Reservoir Dogs
Produced by Lawrence Bender
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released by Miramax Films

The Bad Lieutenant
Produced by Edward Pressman
Written by Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Released by Aries Films

The way the camera turns an actor’s body into an objet d’art is wonderful. Some faces—Bogart’s, for instance, or Cooper’s, or Wayne’s—can be maps of experience, the topography of those weathered lines and architectural planes suggesting a richness of emotional history that endows any routine scene with depth and dimension. Harvey Keitel’s is such a body and such a face, as the extraordinary weekend I’ve just spent with two of his films makes abundantly clear. There is a peasant crudeness to the nose and the bones of the brow, but the mouth, surprisingly delicate, is at certain angles almost beautiful. Bogie, too, had that hint of femininity around the mouth (the slight lisp helped) and those sad, hooded eyes that made a roughhewn physiognomy fascinating, not altogether predictable, and therefore dramatic.

Keitel can bring to his portrayal of thugs, then, an implicit but nonetheless powerful suggestion that the thuggishness isn’t all of it and that his cop or his robber isn’t merely a villain. And, after all, who is altogether worthless, absolutely unredeemed, or, worse, unredeemable? In a pair of amazing performances in these two fine films, one watches Keitel’s self-contradictory face, rumpled and worn by suffering and depravity but still capable of nuance and surprisingly vulnerable to pain. That face holds the eye, as the mind wanders freely among the suggestions from the writer and director of complicated issues of loyalty and betrayal, destiny and free will, good and evil.

Reservoir Dogs is another clever moral tale about how crime does not pay—because of the limitations of the human condition. As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, indeed, as in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale,” the idea is that duplicity’s defect is usually its intricacy, which is too demanding for our imperfect universe. It isn’t criminal law but Murphy’s law that comes into play, and there is a more or less tactful suggestion that a kind of justice, perhaps even a divine justice, operates here. We watch a robbery that goes bad, not just because of bad luck but because of bad faith. One of the gang members is an undercover policeman. But if one has ratted, then all must be under suspicion. And the elegance of their calculations is what makes these crooks, psychopaths, and sadists interesting to watch. Keitel is Mr. White, a kind of journeyman thief who is clever, wary, brave, resourceful, and even ruthless—but not quite enough! It is his inevitable and perfectly believable lapse from the perfection of villainy that ruins him.

The script, with its humor and intricacy, is what attracted Keitel to the young Quentin Tarantino’s film. Keitel coproduced the picture, and it was primarily his participation that enabled the making of this bright, cheeky youngster’s first movie. (Tarantino is only in his late 20’s, and this film is an amazing debut.) The surface of the picture is violent but witty—not merely because of the kinds of wise-cracks with which Eastwood or Schwarzenegger have been winking at us from their abattoir carnage, but because of the crackling and legitimate expressions of the characters of the piece. In an introductory scene, before the main title, in which the gang is sitting around a table in some diner, one of the men points his finger at Keitel, as if it were a gun. “You shoot me in a dream,” Keitel says, “you better wake up and apologize!”

The ensemble work is lovely. Along with Keitel’s Mr. White, Steve Buscemi’s dangerous Mr. Pink, and Eddie Bunker’s appalling and nearly deranged Mr. Blue, there is Lawrence Tierney’s gruff Joe Cabot, the chief executive officer of this ad-hoc association. They are all shrewd, but also funny because of their self-awareness, and they are violent because that is how they have chosen or been driven to behave. For the film to work, as it does, we have to admire their sangfroid—and there is plenty of sang for them to crawl through. Tim Roth, who plays Mr. Orange with a fine Pacino-like intensity, asks Mr. White what he should do if the manager doesn’t hand over the diamonds right away. “Cut off a finger,” Keitel tells him matter-of-factly. “The little finger, and then tell him the thumb will be next.” Then, without missing a beat, he says, “I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.”

Tarantino’s script is really a knockout, and this wonderful debut is likely to be a beacon that will attract dozens, maybe even hundreds, of talented young filmmakers, giving them hope to try the same long-shot bet that a good script will somehow lure the right people and that the elements will come together in some spontaneous way. It’s what is supposed to happen and almost never does. That it still can, however rarely, is an occasion for general thanksgiving and celebration.

More usual is the career of someone like Abel Ferrara, the 42-year-old director of The Bad Lieutenant, who had to serve as an apprentice for movies you and I have never heard of—Driller Killer, for instance, a 1979 spatter flick that demonstrates the potential for bloody violence of a power drill. In the course of making these exploitation and shlock films, he was able to put together a low-life version of the repertory companies that Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen managed to contrive. The truth is that if you figure out a way to attract an audience so that your films have a reasonable likelihood of making money, then, for as long as you can keep the accountants happy, you can do whatever you want.

Ferrara’s sensibility is like that of . . . Georges Bataille, or Celine, or Pasolini, or de Sade. The underside of things fascinates him because that is where he expects the truth to be revealed. What’s true there is true anywhere! And The Bad Lieutenant, for all of its grit and grime, its sordidness and sleazy excess, is actually a film about redemption and grace. One would suppose as one watches his routine of self-indulgence and self-abuse that there can be nowhere lower for the renegade cop to sink. As one of his junkie friends (played by the screenwriter, Zoe Lund) says, “We got to eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left but appetite.”

That, too, will eventually be extinguished, of course. But along with such compulsions, there is also a kind of paranoia here that allows Ferrara and his merry pranksters an opportunity for philosophical razzle-dazzle. The notion that destiny, or fate, or grace is operating is a hard point to make in a movie, but Ferrara gives us just that, disguised as a series of bets the lieutenant is placing against the Mets, who ought by any reasonable calculation to lose any given game and who cannot possibly be expected to come from a three-zip deficit to win their play-off series against the Dodgers.

How this odd business evolves from grace note to leitmotif to the very core of the drama, the representation of Jesus’ intercession on behalf of the lieutenant’s soul, involves a scries of deft moves—metaphors that seem as solid as mathematical equations. This is a curious way of managing a plot, but it is not far from what happened in Driller Killer, which is about a painter who commits a series of murders because, as he is working on his paintings, there is a punk band practicing upstairs that is driving him crazy. This is totally gonzo, and yet it has a metaphoric richness in its promptings and intimations about urban life, chaos, and maybe even the devil. In The Bad Lieutenant, what helps Ferrara manage this improbable strategy is Keitel’s quirky combination of lumpiness and physical grace. He can convey an anguish that is all the more convincing because it is somehow shot through with moments of self-awareness and even wit. Amazingly this seems not to have been imposed from outside or above but to have arisen from the complexity of the character itself.

The case on which we follow the lieutenant’s progress is the savage rape of a nun (in a church, before the altar!), and while we may find such a crime all but unimaginable, the lieutenant is not so impressed. “Women get raped all the time,” he observes. “What’s so special about this one, just because she was wearing a penguin suit?” What’s special, of course, is that heaven is offended, and if the machinery by which the policeman is corrected seems somewhat mannered and even melodramatic (Jesus gets down off the crucifix to stand there in the aisle of the church and confront the cop), we have to admit that his poor sizzled brain would apprehend the world in just these images. That they are authentic and persuasive for the character is all Ferrara needs to establish.

The cop is not stupid, after all, but merely weak, as he freely confesses. Indeed, as the film shows him sailing ever closer to the moral wind, we come to appreciate his shrewdness. He knows just how far to go, what chances to take, and how to limit his risks, the nature of which he has gauged with dreadful precision. In one powerful scene in which he stops a couple of joy-riding girls from Jersey, he assaults and brutalizes them as far as it is possible to do without laying a hand on them. And what is astonishing is that there is, for the girls, a lesson in the lieutenant’s behavior, a kind of warning of the moral chaos that ensues as soon as one has abandoned the rules. The lieutenant’s conduct, utterly dreadful and exploitive, is also elegantly calibrated. There is reason to suppose that these two bimbos may rethink, repent, and amend their lives. That an audience can entertain such notions is a fairly sure indication of the seriousness of Keitel’s and Ferrara’s mischief-making.

Inevitably, the bets against the Mets escalate. The lieutenant—he’s never actually named—gets deeper and deeper into the hole, and the people he is betting with are implacably unforgiving. There is no way out, unless the Mets lose. Their failure to do so is, believes the lieutenant, a joke, a trick of destiny, a trap, which means the end of the life he has been leading. Now that he is so far lost that not even the reward money the Church has offered will save him, he is forced to take seriously for the first time the implications of the nun’s bizarre act of forgiveness of her assailants. It is an imitation of Christ’s forgiveness of sinners to which even he is now driven, a weak, worthless, and—as he had thought and as we’d have agreed—altogether lost soul.

This is elegant and serious in its morality, and, of course, it has an NC-17 rating, about which Ferrara seems quite pleased. As he remarked to an interviewer for New York, “This film was designed to be NC-17. If this film wasn’t NC-17, we’d have nothing to sell. I don’t give a sh– if Bad Lieutenant doesn’t play at the mall in Des Moines, where they’re f—ing watching Home Alone. We were gonna put an NC-17 on it if they gave us a C.”

It is altogether satisfactory to be able to report about two such fine movies. Even better is the prospect of a further demonstration of Keitel’s odd and brilliant gifts. Ferrara’s current project is a piece called Snake Eyes in which Keitel is featured as a film director, with Madonna as an actress and James Russo as her co-star in the film Keitel is supposed to be directing. Ferrara has said, “It’s like Jules and Jim meets Bad Lieutenant.” I can’t wait.