Last week saw the release of Werner Herzog’s brilliantly re-imagined Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans on DVD, a stylised drug fuelled trip through the mind of crooked cop Terrence McDonough (a brilliant, back on form Nicolas Cage).
The film is worth anyone’s attention in it own right, but I write here to shed some light on the director of the original 1992 film (simply Bad Lieutenant). Abel Ferrara is one of the great American independent filmmakers of the 1980s and 90s but someone deeply undervalued, and severely under watched. His career is a lengthy and varied one, touching upon many genres from the gangster thriller The King of New York (1990), to infamous video nasty Driller Killer (1979), by way of course a shoddy porno debut 9 lives of a wet pussy. To label Ferrara diverse is an understatement. He came into his own in the early 90s with a clutch of tight, gritty and provocative works set in a grim New York City, the aforementioned King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and a very original, philosophical vampire film The Addiction in 1995.
Raised in a traditional catholic household of Italian and Irish decent, he found filmmaking at an early age and took to it immediately directing shorts and forming a lifelong long writing partnership with school friend Nicolas St John. Early stints in the horror and exploitation genres and a brief foray with Michael Mann’s TV show Miami Vice allowed Ferrara to stand on his own two feet, directing (with St John at the pen) a updated version of West Side Story in the guise of China Girl (1989). This lead to perhaps the filmmaker’s two best known works. Firstly, The King of New York, the first of many collaborations with Christopher Walken, a bleak tale of drug running gangsters and revenge styled on Robin Hood. Two years later he directed Harvey Kietel in a powerhouse performance as the eponymous Bad Lieutenant, caught in a morally bankrupt world of sin and redemption (influenced by the pervading Catholicism in Ferrara’s life). The Addiction and The Funeral soon followed and proved just a brilliant as previous work.
It is rare to find Ferrara written about or canonised in the same way as Tarantino or Wes Anderson, although he remains a figure lauded in academic and cinefile circles. This is a great shame because he deserves to be up there with the best, and as widely watched as possible. He is a controversial, sometimes difficult director, possessing a unique voice and a stylistic panache just waiting to be discovered.