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Retro Review: CORRUPT (1983)


(Italy - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Roberto Faenza. Written by Ennio de Concini, Hugh Fleetwood and Roberto Faenza. Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Lydon, Nicole Garcia, Leonard Mann, Sylvia Sidney, Carla Romanelli. (R, 101 mins)

You can't exactly say the psychological thriller CORRUPT has fallen into obscurity over the years, but it's a small miracle that it's now available in quality Blu-ray release in 2017. A staple on countless sketchy, public domain DVD sets and on YouTube for years, in crummy VHS quality transfers and often under different titles--the most dubious being CORRUPT LIEUTENANT in reference to another iconic role for star Harvey Keitel--with a myriad of truncated running times, CORRUPT was based on the 1977 novel The Order of Death by British writer Hugh Fleetwood, who co-wrote the script with director Roberto Faenza and veteran screenwriter Ennio de Concini (THE RED TENT, SALON KITTY, CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37). It was released in the UK in 1983 as ORDER OF DEATH, the rest of Europe that same year as COPKILLER, and in the US in 1984 as CORRUPT, by New Line Cinema, the B-movie and genre fare outfit that had been around for years but was about to have a breakout smash with Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Code Red recently released CORRUPT--in its 101-minute US cut, a bit shorter than the 113-minute European version--on Blu-ray and it's the first time it's been in a watchable condition since the old Thorn/EMI VHS tape that was in every video store in America in the 1980s. The film has maintained a certain degree of cult notoriety for the last 30-plus years, thanks primarily to the presence of John Lydon--then the frontman for Public Image Ltd but still best known for his days as the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten--in the first of only three acting roles he's tackled over his career, and he more than holds his own against the powerhouse intensity of Keitel, with long stretches of the film focused on their two characters engaging in psychological warfare in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of a nearly empty luxury apartment. There were plans to take advantage of Lydon's day job: Public Image Ltd were set to do some music for the film, but the producers ultimately opted to go with a score by Ennio Morricone instead. Some of the material that Lydon and PiL recorded ended up on the band's 1984 album This is What You Want...This is What You Get, including "The Order of Death," which would've been great in CORRUPT but had to wait several years to find a cinematic home when it was prominently featured in Richard Stanley's 1990 cult classic HARDWARE, and more recently on the Syfy series MR. ROBOT.

NYPD narcotics Lt. Fred O'Connor (Keitel) has a full plate with a serial killer slashing the throats of corrupt cops in his division. He seeks escape and relaxation from the everyday grind by pretending he's a wealthy man named Stevens and lounging with fine cigars and a comfy robe and slippers at a nearly empty $400,000 apartment overlooking Central Park. Fred went 50/50 on it with his friend and colleague Bob Corvo (Leonard Mann)--a purchase funded by their sideline activities as drug dealing cops. Troubled by the deaths of several fellow officers, Corvo is feeling guilt over their off-duty criminal activities. Meanwhile, O'Connor realizes he's being followed by a stranger (Lydon) who shows up at the secret apartment and introduces himself as Fred Mason, confessing to the cop killer slayings and saying he's been following O'Connor for six months. O'Connor doesn't believe him, but frets because he knows about the apartment, so he reacts in a calm and rational way by boarding up the bathroom window and keeping Mason bound and handcuffed in the bathtub, periodically torturing him and giving him food in a dog dish. But Mason is really Leo Smith, a young man from an extremely wealthy Rhinecliff family who was raised by his grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) after his parents died. Leo, the kind of bored rich kid with too much time on his hands and too many toys who fills his bedroom with camcorders and TVs and makes videotapes of himself sleeping, has a history of confessing to crimes he didn't commit, ostensibly for attention but, as O'Connor finds out when he visits the grandmother after she files a missing persons report, because he's into S&M imagery and enjoys punishment. What follows are some often twisted and grueling cat-and-mouse head games, with O'Connor accidentally killing Corvo and trying to pin it on Leo, to Leo being set free by his captor but voluntarily returning to the secret apartment, turning the tables on his nemesis by insidiously taking over O'Connor's life and slowly wearing him down psychologically, methodically manipulating the dirty cop over his corruption and guilt to serve his own agenda that will become clear by the devastating finale.

UK poster under the film's original title.

CORRUPT is a strange film that, speaking in terms of pure plot synopsis, doesn't make much logical sense. Even the British ORDER OF DEATH trailer above doesn't seem to have any idea how to sell it. Of all the things that two corrupt cops could spend their money on, a secret apartment where they don't really do anything seems like a waste ("I looked at this as an investment," says Corvo after informing O'Connor that he wants to sell his share). Fleetwood's novel made overtures to O'Connor and Corvo being closeted gay lovers and that's subtly alluded to here, with O'Connor's seemingly disapproving reaction to Corvo shaving his beard (Nicole Garcia plays Corvo's wife Lenore, who rejected O'Connor's advances years earlier prior to her marriage) and that Corvo's excuse of the apartment as an "investment" seems like a lie he's repeatedly told himself until he believes it. Its "imprisonment and torture of a suspect" element prefigures Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS by 30 years, but the Italian-made CORRUPT often demonstrates the logic and style of a giallo, which it may partially be classified as considering the throat-slashing nature of the cop killings along with Morricone's score, mainly a pulsating minimalist synth with asides that make it sound like a strange mix-tape hybrid of his entire career, from a spaghetti western banjo to some of his cacophonous early '70s free jazz freakouts (there's some BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE trumpet here) to a recurring piano cue (about 1:12 into this clip) that attentive viewers will spot from the Maestro's work on both Umberto Lenzi's ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). It can also be seen a more grounded, less surreal homage to PERFORMANCE, not just in the casting of a famous music personality but also in the way the protagonists (James Fox and Mick Jagger in PERFORMANCE) have dual identities and become distorted mirror images of one another as the film goes on. Even "cop killer" ends up with a reflecting flip side with "killer cop." It's also an effective, grimy NYC movie of the era done in the unique way that only Italians could, with some extensive location shooting for the exteriors (interiors were filmed at Cinecitta in Rome) and some vintage 42nd Street shots, including Keitel on a bus that passes the Lyric, then showing an incredible double bill of DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. and SLITHIS, which would put CORRUPT's NYC shoot somewhere in the vicinity of May 1982. It's too bad Faenza didn't snag any footage of the Butchermobile cruising around.

But CORRUPT is really propelled by the performances of Keitel and Lydon, exact opposites in terms of approach and experience but making it work beautifully, almost like they're starring in the world's most dysfunctional, demented remake of THE ODD COUPLE. There's an undeniable nerve-wracking edginess to a lot of their scene, the violence they inflict on one another looks convincingly real and they're deeply in the zone throughout. Watch one great bit where Keitel slams Lydon's face into a table, grabbing him by his hair and knocking over a glass of milk, breaking it with the milk splattering all over--it obviously wasn't planned and Keitel is visibly startled by the glass shattering, but neither actor breaks character. It's a "real" moment that Faenza wisely left in the finished film. Keitel brings a lot of his standard persona to the table, including the sense of guilt carried over by his MEAN STREETS character (as dishonest as O'Connor is, he still drinks milk and dutifully drops a quarter in the slot when he ends up on a bus chasing a suspect) along with the moral and ethical implosion that we'd see him play a decade later in Abel Ferrara's BAD LIEUTENANT (unfortunately, O'Connor never completely breaks down, depriving us of the unique Keitel Cry). Keitel gets a long monologue about corruption that would fit right into a Scorsese or Ferrara film. O'Connor is a total sadist in his treatment of Leo, whether he's feeding him out of a dog dish, threatening to burn him with a cigar, or stuffing his head into an oven.

And as played by a wild-eyed Lydon, Leo seems to welcome the mistreatment, even if it's all part of a ruse. The punk icon is a revelation here, and it's a shame he didn't pursue more acting roles. He's a perfect foil for Keitel, who's pure simmering rage waiting to boil over, while Lydon is more sarcastic and mocking, as Leo knows exactly what buttons to push, whether he's maniacally grinning at the idea of a cigar being put out on his cheek or taunting O'Connor with "You're falling to pieces" as he mic-drops what's left of a handheld radio that O'Connor just smashed in one of his numerous meltdowns. Faenza and the writers even pull a bait and switch on the audience, seeming to put the "cop killer" thread of the story on the backburner for much of the running time. All the while, the filmmakers slyly tighten the screws, as O'Connor's vast apartment becomes suffocatingly claustrophobic and Morricone's throbbing, repetitive synth score plays in a way that's pure Carpenterian in its droning, tension-escalating persistence. CORRUPT has been neglected for so long that it's easy to see why it's either completely forgotten or thoroughly despised by those who have only seen a really shitty presentation of it. While Code Red's Blu-ray represents the truncated American cut, it's unquestionably the best this film has looked since New Line released it 33 years ago (apparently just in NYC, as The New York Times' Janet Maslin appears to be the only major American critic who reviewed it at the time), and even for fans who are familiar with it, this is like seeing it for the first time. CORRUPT is a hard film to pin down--maybe think of it as what might happen if Sidney Lumet ever made a giallo--but it's endlessly fascinating, one of the great unknown films of the 1980s, and a must-see for fans of Lydon, as well as Keitel, who turns in one of his absolutely essential performances.

CORRUPT finally rescued from the indignity of 
decades as a public domain title. You get what you pay for.
This looks legit, from the shot of Keitel from what may be
be COP LAND to the flashy cars to "John Lyndon."

Totally legit.

That's a mid '90s Keitel and it's not even his left hand.

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