In the early ’80s I was a teenage punk rocker who could not get enough of the Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), and especially the front man for both groups, John LydonAKA Johnny Rotten. I was a completist when it came to collecting records that Lydon appeared on. I bought magazines just to read interviews with him. I had a bootleg VHS tape of the 1980 Sex Pistols’s movie, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle (with Japanese subtitles), which I watched once or twice a week. And I was not alone. Many of my friends were also Lydon fanatics (as were plenty of other alienated youth scattered all over the country). We knew about when PiL was on American Bandstand and Tom Snyder’s show. We knew when the next record was due to be released in the States, or when we could expect to start finding import-only releases in stores. We knew about the Ritz show in NY, where the band caused a riot by performing behind a screen while their records were pumped through the sound system. We knew when PiL was on tour and coming to our area, and it was always a not-to-be-missed event for us. What we didn’t know, however, was that, during that time, our hero had spent some time starring in a movie.
Somehow, that news never got around to us. In fact, to this day, I am still able to break the news to former and current Lydon fans who know nothing about it.
It was around 1989 when I was looking through the TV listings, and noticed that a film called Corrupt (1983) was going to be airing on late night television. What caught my attention was the name, "John Lydon," listed in the cast. "It couldn’t be the same John Lydon," I thought, "My friends and I would have known if he’d made a movie." Just in case, I stayed up and watched Corrupt while also recording it onto VHS. Several minutes into the film, a corrupt cop, played by Harvey Keitel, looks out a taxi window. The camera pans over to the car next to the taxi. There, peering out of the other car’s window is a very awkward-looking John Lydon. My jaw hit the floor. For the next hour and a half, I sat in amazement, watching John Lydon portray a twisted masochist playing mind games with Keitel’s character (at the time, Harvey Keitel was not yet a familiar name or face to me, despite having already been in a lot of films I liked). Where did this movie come from?! How did I not know it existed?!
It turns out the movie was shot in Italy in 1981 and released in 1983, at the height of my Lydon fandom. In the UK, the film was released with the title The Order of Death, the same title as the Hugh Fleetwood novel it’s based on. Throughout Europe, the film was called Cop Killer or Copkiller while, in the U.S., it was called Corrupt. It has subsequently been released on VHS or DVD under all three of those names, plus Cop Killers, Bad Cop Chronicles, Corrupt Lieutenant and Bad Lieutenant 2: Corrupt. I have not been able to find the reason for all the different titles, other than Lieutenant titles being attempts to cash in on Harvey Keitel’s success in Bad Lieutenant (1992). For purposes of this article, I will simply refer to the film as Corrupt, the title I first heard attributed to it.
The film takes place in New York City at a time when a serial killer is targeting corrupt members of the NYPD. Frank O’Connor (Harvey Keitel) and Bob Carvo (Leonard Mann) are corrupt cops who have put their dirty money together to buy a fancy (though mostly empty) secret apartment. Alone one night, O’Connor answers the door to find Leo Smith (John Lydon), a weirdo claiming to know all about O’Connor, and also claiming to be the cop killer that has been terrorizing the police force. O’Connor doesn’t believe Smith, and realizes that arresting him would lead to too many of his own secrets being exposed so, to be safe, O’Connor beats Smith and holds him captive. What follows is a series of suspenseful cat-and-mouse mind games between the two men, which escalates when Carvo stumbles upon O’Connor’s secret prisoner. I don’t want to give away the ending, or even tell whether or not Smith is or isn’t the cop killer. There is a lot more to the story which is fun to watch unfold while seeing Lydon’s strong performance.
Corrupt was directed by award-winning Italian director Roberto Faenza, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Ennio de Concini and Order of Deathwriter Hugh Fleetwood. The film is short on characters. Besides Keitel and Lydon, Nicole Garcia and Leonard Mann round out the small cast. PiL were supposed to provide the soundtrack to the film, and began working on it, but the tracks were taken by soon-to-be-former-member Keith Levine, and released as Commercial Zone without the rest of PiL’s consent. Meanwhile, PiL rerecorded some of the tracks, though rather than end up in Corrupt, those tracks went to PiL’s album This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, including the track "The Order of Death." Lydon has said in interviews that the film’s producers decided against using t he PiL soundtrack. Famed composer Ennio Morricone ended up providing the film’s musical score.
According to Wikipedia, Corrupt has fallen into public domain, with no one owning the film. That might explain all the different titles, since companies that take advantage of public domain material are able to change titles and packaging any way they feel will make the most the money. It also explains the poor quality of many of the releases. If you can find a high quality, complete copy of Corrupt, consider yourself lucky. The copy I recently tracked down for researching this article was a DVD that looked as though it had been mastered from a VHS tape that had been recorded off a television broadcast. Portions of the dialogue were silenced (instead of bleeped out), some scenes ended abruptly, and there were plenty of analogue tape glitches. The running time of the DVD was a lot shorter than the running time posted on the box, so the possibility is strong that my copy is missing some scenes.
Unfortunately, the film has not held up well, which could very well have something to do with the quality of the DVD that I watched, or it could be that very dated, very low budget suspense thrillers from the early ’80s leave a lot to be desired. I made the mistake of reading Hugh Fleetwood’s book right before re-watching the film for the first time in over twenty years. I worried the film only made sense to me because the book had just explained everything to me so clearly, forgetting that the film made perfect sense to me when I first watched it in 1989. The real reason to watch Corrupt is Lydon, both for the novelty that he starred in a film at that time, and for his portrayal of a truly unique character. Considering how enjoyable Lydon is onscreen, one wonders why Corrupt is his only starring role as an actor?