best film:  The task of ranking the best films with Harvey Keitel in them, means trying to argue for or against either Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The last iteration of the best 500 films of all-time list gave Tarantino’s film the edge by just two slots (ranked #30 vs. Taxi Driver at #32). These two masterpieces are so close in quality that it is not worth debating which one is superior – but just appreciating their greatness. Keitel plays the Scar role (an update on The Searchers) in Taxi Driver – even saying to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle “You’re a real cowboy”.  Keitel is only in about five (5) minutes of Pulp Fiction, but this is not like Harrison Ford’s small role in Apocalypse Now or Elliot Gould’s cameo in Nashville – Keitel plays The Wolf in Pulp Fiction and he is electric in his scenes. The Wolf is a character and role that cannot be played by just anyone. Tarantino is very shrewd to use Keitel. Keitel has been in some of cinema’s greatest films. If someone wanted to restrict the discussion to films where Keitel stars – there is Mean Streets (1973) or even Reservoir Dogs (1992). This means that Keitel is not only in Tarantino and Scorsese’s most widely recognized masterpieces, but also their big artistic breakthrough films as well. There is still more to consider with Keitel beyond these heavyweight big four films (two from Scorsese, two from Tarantino) – Keitel is more part of the scenery and larger Wes Anderson ensemble trope in masterpieces like Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Without a doubt, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a film that must be thrown into the mix here and Keitel added two more small parts in brilliant films in 2019 appearing in both The Irishman (back with Scorsese again) and The Painted Bird from Václav Marhoul.


best performance:  Mean Streets (1973), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) are the trio at the top vying for Keitel’s best single performance and there is not much separating them.  Keitel is a revelation as Charlie, the sort of Scorsese surrogate (Scorsese does the voice in his head for the voiceover) in Mean Streets. Upon first viewing, De Niro really steals the show – but closer study helps reveal Keitel’s achievement is at least De Niro’s equal. Keitel gives the more subtle, layered performance. Bad Lieutenant is Keitel front and center and exposed – both with his trademark nudity and exposed emotionally. This is the definition of a raw, committed performance – another bold role and film choice for Keitel.


Harvey Keitel as Charlie in Scorsese’s cinematic breakthrough – Mean Streets


stylistic innovations/traits:   Harvey Keitel is an actor unafraid of taking chances. It does not work in every film – he is miscast in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – he cannot pull off the cowboy with that Brooklyn accent. Keitel is sort of picked on for that Brooklyn accent in both Ridley Scott’s The Duelists (1977) and again with Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – though his commitment to both parts still sort of make these performances a success despite the natural impediment with the accent.  There is still more bad news here – poor Harvey Keitel was replaced, in masterpieces, by both Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now – losing out on the coveted Martin Sheen role) and Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut – replaced by Sydney Pollack – this is not on the level Martin Sheen’s replacement of Keitel for Apocalypse Now, but still – two of the most memorable reshoot casting replacements in cinema involve Keitel). Having said all this, Keitel has still had a storied career and there are plenty of times when his risk taking has paid off. He has worked with first time directors from Scorsese to Ridley Scott to Paul Schrader to Tarantino. Keitel has twenty-four (24) films in the archives going back to 1967 from the beginning with Scorsese and Who’s that Knocking at My Door (which also starts the extensive, proud history of Harvey Keitel being nude in films). It is hard to imagine another actor taking a risk like Bad Lieutenant (there is no debating his Brooklyn accent or being cast in a different region or time period – neither of which are Keitel’s strength – here) and from Nicolas Roeg to Spike Lee to Jane Campion to Wes Anderson – Keitel seems to seek out work with the artistically inclined throughout his career. There is too much good here to waste too much time playing the what-if game with what could have been for his career with Keitel in Apocalypse Now. Missing out on that could have and would have killed a lot of careers – and it clearly did not with Keitel. Outside of his top five (5) performances, Keitel is impressive in Bugsy (oddly enough, his sole Oscar nomination) and Thelma and Louise – both from 1991 –  helping to spark that comeback of sorts in the early 1990s (after that quiet stretch following Apocalypse Now in the 1980s).


Keitel flourished in the early 1990s – 1992 in particular – with both Reservoir Dogs and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (pictured here)


directors worked with:  Martin Scorsese (6), Alan Rudolph (2), Ridley Scott (2), Wes Anderson (2), Robert Altman (1), Paul Schrader (1), Nicolas Roeg (1), Barry Levinson (1), Quentin Tarantino (2), Jane Campion (1), Spike Lee (1), Paolo Sorrentino (1). This is now Scorsese’s fourth (4th) major collaborator on the list with Robert De Niro (#1 slot, nine films together), Leonardo DiCaprio (#16 slot, five films together) and Joe Pesci (#30 slot, four films together) already on the list.


top five performances:

  1. Mean Streets
  2. Bad Lieutenant
  3. Reservoir Dogs
  4. The Piano
  5. Blue Collar


Keitel as Mr. White in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino and Scorsese are two of the towering giants in cinema in the past fifty (50) years – and Harvey Keitel is an important part of the stories of both of them.


archiveable films

1967- Who’s That Knocking at My Door
1973- Mean Streets
1974- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
1976- Buffalo Bill and the Indians
1976- Taxi Driver
1976- Welcome to L.A.
1977- The Duelists
1978- Blue Collar
1980- Bad Timing
1988- The Last Temptation of Christ
1991- Bugsy
1991- Mortal Thoughts
1991- Thelma and Louise
1992- Bad Lieutenant
1992- Reservoir Dogs
1993- The Piano
1994- Pulp Fiction
1995- Clockers
1995- Ulysses’ Gaze
2012- Moonrise Kingdom
2014- The Grand Budapest Hotel
2015- Youth
2019- The Irishman
2019- The Painted Bird