller Killer ('79). In that overwhelmingly unpleasant introduction to the auteur's pulp sensibilities, an artist (played by Ferrara under his expanded pseudonym: Jimmy Laine) watches like a tourist through binoculars from his rooftop while an impossibly timed robbery plays out, the medics arriving on scene so quickly after the victim is stabbed that it seems like they psychically predicted the crime. Meanwhile, in the painter's loft (which was the actual apartment Ferrara lived in at the time), a newspaper headline screams "State Abandons Mentally Ill to City Streets". Only it's punk music that finally sends the paranoid creep over the edge, as the distorted guitars mirror the chaos he witnesses each day, acting as a shrieking soundtrack to this perverse apocalypse.
Bad Lieutenant asks: what if this cold, unlivable den of sin became a playground for one of its participants, just as it became a power tool hunting ground for that blood-crazed visionary? Furthermore, what if the cretin who got his cheap thrills robbing, fucking, shooting up and generally exercising his brutal caveman will was able to hide behind some sort of untouchable authority? While many remarked that Bad Lieutenant was a howl of moral outrage when it was first released (and have since focused almost exclusively on the Catholic imagery contained in the picture), Ferrara has always maintained the nameless, lawless detective was simply "having the time of his life." It's true; Keitel plays LT's indulgences as spontaneous acts of self-gratification, all while he utilizes his job and his standing as a Catholic as a shield against criticism or consequences. “I've been dodgin' fuckin' bullets since I was fourteen. No one can kill me. I'm blessed. I'm a fuckin' Catholic," he says at one point to a made guy looking to collect the cop's ever-increasing gambling debt, and we get the feeling he truly believes the nonsense he spouts.
"This film should be played LOUD." That was the disclaimer that ran before the first frames of The Driller Killer, and one wonders why Ferrara didn't put it in front of every single one of his films, fictional or otherwise. From the opening minutes of Bad Lieutenant, we're swallowed up by the sounds of New York City - a metropolis on the edge of its collective seat, as the Mets battle the Dodgers in a World Series that never existed (though Ferrara is using audio clippings from real Mets/Dodgers games - including Darryl Strawberry's miraculous three-run homer in July '91). Even when the radio's off and LT's driving his kids to school, the little animals are sniping at him and each other until he tells them to shut the fuck up. He doesn't have time for their everyday concerns, as all he wants to do is meet up with his wasted concubine (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) so that they can shoot up and zone out for a few seconds, forcing the world to quiet down and let him relax.
Though the screenplay for Bad Lieutenant is credited to both Ferrara and Lund (marking it as a rare departure from collaborator Nicholas St. John), the Ms. 45 ('81) star claims that she wrote every word of the sixty-five page document, which only acts as a rough outline for Keitel's rampage of sex, drugs and violence. Much of the movie was improvised on the spot, as Ferrara was essentially using the news of the day and the city that surrounded Keitel to inspire the happenings that his regular cinematographer Ken Kelsch then rolled on. Many of the scenes are live-shot, with the "extras" being Big Apple dwellers who happened to be passing the permitless production on the street. It makes sense that Kelsch would go on to lens a few of Ferrara's more experimental projects later in his career (notably the documentary Chelsea on the Rocks ['08]), as he allows Keitel to exist in any given space, the environment alive and interacted with while never dictating the narrative. An early moment where LT arrives at a bloody crime scene never once turns into a story beat, but rather just another stop in the cop's tireless quest for oblivion.
Lund taking credit for the script mostly doesn't matter, because though Ferrara's name is the last credit we see (not to mention the last voice we hear, as the title song he wrote for the movie is belted out over the end titles with his friend Paul Hipp), Keitel dictated almost every day of shooting, often changing scenes on the fly and re-molding the character at will. One of the most controversial moments - that was eventually trimmed from the NC-17 version so it could be released on VHS at Blockbuster Video during the '90s - involves the cop pulling over two teenage girls (Eddie Daniels and Bianca Hunter) before sexually berating them. While LT masturbates outside the car, he makes the passenger show her ass, as the driver simulates how she'd "suck a cock" until he cums on the side of their vehicle. Originally, that scene was supposed to be a dance involving Christopher Walken (who turned the part down) joyously celebrating with the girls. But as the grime auteur says, "Harvey turned it into this whole other thing."
The legend goes: Keitel originally tossed the script for Bad Lieutenant in the trash after reading five pages, but then reconsidered because he was never allowed to be the lead in a movie. It wasn't until he got to the central crime that drives the officer down a dark path of madness - the rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn) who forgives her attackers despite being violated with her church's cross - that Keitel reportedly understood why Ferrara wanted to make the movie. While the filmmaker has never been a particularly faithful artist, he has been fascinated by the notion of redemption, only in a more abstract rather than linear sense. The mental tally a viewer could make regarding this alleged peacekeeper's moral offenses would be too long for an average individual's lifetime, let alone the few days Bad Lieutenant takes place in. However, Ferrara is never really interested in redeeming LT as he is in exploiting his degradation as a sort of debased passion play. By the time the cop's literally swearing at a hallucination of Jesus Christ in the nun's church, one can't help but wonder if he's not also hollering at himself, recognizing the "rat fuck" that he is and blaming it (intrinsically) on being made in God's image. In Ferrara's universe, there is no true redemption to be had, instead a self-recognition of one's own fleshy debauchery.
Bad Lieutenant obviously isn't the first time Ferrara transformed religious imagery into secular insanity, as the climax of Ms. 45 sees Lund donning a habit and then unloading her weapon of choice into a party of costumed revelers who haven't committed any crimes (at least, none that we know of). Yet the two films feel linked in their usage of Catholic iconography to represent the final transformation of persons driven totally mad by the chaos and danger of living in New York City. Both works transmute a victim and a protector into instruments of violence and debasement, but never lose empathy for the fact that the cacophony of crazy that seeps into their minds may have drowned any sort of logical thought. All that's left is primal instinct, and the ability to indulge one's most irrational fantasies, knowing that they're simply cogs in a machine that was never fully functional in the first place. Nothing can kill them, because there's nothing left.