Harvey Keitel has rarely been the lead, it does not matter, because he dominates the film with his performance. He is one of those actors, no matter how small the role, we cannot shake because he brings such intensity to each part. Beloved by his fellow actors, widely respected by his directors he is among the most gifted actors in the business. Powerfully built, his stocky frame fills the screen when he comes on, all eyes go to home. Incredibly, Harvey Keitel still does not have an Oscar, which, frankly he should have had quite some time ago.
He has not ever fared well in studio fare, failing miserably in Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976) and from that point on choosing his roles cautiously, happiest within the independent world. It seems there, he is free to cut loose with his art, not hampered by the demands of the studio. Here is the list of top 10 Harvey Keitel movies that showcase his immense acting talent.
1. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
As a crooked cop, the actor is astonishing, exploring the depths of absolute despair in a powerful, sometimes frightening performance. Walked the Edge between madness and sanity, the actor dares to go further than he ever has before. In fact he goes further than most actors ever have. A drug addicted, embezzling, gambling addict, the Lieutenant, never named is a walking horror show of a human being. When a nun is raped and refuses to name her attackers, he tracks them down, hallucinating a vision of Jesus Christ. An electrifying, naked piece of acting.
2. The Piano (1993)
In Jane Campions haunting masterpiece, the actor is Banes, foreman in a jungle plantation who takes possession of a mute woman’s precious piano. Having hauled the instrument from Scotland to New Zealand, she is enraged when he trades it for a parcel of land. But Banes has a plan, to trade the piano back to her for favours. Entering into a passionate affair with her, Banes finds himself and allows her to find her voice. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin won Oscars, Keitel was deserving of at least a nomination for supporting actor.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Jittering, coked up, standing on his step pimping out a twelve-year-old girl, Sport is the sort of man we despise. But Keitel portrays him with such jovial good humour we cannot take our eyes off him. Even when manipulating Iris, his child prostitute with promises of love, we cannot look away, knowing he is exploiting a child, yet we see why she wants to be near him, charismatic, he is remarkable. Powerfully built, fearless until gunned down in the streets, the actor was a revelation.
4. Bugsy (1991)
Keitel was excellent here earning his only Oscar nomination as gangster Mickey Cohen, who in thirties LA did not fear Bugsy Seigel, but was quick to respect him. After stealing from the crazed gangster, Cohen comes to work for him, making millions for Seigel, most of which goes into his Flamingo Hotel in Vegas. Loyal, almost to a fault, Cohen understands Seigel, shares his dream to a point but does not, with reason trust Virginia Hill Bugsy’s girl. Powerful, quiet forceful from Keitel.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Mr. Wolf occupies perhaps twenty minutes of screen time, but that entire twenty minutes, we cannot take our eyes off him and marvel at his problem solving issues. He is, as he says, Curt, thinks fast, solves issues fast, his world is solving the unsolvable. And so many questions come up when he comes into the film. He seems to be at a dinner party in the morning when contacted, and obviously is going to sleep with the wrecking yard girl. Intense, sharply focused, it is a wonderful performance among many.
6. Mean Streets (1973)
A breakout performance for the actor, Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, his work as Charlie marked him as a potentially great actor. His confident performance holds the film together, often left to pick up the mess his buddy Johnny Boy had made. Scorsese took his actors into the streets he knew best and turned them loose. Keitel career took off with this film.
7. Copland (1997)
The bad apple in a community of cops, he is the leader, the one who calls the shots, thevsingle most dangerous in the town. Hiding behind the badge, or exploiting it for his own gain, his Ray is a very bad guy. He has no trouble taking out his own, or setting up other cops to fail. Relentless, menacing, it is a brilliant performance, the kind we inherently expect from him by now. His Ray is ruthless without conscience, the character we find ourselves remembering most.
8. Thelma and Louise (1991)
As a good cop, Hal, on the path of the two rollicking unintentional female outlaws is a decent man. He researches their pasts and knows, inherently they did not do anything but circumstance got them in hot water. Talking to them, the men in their lives, everyone they came in contact with, hoping to help them. And it is him who realizes they are going to drive off the cliff at the end, vainly running after the car. One of the rare times he has played a good guy.
9. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
As Mr. White, he is the unofficial leader of the group, though another is doing the paying. Fiercely loyal to the others he refuses to believe one of them is a cop, going against the others when told so. Over and over he claims, I know this man, but of course, he really does not. The Mexican stand off will end badly for everyone, and he dies realizing he has been duped. The shame on his face goes with us out the door.
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
With no effort to hide his New York accent, Keitel is superb in the film as Judas. He will betray Christ, but was also one of his most loyal followers, daring him to go as far as he can, daring him to speak, to be the son of God as he claims. This Judas is quite prepared to kill Christ if he lets him down personally, but finds his words challenge him, enlighten him even. It is a powerful film with brilliant performances.
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