Harvey Keitel’s up-and-down career has taken him all kinds of places. The guy’s worked with some of the greatest (Scorsese, Altman, Ridley Scott) and done movies like Space Knight. He’s been in huge hits and obscure garbage but what’s most surprising is that he’s kept almost exactly the same level of fame and recognition for close to 40 years. Most actors who end up in straight-to-DVD crap will rarely if ever make it out of there; in that same vein, most American actors who went to Europe in the 70’s and 80’s were hardly leading men out here. Keitel’s career never followed an arc of any kind, which makes him one of the most fascinating actors out there. Italy’s long been the place where actors go to finish their career; for Keitel, it’s the place where he goes on vacation every year. He just happens to make a movie too.
Corrupt just so happens to feature two of my favourite things: American actors appearing in obscure Italian exploitation and a famous musician appearing in an ill-advised acting role. Yes, indeed. Corrupt features a rare on-screen performance by world-renowned butter aficionado John Lydon, perhaps best known for his work as Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten or frontman of Public Image Ltd. It’s that has incited why-does-it-exist feelings in me ever since I came across it rummaging through bins of discounted public-domain DVDs as a teenager. A lot of films are responsible for the fact you’re reading these words today; Corrupt may be the one that started it all.
Somebody is killing the detectives of New York’s narcotics squad; according to detective O’Connor (Keitel), it’s because they’re an easy target for the kids and the crazies. He’s a hardline old-fashioned cop who also happens to be corrupt; he spends this extra cash on a huge, unfurnished uptown apartment he shares with another cop (Italian pulp regular Leonard Mann). O’Connor is being followed by troubled youth Leo Smith (Lydon), a technology-obsessed punk who films himself constantly. After an aborted foot chase, Leo follows O’Connor up to his apartment and confesses to being the cop killer. O’Connor has his doubts but opts to keep Leo locked in his apartment – much to the consternation of his roommate/partner.
Being that Corrupt has fallen in the public domain, there are dozens of versions floating around –not all of them the preferred cut. The one I picked up seems to be a full 20 minutes shorter than the original release and it shows. It’s got some serious pacing issues (the first ten minutes of the movie seem to be dedicated to showing us people going places while omitting the crucial final step of them getting there) and, while the film does sport an atmospheric score by Ennio Morricone, it also loves to get an ear-splitting honkytonk song called Tchaikovsky’s Destruction in there as often as possible. It’s impossible for me to figure out if the song was actually meant to be there as much as it is (although it apparently appears on the film’s soundtrack) but I will say this: the fact that Keitel goes to his huge-ass empty apartment, slips on a housecoat, lights a cigar and listens to a honkytonk reimagination of a Tchaikovsky melody would be as weird a conscious artistic decision as it would a strange case of post-production tinkering. Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. was original slated to write the music for the film and it’s unfortunate that never came together; PiL’s brand of dissonant pop is certainly more in tune with the film than whoever is responsible for Tchaikovsky’s fucking Destruction (according to the credits, a dude named Steve and only Steve; unlike Prince, the single-name thing did not work for Steve).
From the very beginning of the film, there’s a psychosexual undertone to Corrupt that elevates it past the level of tossed-off potboiler. Keitel has a bizarrely domestic relationship with his fellow cop; although Mann is married to reporter Nicole Garcia, he seems to spend most of his time sitting around the apartment looking for attention. (It’s never quite clear why they got the apartment in the first place.) He eventually decides the risk isn’t worth it and that he wants to sell his share of the apartment, causing a rift between him and Keitel. When they first discuss why Lydon is held captive in their apartment, Keitel presumes that Lydon’s in love with him. Their conversations have the vulnerable, awkward quality of an illicit office romance. While Keitel’s performance has (rightly) drawn a lot of parallels with the character he would play ten years later in Bad Lieutenant, the film Corrupt most reminded me of was the ill-fated Al Pacino vehicle Cruising; both are gritty cop dramas set in early 80’s New York that feature fantastic lead performances wherein the characters appear to be struggling with sexual repression. Not to get too high-falutin’ around here, it also has an awesome scene where Keitel stuffs Johnny Rotten’s head in a gas oven.
It gets much more intense. Keitel is unsure that Lydon is actually the cop killer he claims to be but is afraid that if he lets him get away, he’ll spill the beans on the way O’Connor is spending his hard-earned corruption dollars. He tells his partner that he lets Lydon get away and locks him into the washroom, blocking the sunlight and installing a peephole so he can spy on him at all times. He feeds Lydon from a dog dish and unleashes a good-cop bad-cop routine on him periodically, burning his face with a cigar when he calls him a pig. The whole repressed sexuality thing might be me digging for something, but the S&M/torture porn angle is blatant. Keitel even says ‘You’re mine now and you’ll do EXACTLY as I say!’. If that doesn’t seal the deal, I don’t know what will.
Oh wait, I know what will. Keitel visits with Leo’s grandmother (the legenday Sylvia Sidney, probably best known for Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once) discovers that not only does Leo have pictures of people bound and gagged in his room, he once falsely confessed to a rape because he gets off on punishment. As the film progresses, Leo and O’Connor’s relationship becomes like a twisted marriage with both the men bound to each other by circumstances and their own mutual desires to dominate and be dominated. Subtlety isn’t the movie’s forte; that’s another trait it shares with Bad Lieutenant and Abel Ferrara in general. It hits the sweet spot between heady drama and old-fashioned exploitation in a way that not many can boast. The relationship between the two characters is way more interesting than anyone could have expected from such a project.
Keitel comes fucking unhinged in this one in a way slightly more restrained than his more over-the-top efforts; it’s similar to Bad Lieutenant but it doesn’t have anywhere near the equivalent of the scene where he bawls his eyes out fully naked and spinning in circles. In that same vein, Lydon is a lot less over-the-top than his public persona. He’s a ridiculous presence by design in almost everything he does, so it’s pleasantly strange to see him actually act like a human being. His performance suggests a young Tim Roth or Gary Oldman; it’s too bad that Lydon never really followed up on the promise he shows here (unless you count his supporting performance in the Jerry Stiller vehicle The Independent). French actress Nicole Garcia supplies the film with most of its cheesy soap-opera moments and reminds us that this is a cobbled-together international production but hers is the only false note in the cast.
Italian films of the era were typically dubbed over entirely since the international casts each performed in their own language; I’m pleased to report that practically everyone here speaks in their own voice (a very welcome change from the usual crew of nasally gremlins that usually dub Italian horror movies). In fact, productions values here are surprisingly high. Although the majority of the film’s crew is Italian and interior photography was done in Rome, exteriors were shot in the grimiest, brownest parts of the Big Apple for that scuzzy feeling we’ve all grown to love from pre-Giuliani New York.
To draw a lazy parallel between this and a film I reviewed last week, Street Kings 2: Motor City, consider this. Even adjusted for inflation, both films probably had a similar budget (Street Kings 2 has a lot more shit blowing up). Both films feature a similar dichotomy between its leads. Both were essentially released as cash-grab straight-to-video potboilers. One of them is an unmitigated piece of lazy shit while the other is an interesting, bizarre semi-chamber piece. Both are cop movies; both are essentially dumb exploitation. Without getting all grandfatherly on your ass, what’s happening to us? How come they don’t make ‘em like this anymore? This is the kind of movie I want to find with this project and almost exactly the kind of movie I never expected to come across.
So why does it exist?
Sometimes the question becomes rhetorical after viewing the film. The concept of Corrupt paired with its almost complete obscurity suggest a forgettable piece of shit but the truth is that, after watching it, I can’t question its existence. It’s an interesting, compelling flick with great performances and that incomparable sleazy Eurotrash vibe. As weird as it may sound (Harvey Keitel kidnaps Johnny Rotten and they basically fall in love; think about this for a second), it’s not nearly as campy and ridiculous as its reputation (or lack thereof) suggests. If someone could uncover a non-truncated print and restore it, we’d have a minor genre classic on our hands. Instead we have a half-buried, half-incomprehensible doohickey that I picked up for three dollars in the dank basement of a St. Mark’s Place record store. Pity.