December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

Harvey Keitel

It might have helped if a “the” had been added to the title, which now suggests a dog by that name getting a scolding. Baaaaaaaad Lieutenant! Bad! But that’s the least of the problems with this anguished police drama.

Keitel is, indeed, a very bad New York City police lieutenant. His life and career, followed over the course of a few blood-soaked weeks, are being swallowed up by an immense cocaine habit and increasingly deranged long-shot baseball bets, which eventually leave him thousands in debt to a loan shark. He also wastes quite a few evenings in what appears to be a prostitute’s opium den. In fact, Keitel spends so much time mucking around in the dark sewers of his soul, it’s hard to see what work he does when he manages to stay in the line of duty, even after he is assigned to the case of a nun (Frankie Thorn) who has been raped late one night in a church in Harlem. The nun, who has the porcelain beauty and somnambulant calm that distinguish members of the Order of Cinematic Sisterhood, knows the boys who did it but refuses to identify them, simply saying that she forgives them. She advises Keitel to do the same.

As dramatic luck would have it, Keitel is a bad Catholic (in addition to everything else bad about him), and the nun’s faith is the equivalent of a cold, hard slap to the soul. Director Abel Ferrara (King of New York), who cowrote the script with Zoe Lund, is not too subtle about any of the religious stuff. Keitel is provided with two occasions on which he can utter a heart-ripping cry of anguish, which is really one time too many. Ferrara also provides two visions of the crucified Jesus (one during the rape), and that is two times too many. It’s as if The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle were suddenly to start speaking in tongues.

None of this is of any assistance to Keitel, a powerful actor who appears to be trying, with every muscle tensed, to give the performance of a lifetime. What he gets is, at best, one astonishing scene, when he harasses two dopey young women who have driven in from the Jersey suburbs to hit the clubs and bars. In exchange for not giving them a ticket for a broken taillight, he masturbates outside the car while one woman bares her behind and the other mimes oral sex. It’s unflinchingly, unforgettably nasty. (NC-17)


If ever there was a bit of irony in this documentary about the founder of Playboy, it got airbrushed out along the way. What remains is essentially a corporate film: the life, many loves, occasional hard times but mostly the triumphs of the man known familiarly as Hef.

It’s a story that’s been told many times before, if never with quite such literal-mindedness and overblown rhetoric. (“A chill wind of conservatism blew across the land,” intones narrator James Coburn.) The product of a repressed upbringing, Hef grew up in a Chicago household where sex was never mentioned and kisses rarely dispensed (his mother thought they spread germs). With working capital of just $8,000 and “a typewriter, a card table and a dream,” the 27-year-old Hef produced the first issue of Playboy in 1953. The magazine was an immediate success. “It was as if it was a moment and event waiting to happen,” says Hef, who appears to have cooperated fully with the filmmakers, releasing family home movies and his adolescent attempts at magazine cartoons.

Once upon a Time reveals that the Hef of old took Dexedrine to fuel his workaholism, never had a monogamous relationship and kept a journal of his conquests (more than 1,000, he estimates, “but quality was more important than quantity”). And the documentary does include accounts of an alleged Playboy Enterprises drug scandal that drove Hefner executive assistant Bobbie Arnstein to suicide in 1975 and of the 1980 murder of onetime Playmate Dorothy Stratten.

Feminist Susan Brownmiller and Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell also appear onscreen to speak their anti-Playboy piece. But there is no commentary from an impartial source to put the magazine in sociological context and no discussion of the magazine’s direction or fortune since Hef’s daughter Christie took the reins about four years ago. Instead there is lots of Hef—at peace with himself, married to a former Playboy Playmate, monogamous, the father of two photogenic tots.

Perhaps Hef should consider running for office. The campaign film has already been made. (Unrated)

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