"Harvey and I have always shared an interest in the questions of God, faith, redemption, and what makes a man good in relation to other people and to God," says Scorsese of themes central to both of their bodies of work. "How should a person act in certain situations and what constitutes ethical behavior? We've had many long conversations about this. We haven't come up with any answers, of course--you just live and the answers change second by second."
These moral dilemmas are very much at the heart of "Reservoir Dogs," the story of eight men ensnared in a botched robbery. The debut by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, shot in five weeks during the summer of 1991 on location in Highland Park for $1.5 million, the independent film was largely a vision in Tarantino's head until Keitel committed himself to the leading role and agreed to co-produce it.
"I always had Harvey in mind as the perfect guy to play this character but I never dreamed he'd do it," says Tarantino, a former actor who also appears in the film. "Not only did he take the part, but his attaching himself to the film gave it legitimacy and made it possible for us to get financing.
"Harvey's a throwback to a kind of actor that was big in the '40s and '50s, but doesn't really exist anymore," continues Tarantino in explaining what made Keitel ideal for his film. "Ralph Meeker, Sterling Hayden, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Aldo Ray--those guys had an inherent hardness that's a result of age, experience and environment, and most actors today don't have that quality because they haven't lived the life those guys lived. But Harvey has--he was a Marine and did lots of different things before he began acting. If another actor were to play the part he has in my film they'd have to spend the duration of the film trying to convince you they were as tough as Harvey is when he walks through the door. Since Harvey has that toughness in his back pocket, it frees him to do other things and nuance the role in surprising ways."
Says Keitel: "I'm usually attracted to a role because it mirrors something I'm grappling with in my own life, and I was impressed by the original way 'Reservoir Dogs' addresses the themes of betrayal and the need to have a friend."
Keitel, whose eight-year marriage to actress Lorraine Bracco began to unravel in 1990 amid rumors of a relationship between Bracco and actor-director Edward James Olmos, continues: "I play a man who's a skilled thief and has committed murder, yet he still has a profound need to care for somebody. It's very difficult to accept that need and say I'm not so tough after all. The real toughness is in admitting to the need for love."
If Keitel's character in "Reservoir Dogs" wanders from the path of righteousness, the man he plays in "Bad Lieutenant" douses that path with gasoline and torches it. The story of a strung-out New York cop so hardened by his job that he's embarked on a depraved bender of sex and drugs, Abel Ferrara's film offers Keitel a meaty role reminiscent of "Raging Bull's" Jake LaMotta in the brutal look it takes at a man descending into the darkest part of himself. Keitel is on screen in virtually every frame of this intensely disturbing film, and the performance he turns in can only be described as frightening.
"I wanted to play this part because I have a deep desire to know God and knowing God isn't just a matter of going to confession and praying," Keitel says. "We also find God by confronting evil, and this character gave me the opportunity to descend into the most painful part of myself and learn about that dark place. Call it what you will--the abyss, the holy void, the place where heaven and hell merge into the same experience--this is the place where man learns. Organized religion does everything but push people away from engaging in the quest to know God and we need a new approach to this very basic human need. I'm proud of 'Bad Lieutenant' because I think it serves that need by exploring the hell we encounter in our daily lives."
Ferrara had never written a script with a specific actor in mind, but was thinking about Keitel from the very first draft of "Bad Lieutenant," which he co-wrote with Zoe Lund.
"Harvey was right for this part because in addition to having incredible technique, he immerses himself in his work with a great deal of courage," says Ferrara, who plans to shoot another film with Keitel early next year. Titled "Snake Eyes" and based on a script written by Ferrara and Nick St. John, the film casts Keitel as a director. "For me, acting is about putting your emotions out there where other people can see them, and Harvey's not afraid to do that. When we were writing the script we thought it was a real long shot he'd do the film because we knew he was booked for a long time, but he read the script and really responded to it. I think this story was something he needed to do at this point in his life."