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A New York City police lieutenant investigates the rape of a young nun. His drug and gambling addiction has him at the brink of destruction, but the nun helps him see a different side of life.
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The lieutenant is no angel. He does coke in the car after having dropped of his sons at their school. He leaves an investigation to put in bets with his bookie. He sleeps with prostitutes and he does drug deals with evidence. He even forces two girls, who are driving without a driver’s license, to degrade themselves while he masturbates. This lost soul will however try to seek redemption.
The movie takes place during the 1988 National League Championship series between the LA Dodgers and the NY Mets. For game 4 the lieutenant convinces his colleagues to bet with him and then he goes behind their backs and bets against the Mets. The Dodgers lose and the lieutenant owes the bookies 15 grand. This routine is repeated at game 5 and 6 until he owes 60 grand to the mobster who runs the racket. His own bookie wont even put him up for another bet, this time for 120 grand. He is the only one that realizes the severity of the situation and the treat to the lieutenant’s life. Dealing directly with the mobster a final bet is however places on game 7.
The lieutenant is numb on heroin, coke and vodka and it is only after the rape of a nun (Thorn) in Spanish Harlem that he is able to feel something. The predators are finally tracked down through the chalice they stole from the church. There is now a 50 grand reward on their heads and the lieutenant is in dire need of money to pay off the gambling debts he accumulated after the Mets won again.
Director, actor and writer Abel Ferrara is known for his gritty depictions of New York City life in movies like The Driller Killer (1979), Fear City (1984) and King of New York (1990). Bad Lieutenant is no different. The city is shown from its darker sides. Locations like strip clubs, shady bars and condemned buildings are used. There’s also the obligatory Ferrara nudity. And more surprisingly full frontal nudity by Keitel. Combine this with the fairly vivid rape scene and the movie earned an R rating.
Contemplating how the nun could find faith to forgive her assailants, the lieutenant starts to see visions of Christ. These are naturally fueled by his substance abuse, but somehow they still push him on a road to forgiveness. And when he finally catches up with the rapists he chooses to run them out of town instead of turning them in. This might seem like an odd choice considering there was a reward involved. Money he needed to pay off his gambling debts. Or above all since he is a police officer. This is however the way he chooses to repent. He even sends them off with the money that he earned while doing bad deeds.
The symbol of Christ is visible throughout the movie. And Christ even comes alive and off the cross. It is the lieutenant’s conscience that comes back to haunt him, but also a way of incorporating the church theme. And maybe even to link the lieutenant to a catholic version of Judas? He does sell out his beliefs and faith for money. And more than once does he utter the words ”I’m catholic” as an excuse. As if it would clear him from his wrongdoings.
Why did this movie become cult? This was the time before George Pelecanos novels and when there was a very little grey zone when it came to bad guys versus good guys. The lieutenant is the carrier of a badge and should protect the weak. Instead he prays on them and especially if they are from another race. He is an alcoholic, a drug addict and a bad father but in the hands of Ferrara he becomes a tragic hero. And for that the movie earns a 3 out of 5.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.