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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Attack of the B-Movies: New York’s crime-riddled ‘Bad Lieutenant’

Abel Ferrara’s 1992 neo-noir experience in the city that never sleeps is like no other.

Graphic for Ethan Essner’s column “Attack of the B Movies”
Graphic by Emma Selesnick

Content warning: This column discusses sexual assault.

When we take a step back and look at how cinema depicted sprawling urban metropolises in the 1970s through the 1990s, we can uncover significant traits. For one, films started to look into the setting as much less of a backdrop and more of a character in itself. Films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981) are prominent examples from this era featuring New York City. These movies transcended their genres as they shaped the city around them into storytelling devices in bold new ways. More esoteric showings of this same style are incorporated in almost every work by B-Movie icon Abel Ferrara. “Ms .45” (1981), King of New York” (1990) and — arguably his magnum opus — Bad Lieutenant” (1992) are prime examples of how big cities and their cinematic facades can be reshaped like Play-Doh to fashion some of the most crafty narrative concertos.

“Bad Lieutenant” centers around a washed-up NYPD lieutenant with a monotonous life of crime chasing, drug dealing and womanizing. The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) tends to minimize the crime part of his job as he seeks to use his status in the upper echelons of the police force as a means of getting what he wants. But, what he wants increasingly turns him into a depressive crack-smoker with nowhere to turn but sexual fulfillment and any hands-off job that will yield a free cold one or some cash. His search for jobs with these qualities is unending, until a specific crime unfolds. Ironically enough, it’s a crime concerning religion.

In a quick montage, we are shown a violent rape of a nun, and it’s here that the revisionist plot involving faith makes its way into the story — as well as the mind of the lieutenant. The film starts to transform into a meditation on a sort of tug-of-war match between drugs and religion. The lieutenant starts to envision his Catholicism through the lens of one searching for salvation as he sees a tortured Jesus Christ staring down at what he’s become.

Keitel’s character is pulled in both directions and — despite all the pain he inflicts on others — is somehow seen by others as more than a sad excuse for a deadbeat masculinist. He’s still allowed on the bright, lively streets of New York to solve this crime, despite being a living symbol for all that’s wrong with masculinity.

Every single sequence from when his quest to find the perpetrator(s) of the rape starts to when it ends is compounded by his binge drinking and crack smoking. At one point, he walks into a club and willingly walks out on paying up for a lost bet made on a baseball game. Even when threatened with murder of him and his whole family, he proclaims his innocence in owing nothing to anyone. Through his drunken posture and stoned eye sockets, his lack of comprehending anything going on around him just adds to the mystery of why New York chose him to be the one to solve this crime.

The film culminates as this B-Movie goldmine of neo-noir goodness with the performances and direction. Abel Ferrara hit this miraculous — albeit offbeat — stroke of genius in the 1990s with this and “King of New York.” He shaped the theatrics of the city like no other. “Bad Lieutenant” is a segment in a long line of masterful, neo-noir B-Movies in big cities across the landscape of the changing America.