Tuesday, June 18, 2019

In Character: Harvey Keitel

Harvey Keitel has been one of our finest screen actors since he exploded on the screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Thankfully, those two have maintained their collaboration (bring on The Irishman!), all while Keitel has carved out an astounding career for himself. Frankly, I can’t believe I haven’t covered him in this series yet. Maybe it’s because there are so many great performances to choose from. If I didn’t include yours, please feel free to share!

Five Essential Roles
Mean Streets (1973)
After starring in Martin Scorsese’s earnest debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Keitel and Scorsese reteamed for the more focused Mean Streets, which subsequently launched both men into ‘70s film stardom. Charlie is a good-natured, low-level mob kid who is attempting to move up in the ranks while tolerating his psychotic best friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and keeping his sexual relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin a secret.

Part of the joy of Mean Streets is that you’re watching so much raw, unpolished talent testing out their skills. The scenes of Keitel and De Niro verbally bouncing off each other remain highlights of both men’s early careers. It really feels like these two characters know and love each other, while also coming to terms with the fact that they are growing apart at a rapid pace. Keitel is on fire in this film; it’s a genuine star-making performance.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Sport is the most dangerous and menacing kind of character. He’s a guy who can be so unassuming and charming that he can temporarily make you forget that he’s a scum-sucking, shit heal pimp who sells 12-year-old girls’ bodies for money. Truly, one of the more quietly disturbing scenes of Keitel’s career is the moment Sport gently breaks Iris (Jodie Foster) down and convinces her that what she’s doing for him is perfectly fine. Sport has mastered the art of manipulation, and it is so upsetting to see that exercised here. Put another way: this scene is one of the very few in Taxi Driver that does not directly feature Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Under any other circumstance, Travis’ absence would be sorely missed, but Keitel and Foster make this scene necessary. We finally get to see how this brand of pimp evil is constructed, and despite the scene’s tame approach, the implication is that Sport will be deserving of whatever misfortune is to come his way.

Bugsy (1991)
Mickey Cohen
It’s hard to believe that Harvey Keitel has only been nominated for one Oscar, but it’s appropriate that it was for his threatening but modest take on famed gangster Mickey Cohen in Bugsy. Warren Beatty has an absolute blast playing Bugsy Siegel – he’s charming, short tempered, violent, and insane – and his flamboyant take on the character bounces so well off of Keitel’s more quietly intimidating Cohen. When tracing through Keitel’s career, there are a lot of performances to choose as his best, but what fun I had rewatching Bugsy for this post. The film is damn near perfect, and everyone in it is at peak greatness. I’m thrilled the Academy recognized Keitel’s work here, but this should be one of many Oscar nominations for him.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Mr. White
After a string of mostly unpraised performances in the ‘80s, Keitel quickly found his footing in the ‘90s. His Oscar nomination for Bugsy helped reestablish him as a serious character actor, while his work in Reservoir Dogs gave him pop culture clout. In fact, Keitel is somewhat responsible for getting Reservoir Dogs off the ground. After receiving the script, Keitel signed on to co-produce the film and help Quentin Tarantino secure financing. The resulting film was an absolute sensation, one that redefined American independent film, and opened the doors to countless movies like it.

At the center of Reservoir Dogs is Mr. White, a grizzled, sarcastic, life-long criminal with questionable ethics. Keitel is, simply put, perfect in this film. He embraces the unique tone of Tarantino’s writing so effortlessly, it’s as if, like Samuel L. Jackson, Keitel was born to speak Tarantino’s dialogue. Frankly, Mr. White is damn near Keitel’s finest work to date, and I love that Keitel is partially responsible for getting the film made to begin with.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Winston Wolf
Showing up late in Pulp Fiction, and only staying for 10 minutes of screen time, Keitel steals every single second he’s on screen. His fast-thinking mind, his rapid-fire banter, his silent appreciation for Jimmie’s gourmet coffee – everything about this guy feels complete. This is Winston Wolf, and he is an absolute joy to watch.

I also want to make note of the Harry Lime effect Keitel has on his film. In Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the Harry Lime character is mentioned plenty before we actually meet him. He’s talked about in fear, in appreciation, in reverence. And when Harry Lime is finally revealed to be Orson Welles playfully hiding in shadows, we too smile in appreciation. Keitel and Tarantino pull that off here to great effect. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), is not a guy who is easily rattled. But when his boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), tells him that The Wolf is coming to save the day, Jules’ entire demeanor changes. He’s calm, he’s secure, he knows The Wolf will work it out. And when Jimmie opens the door to reveal Harvey Keitel in a flawless tuxedo and pencil mustache, we too know that everything will be fine.

Wild Card
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
What fun it is to watch Harvey Keitel taking himself so seriously in an intentionally schlocky, vampire grindhouse flick. Keitel, somewhat hidden behind his character’s southern, strait-laced presentation, brings an honest intensity to an otherwise purposeful romp of a movie. I never tire of watching Keitel and George Clooney banter back and forth in this film:
“Are you such a fucking loser, you can’t tell when you’ve won?”
“What’d you call me?”
“Nothing, I didn’t make a statement. I asked a question. Would you like me to ask it again?”
From Dusk Till Dawn is grindhouse bliss, and I love that Keitel was on board for the ride.

The Best of the Best
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Certain film performances are raw and authentic. They’re emotive and painful, honest and devastating. And then there are performances that are completely unhinged, yet masterfully contained. Such performances require total character immersion from the actor, so much so that when you watch them, you’re convinced you are not watching acting at all. So describes Harvey Keitel’s shattering work in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. This is fearless screen acting personified. Harvey Keitel does not exist in Bad Lieutenant. Instead, there is a man known only as LT, and he is a man who is defined solely by his demons.

LT is a hopeless drug addict, violent criminal, sexual deviant, and degenerate gambler. Oh, and he’s also a lieutenant for the New York Police Department. Like all of Ferrara’s best work, Bad Lieutenant doesn’t concern itself with plot so much as with following a troubled person around for a few hours and seeing what kind of shit they get into. There is a tangential plot about LT trying to find two thugs who raped a nun, but that device is not what drives LT. LT, as mentioned, is driven solely by his demons, and I can think of no other actor who could expose such terrors as honestly as Keitel does here. (Somewhat famously, Christopher Walken was signed on to play LT, but dropped out a few weeks before filming. Walken told Ferrara he wasn’t right for the part, and while I love Christopher Walken, his insight was appropriate here.)

Bad Lieutenant is not an easy film to stomach, but there’s a reason Martin Scorsese ranked it as his fifth favorite film of the 1990s, and Roger Ebert championed the movie tirelessly. The film would not work without Keitel’s dedication; this is truly one of the very finest acting performances in film, provided you’re ready for it.

Other Notable Roles
In Fingers
Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
The Duellists (1977)
Blue Collar (1978)
Fingers (1978)
The Border (1982)
Exposed (1983)
Wise Guys (1986)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Two Jakes (1999)
Mortal Thoughts (1991)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Sister Act (1992)
The Piano (1993)
Clockers (1995)
Cop Land (1997)
Holy Smoke! (1997)
U-571 (2000)
The Grey Zone (2001)
Red Dragon (2002)
National Treasure (2003
Be Cool (2005)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Youth (2015)


  1. Ah... Harvey... a man that is constantly overlooked yet when he's in a film. You know he's going to deliver. His performance in Bad Lieutenant is scary. That scene where he stops 2 teenage girls in their car where one of them has to expose him for him and the other having to mimic oral sex while he jacks off was for me in my late teens/early 20s as a WHOA... THIS IS UNCOMFORTABLE moment for me. It is his crowning achievement.

    His work with Scorsese (w/ the exception of Who's That Knocking on My Door? (only because I haven't seen it yet) is great as I liked his performance as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ as it kind of an unusual performance in the film as someone who is frustrated with Jesus and is reluctant to betray him.

    The stuff he did w/ Tarantino including his voice cameo in Inglorious Basterds is amazing while I also enjoy what he's doing with Wes Anderson and Jane Campion. One of my favorite and overlooked performances of his that I love is in U-571 as the sub chief. He didn't just have the best lines in the film but he was kind of the glue for all of those people as well as tell Matthew McConaughey to not show fear and keep everyone else in line. That's a fucking chief.

    There is also this episode of SNL which he hosted as he had a few sketches including the It's Pat sketch where he continuously has sex with Pat but remains confused on who or what she is and she almost reveals it until a crying Adam Sandler begs her not to. I was like "damn it!"

    1. Love this comment. I was so close to including some of his work with Campion. I love the gentler side she brought out in him in The Piano. Totally agree about U-571. He anchors that movie; you're right, he's the glue. And Holy. Shit. I need to find that SNL sketch this instant. That sounds fantastic.

  2. Keitel is something else. For me the first thing I always think of him in is The Piano. Glad you featured him here.

    1. He is so good in that movie. I need to rewatch that one actually, been far too long. I love his performance in that film so much.

  3. Wow...I assumed you had already done Keitel. He is magnificent in everything I've seen him in. I've seen all of the films you've chosen to highlight except, sadly, the original Bad Lieutenant. I'm hanging my head in shame. I know we can't watch everything, but I made time for the Nicolas Cage led remake so I should find time for this.

    1. Haha same here! And I would love to hear your thoughts on Bad Lieutenant. I'm still not sure why Herzog called his film that, because it isn't a remake or sequel at all. Both movies are about corrupt police lieutenants, but a lot of movies are about corrupt police officials. And other than that thin comparison (and the same title), the movies have virtually nothing in common. I love them both though, so go figure haha.

  4. YES! I just love the way they set up Wolf so the audience knows he is amazing through Jules who is never really happy in the movie, yet here when he hears he is coming, he just lights up. I love how Wolf takes a sip of that coffee and turns to Jimmy and smiles and Jimmy smiles back, it's such a small detail but it's so wholesome which makes Pulp Fiction so much fun, it's such a juxtaposition of things and this is lost in Tarantino's new movies, there are no small character moments like that anymore.

    Can yo do a post on Keanu? Cause there's so much fun stuff to choose from for that one :)

    1. Hell yes! I could not agree more. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp, and Jackie Brown have so many of those humorous nuances that are missing from QT's larger films. I would really love to see that side of him again. Because right now, it doesn't feel like he would make room for a little moment like that coffee cup one.

      And I adore Keanu. Point Break (which I know you watched recently!) is my favorite action movie. I love the hell out of that thing.

      "Hey! My name's Johnny Utah!"
      "WHO CARES?!"

  5. Great list! Love in From Dusk Til Dawn and so many other roles. It's so lame, but I always remember him from Sister Act. You just don't expect an actor like him with a 'tough guy type' to be in a movie about singing nuns. His role was small, but his relationship with Whoopi and wanting to work with her is so charming.

    1. Thank you! And that isn't lame at all! I love when actors who are typecast as super serious performers do something lighter like that. He's such a good sport in that movie.

  6. Given the film is so incredible, its a shame to see Keitel so terrible in Ulysses Gaze. A fascinating performance, if only because it so clearly details the language barrier on set. Nice post.

    1. Oh wow, I want to check this out now. Doesn't look like critics, namely Ebert, were very kind to that movie. But you like it overall?

    2. Excellent film, as are so many of Angelopoulos' works. I disagree with Ebert's points entirely and think the film, as with all of his work, is achingly sincere and human. I implore you to see Landscape in the Mist- any way you can. Or Eternity and a Day. Those are the kind of movies that, much like with Melville, might win you over in a heartbeat. Enjoy! If you have some trouble finding them I might be able to help.

    3. You've always championed his work, so I do want to make it a point to make time for his films. I love that Eternity and a Day won the Palme d'Or in 1998.

  7. Making this post, I typed in "harvey" into Google and he was the fifth one listed, which seems fitting for how I take him for granted. He's usually stellar in everything he does. I hadn't even realized he was the dad in From Dusk Til Dawn until right now! I also haven't revisited that film since I was a teenager.

    He was also Judas in Last Temptation of Christ. He's fun in Sister Act and Little Nicky (probably the best part of Little Nicky). He's intense in Holy Smoke, a movie I probably wasn't ready for when I started it. National Treasure is another film where he shows up, does the job, and disappears, leaving me wanting more.
    Amazingly, he hasn't done much television but we really liked him in Life on Mars.

    1. I'm so glad you're a fan. I love the guy. And I adore how insanely serious he takes From Dusk Till Dawn. Everyone else seems in on the joke in that movie, but he plays it so super straight. It's priceless.

  8. I was always felt Harvey Keitel was best in supporting roles. That's his expertise and luckily he got to do a lot of that over the years.
    Already have Blue Collar (1978) on my watchlist and your post makes me want to check out Bad Lieutenant as well.

    1. Blue Collar, whew, I did not expect that to hit has hard as it did. It's really Pryor's film, but Keitel is great in it as well. I hear you on Keitel's supporting work, but man, he is an absolute force in Bad Lieutenant, and he's in nearly every second of it. Crazy performance.

  9. I still need to check out Bad Lieutenant. I have heard great things. I loved the Nicholas Cage version as well. But as for my favorite Keitel performance i would have to go with Reservoir Dogs. He is great in that movie. The ending when he finds out Tim Roth is a cop was so great. I also really enjoyed him in Cop Land. That is such an underrated movie i feel.

    1. You have no idea how much I love that you just mentioned Cop Land. I love that movie, deeply. I really need to write an entire post about that film because yeah, it is so shockingly underrated. The director's commentary is great as well, because Mangold said the set was basically a testosterone-filled war zone, and all the guys were trying to one-up each other constantly, while staying professional. There are so many heavy hitters in that film. Keitel is great ("Get him outta here, Freddy!"), and Sly, man, what perfection.

  10. His small role as Gondo in last year's Isle of Dogs was a treat:
    ...consumed him."

    1. Great call! I love that Anderson can bring out Keitel's playful side.