If there’s a film director out there who has penetrated the noir vibe more so than anyone else in a unique way, it is Abel Ferrara.
Exploring it in different ways from the edgy macabre flick The Addiction to the rugged city life characters you’ll find in films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, he has managed to create a humane side to these complicated outsiders. These are the personas we are taught to not aspire to be like. These are the men we are told are completely lost and have no future. But yet somehow, we are able to connect with them. We are able to find something in their way of being that we can articulate somehow in our very own private realities. As sad as it may sound, the affinity in all of us as human beings is rooted in despair. The characters in his films are human and for that reason, their behavior can be understood-perhaps not accepted but at least taken in an empathetic way.
It’s also worth noting the religious presence in his films. It appears in different ways but perhaps with one sole purpose which is to dive deeper into the psyche of the characters within the films. It is this type of adventurous spirit that makes if not a brilliant, at least, an interesting filmmaker. Love the man or hate him, one thing is for sure that after viewing one of his films, you’ll have an opinion. Abel Ferrara is an auteur who will challenge you visually and emotionally. Brilliant discussions can take place after watching one of his more prominent films.
The movie he is working on at the moment about the last days of controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini with Willem Dafoe playing the lead, should be an intriguing undertaking and a great addition to his already vast and rare filmography. Willem Dafoe seems to have been perfectly cast as Pasolini. And Abel Ferrara has been making bold statements in the press about the film stating that he has the true insight as to who murdered Pasolini. Whether that’s true or not, that should be sufficient for people to have some kind of interest in seeing this film. Before that, let’s take a look at the 10 best films in his filmography.
1. The Driller Killer (1979)
The art of low-budget independent films can be rewarding. It’s about the eye and the ideas more so than having expensive camera equipment. Now good equipment can be a tremendous help but without the basic inspiration, one has nothing. Abel Ferrara takes on the Horror genre with The Driller Killer playing the lead role himself and manages to make this film project work albeit his limited resources.
The film was banned in the UK and consequently labeled as “video nasties” which is the same fate that the movie I Spit on your Grave met around that time. There’s a punk sensibility to The Driller Killer which ultimately gives it more of a grotesque and edgy cinematic effect. It was the beginning of an intense and vivid career for Abel Ferrara.
2. Ms. 45 (1981)
Abel Ferrara seems to have a dark love affair with New York City in his films and Ms. 45 seems to be no exception. To some extent, there could be comparisons made to the 1980’s chick revenge flick Angel. But this is more gritty. Zoë Tamerlis Lund plays the lead of a mute seamstress named Thana who gets raped not once but twice on her way home from work. The cat-calling on the streets from different men and her boss who appears to have a sleazy reputation all seem to imply that any remotely attractive woman on the streets of New York isn’t safe from being hassled in some way whether verbally or even unfortunately physically. But it’s not fair to label this film misogynistic.
Despite the lead character beginning to lose her mind, she still manages to react to all the violence around her that exists because of her sex and intelligently uses it as bait to lure the men in and then kill them herself. At the very end, after symbolically dressing as a nun for a Halloween work-related party, it’s not a man who ends Thana’s wretchedness in killing but a woman who possibly could understand her motives more than anyone else and wants to set her free.
3. Fear City (1984)
Perhaps many would look upon this film as a valid guilty pleasure of Ferrara. Sure not everything hits on the spot as one would expect of a good filmmaker but this is the reason why Ferrara can be appreciated. It’s the risks he takes with certain projects that makes it all worthwhile.
Released in the mid 80’s, the storyline revolves around a serial killer roaming the streets of New York killing women who are in the adult entertainment world working as strippers. A retired boxer, dealing with his own demons, is also included in the story. There’s lots of skin and lots of violent sequences that at times seem gratuitous. Quite possibly, this is Ferrara’s most mainstream film because this is what an 80’s audience would demand from a horror genre flick back in those days.
4. King Of New York (1990)
It’s a perfectly paced gangster film that is both dark and brooding. The story centers on a gang warfare that is haunting the city of New York. It’s a struggle of power that is both corruptive and menacing no matter how one looks at it. Christopher Walken is at his best executing the role of the villain in a proper but yet psychotic manner. On a lighter note, we also get to see a bit of his famous dance moves that only he can do so well that’ll have a brighter spotlight years later in the Fatboy Slim music video Weapon of Choice.
And while Bad Lieutenant is more on the dramatic front, this one has the upper hand as it incorporates more action sequences. The city of New York is captured vividly at night exposing all the burgeoning chaos that is lurking by the street corners.
5. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Most possibly the quintessential film of Abel Ferrara. Inspired by the true events of a New York City nun being raped by some street kids who were looking to rob a church. Harvey Keitel plays the lead role of The Lieutenant with such precision that you can’t help but feel truly sorry for the character after despising him for some time for the way he abuses his power and leads his life. It’s the offender living in turmoil. From the moment the film starts, you feel a sense of heaviness that The Lieutenant inevitably is carrying with him. You feel a sensation of loss without any chance for redemption.
The scene where Paul Hipp appears as Jesus Christ to The Lieutenant in the church, is nothing short of powerful! The interchange between the two in that scene is palpable to the core. You see The Lieutenant, after much wailing, spitting out to Christ by asking him where the fuck was he before?! And Christ responds by simply looking back at him with a sad countenance. It’s sure to ruffle your feathers.