Three Slips in the Bad Lieutenant

Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant begins with a static shot showing a middle-aged man walking out of a semi-detached, brick house. He seems to have a headache; he hardly looks up and holds his head in his hands. Soon two boys break out of the house, running a foot race to the car. One of them targets the passenger seat, while the other goes for the backseat. Other adults appear in the door watching the scene; the woman, who is supposed to be the mother, holding a baby. One of the boys slips while running.


Unconcerned, he sits in the backseat and the engine starts. In the next shot, it becomes clear from the conversation, that a father is taking his twins to school. The father immediately appears as a tough guy, but there’s hardly any sign of his profession, addiction or that he uses his police rank to get drugs more easily. It’s even less predictable that in the end of the film, the lieutenant will drive two teenagers, who brutally raped a nun, in the same car to a bus station, giving them the chance of a new life in fatherly fashion, a quality as uncharacteristic as possible. Linked by a handcuff, one of the criminals sits in the passenger seat, while the other takes the backseat.

Abel Ferrara builds up a seemingly simple universe, where the lieutenant, the ultimate evil measures himself against the holiness of the raped nun, a selfless and humble figure, the encyclopaedic definition of angelic purity and beauty. Whereas they are elaborate and unique personalities, the fact that they have no names also renders them representational. Compared to the timeless dimension of their dichotomy, the lieutenant’s compulsive sports betting, his only passion apart from drugs, seems banal, yet it eventually leads to his death. Then there are these unnoticed and unimportant mistakes, slips and stumbles, as described above.

The next slip takes place in a rather chaotic scene. A bunch of dealers are standing in the street, the lieutenant appears, all the dealers run away, except a Hispanic man who only pretends to flee. He gets in a house, runs up the stairs. He slips, just for a moment, then keeps running to the landing, followed by the lieutenant. The landing seems to be their usual meeting point for exchanging drugs. The dealer notes: Shit’s gonna kill you man.

A sentence that stands alone in the film, as none of the family members or colleagues ever asks about, reacts to or observes any sign of his addiction, even when he commits a huge blunder: the third slip. As established in earlier scenes, he tries to make use of every situation where he assumes the role of a lieutenant. In this case, he has to investigate a car, a crime scene. He finds some cocaine, puts it into his jacket, but it falls out.

The situation should be obvious for the other cops but, as always, no one reacts to it. From time to time, he appears in the company of his colleagues in a heavily drugged state, yet nobody notices or cares. No one overrules or assesses him, nor does he receive orders. Whenever he appears in different places to work, it’s always out of his free will or accident, not because of duty or responsibility. He is an invisible man.

Albeit minor, these three slips enrich this extreme and stylized film with a root in realism, giving it a distinct register.