7 Must-See Films Starring Harvey Keitel
He’s worked with Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion and Wes Anderson, usually embodying various facets of humanity’s darker side. Over the course of a 50-year career he has shown great versatility, playing thugs, father figures and even comedy sidekicks, and it’s that variety of roles that the Festival aims to honor with a Lifetime Achievement Award. A variety that we want to pay tribute to by remembering seven key titles from his filmography.
1. Mean Streets (1973)
Having starred in Scorsese’s directorial debut six years prior, Keitel reteams with the director and meets Robert De Niro on screen for the first time in a blistering drama about two of the main concerns in the director’s life: religion and violence (Scorsese considered joining the priesthood before becoming a filmmaker). As the filmmaker’s alter ego, Keitel embodies the ambitions and doubts of troubled youth with a tortured elegance.
2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
How do you make Judas Iscariot a sympathetic figure? A challenge Keitel rises to in Scorsese’s adaptation of the controversial novel about Christ choosing a normal life over self-sacrifice. While critics at the time were skeptical about the character speaking with Keitel’s native Brooklyn accent, his performance is a powerful blend of humanity and rage, particularly in the later sections of the film.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Thanks to Keitel’s involvement, Quentin Tarantino was able to get his feature debut off the ground. The young film buff turned director repaid the actor with one hell of a character, imbued with toughness but also a healthy dose of heart, especially when Keitel’s Mr. White acts as a mentor and friend to Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, a story arc that reaches a violent and tragic catharsis in the film’s blood-soaked finale.
4. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
If your familiarity with this title is limited to Werner Herzog’s insane, Nicolas Cage-starring reimagining, you’re in for a sizable shock: Abel Ferrara’s original, a lurid story of corruption, depravity and Catholic guilt, has lost none of its raw, visceral power over the years. As the titular, unnamed lieutenant, Keitel bares all – literally – in a performance of unmatched intensity and commitment to character.
5. The Piano (1993)
Keitel’s turn in Jane Campion’s Cannes and Oscar darling is equally charming and creepy, as an apparently unsympathetic character whose relationship with Holly Hunter’s mute piano player Ada evolves in surprising ways. Aged 53 during filming, the actor is an unlikely romantic lead (of sorts) in a story about passion and music that remains oddly affecting to this day.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
His second role in a Tarantino film may be smaller, but it’s among the highlights of this riotously entertaining crime anthology. Appearing near the end of the movie to help John Travolta’s Vincent and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, Keitel’s Mr. Wolf is a no-nonsense fixer with an endless supply of (frequently profane) wisdom, best exemplified by this nugget of quotability: «Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character».
7. Smoke (1995)
Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s snapshot of New York life, which won the Prix du Public UBS in Locarno in 1995, casts Keitel as the owner of the tobacco shop that serves as the main hub of activity for characters whose lives intersect in unexpected and often amusing ways. As such, the actor serves as the quiet, wise soul of a tragicomic love letter to the Big Apple, far removed from the murkier world of Scorsese and Ferrara.