(Nicolas Cage in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Image courtesy of Toronto International Film festival.)
Film festivals are often time machines. You stand in line, at a theater, walk down a street, and you’re transported to that same space, theater, you found yourself years before. That was certainly the sensation I felt at Toronto’s Cumberland seeing a press screening of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
I saw Abel Ferrara’s original at the same festival seventeen years earlier, at the now vanished Uptown. Through my connection to the original film’s distributor, Paul Cohen, I was introduced to Ferrara that night. Abel was then, as now, pure id; just like his moviemaking, everything was about his own pleasure and sensation. Everybody else that night talked about having a celebratory dinner, Abel only talked about haunting the notorious strip club across the street.
It was also my introduction to Edward R. Pressman, a key figure in seventies independent cinema (the first significant producer of De Palma and Malick). He made an odd pairing with Ferrara. He was everything Abel wasn’t: refined, self-contained and emotionally detached. They made several other films together. Their paths diverted, and now Pressman’s the connecting thread of the two films. He’s also a producer on the Herzog version.
After the new version was announced in production, Abel promptly wished eternal damnation on Herzog, Pressman, star Nicolas Cage (whom Abel unsuccessfully sought for his own movie The Funeral, made a couple of years after his Bad Lieutenant). Herzog upped the ante, trashing Ferrara and claiming (rather unconvincingly) he’d never seen the original.
Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is his masterpiece, the most daring and fascinating work from his most exciting period. I was looking recently at the high definition transfer of King of New York, the crime thriller Ferrara made just before Bad Lieutenant. The night poetry and verve of the moviemaking is absolutely breathtaking. Ferrara’s instinctive, intuitive play of light and texture, of camera movement and action, was so dead on and vibrant.
A meditation of sex, death and guilt, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant centers on Harvey Keitel’s dangerous, uninhibited performance of a damaged, tortured “artist,” a New York detective assigned to a horrifying crime, the rape of a nun that occasions his own loss and faith and eventual ruin. His belief shattered by the ruthlessness of the crime, he surrenders to his weakest impulses, addiction, gambling, and squanders his own moral authority. Ferrara’s movie is a kind of annihilating work that rejects the lieutenant’s search for deliverance, offering instead the worst kind of comeuppance.
The original was rated NC-17, and one largely unknown casualty was my friend Paul Cohen’s boutique company, Aries Releasing. The aristocratic investors that had staked Paul’s company were so personally offended by the material and Paul’s association with the work, they withdrew their capital support and Paul was eventually forced to close the concern. Paul distributed some interesting movies back then, and he remains in the business in various capacities (another former concern, Manhattan Pictures, distributed Godard’s In Praise of Love). That was his finest hour. Ferrara’s also made some interesting movies since, but nothing approaching the concentration and intensity of feeling of his Bad Lieutenant.
I approached the new film with trepidation. I was put off by Herzog’s remarks about the first film. Guilt by association or not, I was also not terribly encouraged given the involvement of the movie’s financial partners, Nu Image Films and Millennium Films. What I also heard out of Venice was also not terribly assuring.
Nonetheless I have to admit I was hooked by this iteration pretty much from the start. With the exception of Lessons of Darkness, Herzog’s documentaries are not visually distinctive. His narrative features tend to be over composed and studied. The nocturnal beauty and off-handed atmospheric color and sinuous mood established in the texture and imagery of Czech cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger is rather striking.
It sharply establishes a sense of place and time that credibly evolves into the more hallucinatory and perverse visual strategies of the movie’s middle and closing parts. It’s been rather disconcerting to see Cage waste his considerable gifts on so many artistically worthless projects the last decade. It doesn’t exactly make up for what he’s done, but it is certainly a potent reminder of how good he can be. Unlike Keitel’s, the cop played by Cage has a name, Terence McDonagh.
Both films are grounded in moral outrage, the rape of the nun in the original and the senseless mass killing of an African émigré family connected to local drug traffickers in the new version. Terence’s addiction to pain killers is brought about by an act of valor, diving into the flooding waters to save a man from drowning. Some of the best writing (and speaking, like Manhola Dargis’s audio and print essay) about the two films is about the two quite different physical performances. Both are fundamentally about the primacy of the flesh. Keitel is raw, open and aggressive. By contrast, Cage’s work is about a different kind of physical repression, the corkscrew, tortured way he tries to hold himself together.
The most notorious scene of the first, Keitel’s cop forcing two young women to simulate oral sex as he masturbates in front of them is riffed on twice in the new version, where Cage shakes down affluent casual drug users and humiliates them sexually by lording it over their girlfriends. The bleakness of the first is now replaced by a pitch-black irony in which pretty much everybody gets what they deserve.
Interestingly, Spike Lee ostensibly appropriated the ending of Ferrara’s film for his own adaptation of Clockers (explicitly acknowledged in the casting of Keitel as a cop). The final forty minutes or so of the Herzog feels like the brilliant counter narrative that ended Lee’s The 25th Hour. I kept waiting for the dream to evaporate. I’m not sure that either Herzog or the screenwriter William Finkelstein really knows what they’re trying to say.
The pleasure is in the telling, the privileged moments with the secondary characters. The criminally underused Fairuza Balk turns up in a brief part as a highway patrol cop; her pas a deux with Cage is one of the most sexually charged moments of recent cinema (the voluptuous way the camera swirls and pivots around her exposed, angled leg is something else). If Balk had been cast as the love interest rather than Eva Mendes, the new work might have actually approached the brilliance of the original. Mendes is not bad, but she’s fairly blank and inexpressive
The rhythms of both films are not just reflected in the personalities of the directors, but the styles of the lead actors. Because of Keitel, the first one is interior, brutish, self-lacerating; the new work is loopy, half-cocked, fun and clever but not terribly deep or provocative. Ferrara and Keitel’s version is one of those unimproved upon pieces, very much a work of its time and making. The new one catches a different kind of redemption that translates a meaningful career recovery for its director and star.