Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales is a culture critic, short-story writer, and essayist who has written for The Paris Review, The Village Voice, and other publications. His fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first story for EQMM, “The Life and Times of Big Poppa,” will appear in the Black Mask department of our May/June 2023 issue (on sale April 18). In this post he shares some insights into the work of filmmaker Abel Ferrara and reveals how two of Ferrara’s movies influenced his own work. —Janet Hutchings
In the early 1990s, the two New York City films that had the most effect on me as a writer of noir/crime stories was Abel Ferrara’s double dose of big city sleaze King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). While I had already discovered the pulp-lit of Chester Himes, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Jim Thompson, the holy quartet of streetwise scribes who led me to the path of noir, Ferrara brought that sensibility to life on screen. Two decades later when I began writing crime fiction, it was those two films that inspired me.
A native New Yorker, born in the Bronx in 1951, Abel Ferrara was a hard knock kind of guy whose films had the raw, rough, and unpredictable energy of the city itself. Like my favorite Bronx Boys including writer Jerome Charyn, director Stanley Kubrick, comic book artist George Perez, and rapper KRS-One, he is a no bullshit kind of guy with vision that often borders on genius.
Ferrara started making movies in the early 1980s beginning with the B-movies Ms.45, China Girl, and Fear City, but it wasn’t until 1990 that I was introduced to his bleak worldview and neo-noir sensibilities through my friend (and future noir novelist) Jerry Rodriguez, who invited me to see King of New York with him in Times Square. After staring at the poster outside the Lowes Astor Plaza, where a block away hookers walked the street and three-card monte cats ripped off tourists, I wandered into the movie house not really knowing what to expect.
Sitting amongst a typical rowdy crowd who screamed at the screen and smoked weed openly, it didn’t take long after the movie began for me to block out the distractions and become absorbed by Ferrara’s dangerous visions of thug life in our hometown. Released at a time when “the drug game,” primarily crack and powdered cocaine, ruled the streets of the city, having hit hard my own Harlem neighborhood, Ferrara’s film introduced us to recently released kingpin Frank White (Christopher Walken) and his gang of mostly black henchman led by the energetic, and slightly crazy, Jimmy Jump.
Played with ghetto swagger by Larry (Lawrence) Fishburne, the crew was determined to take over the cocaine trade as well as giving back to the hood by building a state-of-the-art hospital in Brooklyn. Never one to do any acting halfway, Walken too was at his best as Frank White. Whether he was talking shit, gazing out of the window in his Plaza Hotel suite, or standing up to some subway muggers, the audience cheered for that troubled man who had so much on his mind.
Soon after getting out of prison, Frank unleashed a blood-bath gang war on everyone from the Italian mob to the Chinese gangs to the NYPD dudes (Wesley Snipes, David Caruso) determined to take him down. Yet, as good as Walken was, he was no comparison to Fishburne’s role as the bugged-out, blow-sniffing, gun-shooting Jump, who had more swagger than a million Jay-Z’s. Looking like his daddy might’ve been a Black Panther back in the day, Jump was crazier than most gangsters, but he still reminded me of a few cool but deadly dudes I knew in Harlem. Fishburne doesn’t walk in the film, he moves swiftly as a dancer, quietly as a jungle cat, and the role was one of his best.
Screenwriter Nicholas St. John, who’d collaborated with Ferrara on the director’s previous projects, gave Jimmy Jump some of the coolest lines in the movie. “Trust isn’t one of my stronger qualities,” he says, moments before killing a drug dealer. Additionally, the film also featured wonderful co-starring performances from Paul Calderon, Steve Buscemi, Roger Guenveur Smith and Giancarlo Esposito. Since many of those actors had worked together in other New York-centric films (mostly Spike Lee joints), the ensemble acting was seamless as the robbers, cops, and various baddies battled for supremacy in a decaying metropolis.
While King of New York overflows with violence, there are many dimensions to the film, as though Godard, fairy tales, and gangsta rap inspired Ferrara equally. The Schoolly D. songs used in King of New York, especially “Saturday Night,” only added to the hip allure of the film, an aural black cherry on top of a cake made out of dynamite. The song being played also gave Walken the opportunity to dance. Schoolly, who came from Philadelphia and was releasing songs long before Ice-T or Snoop Dogg, has been cited as the original gangsta rapper. He and Ferrara were perfect for one another, and would later work together on other films, including The Blackout (1997) and ‘R Xmas (2001).
While obviously influenced by Martin Scorsese, whose Goodfellas came out the same year, Ferrara’s perspective of our beloved sin city in King of New York was more diverse. Indeed, he sees the city as a melting pot where different races and nationalities worked together, a town where Blacks, Irish, Asian, and Latinas worked on both sides of the law and looked out for one another.
Shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, the film had strange texture that worked perfectly. Between him and Ferrara, the nighttime streets, rides on the subway, and various shoot-outs, including the brutal climax where damn near everybody died, felt like something Frank White actually dreamt while he was dying in jail.
Like most of Ferrara’s films, King of New York was shot on a tight budget, but the director still managed to master mix a calm art-house sensibility with a manic pulp vision that was dark, dangerous, and intoxicating. However, if King scraped the surface of the scum that drove cabbie Travis Bickle crazy, then Bad Lieutenant dived in deep and just continued swimming to the bottom for infinity.
Released two years after King, Harvey Keitel played the title character, a cop so damaged that even his fellow officers were disgusted by his behavior. The cops gave him sideways glances when he accidentally dropped a kilo of coke he stole from a crime scene or talked badly about the Catholic Church putting up a $50,000 reward for the capture of the “boys” who raped a nun.
Still, that was small stuff compared to the rest of the inspired decadence of the ninety-six-minute movie. The lieutenant, who wasn’t even given a name, was perhaps one of the most damaged characters in ‘90s cinema, filled with enough dread and pathos to fuel six David Fincher films. As he smokes crack in tenement hallways, masturbates in front of two teenaged girls, and shoots up with a hooker, we almost feel sorry for this pale-faced mess of a man.
Embracing those dark and scary places, Ferrara shot Bad Lieutenant, which he co-wrote with Zoë Lund, as though it were a modern-day horror movie. If King of New York was a dream, then Bad Lieutenant was a nightmare. The movie’s unintentional (I think) comic relief comes when he was at home surround by crying babies, an oblivious wife, and an old, white-haired mother-in-law who said nothing but stared at Keitel fearfully. She was the only person in the house who actually looked at him.
While one of the main plot points concerned the raped nun, Ferrara’s masterpiece was a brilliant study of a man who no longer believed in anything: a Catholic who doesn’t believe in God, a cop who doesn’t believe in the law, and a man who doesn’t believe in death because he’s already living in hell.
Keitel never stopped challenging himself when it came to taking difficult roles, and in Bad Lieutenant, he played the ruined character with the rawness of a pus-oozing sore. Unlike other scary cat directors, my man Ferrara (the tainted saint of cinema, the outlaw auteur, the Hubert Selby Jr. of movies) captured it all.
One of the things I’ve always loved about New York City is how we can run into our cultural heroes on the street, in restaurants or in the living room of some Greenwich Village-dwelling weed dealer. That said, in 1996, I had the pleasure of meeting Abel Ferrara at a wrap party for Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus.
The celebration was at a midtown Manhattan nightclub called the Supper Club and when I saw him, he was standing upstairs looking like Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy with his arms wrapped around his then-actress/girlfriend Annabella Sciorra. In pure fan-boy style, I walked over to him and began gushing about how much I loved King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. Looking like he was high on something, he shook my hand and mumbled, “Thank you, man,” in a voice that reminded me of Tom Waits. There was a small pause and then Ferrara asked, “You want to come with us over to the bar.”
I’ll always be thankful to Jerry Rodriguez, who later wrote the crime novels The Devil’s Mambo (2007) and Revenge Tango (2008), for introducing me to the work of Abel Ferrara.
—For more on Jerry A. Rodriguez and his novels: