Harvey Keitel is one of cinema’s most valued actors. His brand: tough alpha male, career criminal, and the all-around bad motherfucker. His filmography is unique; he has been a mainstay in the works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, James Toback, Abel Ferrara, and most recently Wes Anderson. While his hallmark is the tough guy, he’s been able to transform that archetype into colorful dimensional characters that only he could have portrayed on film. Whether he’s in a crime film, a big budget opus, or an incredibly small independent film, Keitel is always on the mark and he is always fascinating to watch.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE 1974 Dir. Martin Scorsese
In his third collaboration with his friend Martin Scorsese, Keitel gives a dual layer performance. He starts out being the affable and charming suitor of Ellen Burstyn’s Alice – until he isn’t. He’s the all too real sociopath that is able to cover his anger and inner frustration with his charm. Keitel is frightening in this film, the way he’s able to camouflage the character’s actual motivations and drive is unique to the range he has as an actor.
BAD LIEUTENANT 1992 Dir. Abel Ferrara
There has never been a performance like Keitel’s turn in BAD LIEUTENANT. It is as pulverizing as it is soul bearing. He removes the audience from their comfort zone, and takes them into the heart of darkness, watching a man spiral out of control. He’s a killer, a gambler, a junkie, a cop – yet he accidentally finds a reason to live through redemption. While the Bad Lieutenant is incredibly vile, the subtle vulnerability that Keitel graces makes this performance all that more tragic. Aside from being one of Keitel’s finest performances, this remains one of the best performances in cinema history.
DANGEROUS GAME 1993 Dir. Abel Ferrara
Off the heels of BAD LIEUTENANT, the seminal trio of Abel Ferrara, Harvey Keitel, and cinematographer Ken Kelsch embarked on one of the most daring and transgressive pseudo autobiographical films, DANGEROUS GAME. Like Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ or Felini’s 8 ½ Abel Ferrara uses his actor as a vessel to tell his own story on film. Keitel completely shakes his gangster vibe but leaves his darkness and intensity completely intact to play filmmaker Eddie Israel in a movie within a movie.
FINDING GRACELAND 1998 Dir. David Winkler
In the vastly underseen FINDING GRACELAND, Keitel plays a quietly broken drifter who claims to be Elvis Presley. While on the road to Graceland, he gives his most quietly heartfelt performance with an incredible amount of soul and reach. We’ve seen characters like this before in cinema, but seeing Keitel playing a man claiming to be Elvis, along with singing SUSPICIOUS MINDS, is a one of a kind performance. Yes. Harvey Keitel sings Elvis. That’s worth watching it on its own.
FINGERS 1978 Dir. James Toback
Somewhere there needs to be a theatre showing a double bill of FIVE EASY PIECES and FINGERS. This is a key performance from Keitel, where he plays the gangster and the intellectual. He’s a brutal enforcer for his father, yet doubles as a piano prodigy. Both sides of himself have one thing in common: sexual addiction. FINGERS is Toback’s finest hour as a filmmaker, and is yet another performance of Keitel’s that is chalked up in the underseen category.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST 1988 Dir. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s most seminal film, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is controversial and monumental for a variety of reasons. One of the most enamoring aspects is Keitel’s reinvention of Judas. He’s an insurgent warrior, he’s the loyal follower, and then he becomes the voice of reason while Jesus is being guided through his final temptation. Keitel’s turn earned him a Razzie nomination, and that is completely off base. Keitel is brutish and forceful; purposely directed to speak with an overt Brooklyn accent with a new take on the Biblical character.
MEAN STREETS 1973 Dir. Martin Scorsese
MEAN STREETS is often mentioned as the film that birthed the brilliant collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro, but the film is much more than that. Keitel takes the lead, as the morally conflicted Charlie who is set to take over for his gangster Uncle, yet having to constantly juggle his wild card best friend Johnny Boy (brilliantly played by De Niro). De Niro has the flashy role, but Keitel is the foundation of the film. He’s Scorsese’s alter ego; he is struggling with his faith, his family, and his identity. Keitel gives an incredibly soft and vulnerable performance as a man who is stuck in his own quagmire, having no way out.
RESERVOIR DOGS 1992 Dir. Quentin Tarantino
This is the performance where everything Keitel has done before comes to a perfect culmination. There isn’t an actor who has delivered Tarantino’s dialogue with as much weight as Keitel. Keitel walks Tarantino’s walk, and in particular talks his talk. There is a Shakespearean quality to Keitel’s performance in this film. From the start of the film, we know he’s heading for impending doom, and he does it all with gravitas and honor.
TAXI DRIVER 1976 Dir. Martin Scorsese
Originally, Scorsese wanted Keitel to play the campaign staffer Tom (the role Albert Brooks knocks out of the park), but instead Keitel wanted to play the pimp who had only a few lines of dialogue in the original screenplay. Keitel transforms into a smooth and funny character, yet in his private encounter with Iris (Jodie Foster) we see what a master of manipulation and control he is in a creepy and quiet way.
SMOKE 1995 Dir. Wayne Wang
SMOKE is another one of those quietly underseen gems of independent cinema. In a very low key way, we see Keitel in a new light. He’s himself, in a certain regard, a brash New Yorker who smokes, runs a tobacco shop, yet he has an undying pension for art. In this film’s case, he’s a photographer, who has taken the same photograph in the same intersection every day for the past twenty years. This is a very touching film, and Keitel gives one of his sweetest performances.
YOUTH 2015 Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
In a character that is fusion of Charles Bukowski and John Cassavetes, Keitel plays writer/director Mick Boyle who is on his annual holiday in the Swiss Alps with his best friend, Michael Caine. This was a role that Keitel was born to play. He’s the artist that is overflowing with creativity and inner torment. He’s being torn apart by his own emotions and ego, and he gives is a bittersweet showboat of a performance of what it is truly like to be an artist.
Honorable mentions: BAD TIMING, BLUE COLLAR, BUGSY, CITY OF INDUSTRY, COP LAND, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, THE PIANO