FIRST SHORT WORKS (1959-1966)
In the United States, feature films are given ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America as a means to prohibit members of certain age brackets from exposure to mature content. The R rating in particular is meant to prevent anyone under the age of 17 from gaining admission to a film that’s been deemed either too violent and/or sexual for their age.
Thanks to home video, I had seen plenty of R-rated films before I turned seventeen, but once I did, damned if I didn’t go straight to the theatre to enjoy some hassle-free Restricted film viewing. The first R-rated film I ever saw in theatres was director Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002).
The subject matter and historical period attracted me more to the film than the authorship of its director—indeed up until then, I had only been tangentially aware of Scorsese’s influence on the medium. Nevertheless, it was one of the most visceral filmgoing experiences of my young life, and I became acutely aware I was in the hands of a master filmmaker.
In many ways, it was the beginning of my filmic literacy and education. As of this writing, Scorsese is currently 72 years old, and shows no signs of slowing down or retiring. He belongs to the Film Brat generation of filmmakers, amongst contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Steven Spielberg.
Theirs was the earliest generation to attend and graduate from dedicated film schools like New York University or University of Southern California, and as such, the first generation to truly bring the idea of “community” to filmmaking.
The 1970’s and 80’s were heady days for Scorsese’s generation of filmmakers, with their overlapping social circles causing them to feed off of each other’s creative energies and funnel it into a collective stylistic movement we now call New Hollywood.
In the decades since, Scorsese has emerged as something of a national treasure—he’s not only one of the most significant and influential filmmakers in American history, but he’s also one of its most prolific producers as well. Scorsese’s body of work largely deals with stories about the Italian-American experience, Roman Catholic concepts of sin and redemption, modern masculinity, and organized crime.
He was instrumental in the development of modern cinema, popularizing many of its core conceits like dynamic camera movement, fast-paced editing, and laying popular music into the soundtrack. His depictions of the Italian American experience in his native New York City is rivaled in influence only by Woody Allen’s documentation of the Jewish experience.
Younger filmmakers like Spike Lee, James Gray, and even Lena Dunham have followed his example in using the city as a prism with which to focus on certain subcultures (the African-American, Polish/Eastern European, and Millennial/hipster cultures, respectively).
Scorsese is also one of the most decorated filmmakers of our time—he has the most Oscar nominations for Best Director (eight, with one win) of any living director. When considering the total nominations of ALL directors living or dead, he comes in second only to William Wyler, an honor he shares with Billy Wilder.
“Marty” Scorsese was born November 17th, 1942 in Queens, New York to Charles and Catherine Scorsese. Both parents worked in the Garment District in addition to being actors. They were emigrants from the Italian island of Sicily, which meant that Scorsese was a first generation American, and thus better positioned than his parents to pursue the American Dream as he saw fit—a quest that would become a key theme in his body of work.
Having moved to Manhattan’s Little Italy shortly before attending school, Scorsese grew up as a sickly child—his severe asthma prevented him from playing sports, so he would go to the movies instead. The Scorsese household was strictly Roman Catholic, and little Marty had initially planned on becoming a priest when he grew up.
After taking in a screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS one day in 1947, however, he found himself bit by the film bug. Hard. He began mainlining a steady diet of films—mostly historical epics and the Italian neorealism of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.
Films like BICYCLE THIEVES (1948) and ROME OPEN CITY (1945) gave Scorsese a deeper appreciation of his Italian heritage, but the idea of pursuing filmmaking as a career didn’t occur to him until independent director John Cassavetes released his self-financed debut feature, FACES, in 1959—a flashpoint event that forever dispelled any excuse an aspiring director had for not actively making his or her movie.
That same year, Scorsese followed Cassavetes’ example and made his first short film, VESUVIUS VI. Like the historical epics he loved growing up, the film was set in Ancient Rome and drew inspiration from the then-popular television series 77 SUNSET STRIP.
For whatever reason, VESUVIUS VI is unfortunately unavailable for public viewing, but it was enough to land the academically challenged Scorsese a spot in New York University’s class of 1964. From 1960-1964, Scorsese worked towards a bachelor’s degree in English while making two short films that would serve as his first true experimentations with the art form and help solidify his aesthetic.
WHATS A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963)
The ideas and practices of the French New Wave can be felt heavily throughout Scorsese’s earliest publicly available work, WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? The short is about an anxious writer who becomes so entranced by a particular photograph that it gives him terrible writers block.
He meets and marries a young bohemian girl whose carefree ways release him from his internal struggles—that is until her art begins to take a crippling hold on him as well. Scorsese tells a very fractured narrative, switching between subjective first person perspective to documentary-style testimonials and various non sequiturs with reckless abandon.
Shooting in black and white, Scorsese wields his handheld camera with a dynamic, exaggerated sense of reality that’s almost cartoon-like in nature. His compositions and lighting setups are bold, confident, and very impressionistic- indeed, the influence of Fellini and his distinctly magical style is felt in every frame.
WHATS A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? closes with the line, “Life is fraught with peril”—an interesting conclusion that feels very prescient when we consider the films yet to come from the young Scorsese.
ITS NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! (1964)
The next year, Scorsese made his third work, titled IT’S JUST NOT YOU, MURRAY! It starred Ira Robin as the titular Murray, Sam DeFazio as his buddy Joe, and Andrea Martin as Murray’s aloof wife. Catherine Scorsese even appears, beginning a long tradition of making cameos in her son’s work.
The short follows the black and white, French New wave conceits of its predecessor, going a step farther by exposing its artificiality as a film by acknowledging the presence of a sound man. The film is mostly comedic, but it introduces several ideas that Scorsese would incorporate into his dramatic aesthetic.
Examples include weaving the story specifically into the fabric of New York City and the depiction of violence in a hard-hitting, messy, and realistic manner. IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! also sees the first appearance of a common trope within Scorsese’s work—the introduction of the love interest (in this instance, Andrea Martin) as a blonde in a white dress.
It’s not that Scorsese just has a thing for blondes—the frequent appearance of this scene throughout his body of work can be traced back to his Roman Catholic background and the dogma that gave birth to the madonna/whore complex that drives his films’ sexual conflicts.
As a whole, IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! is the first of Scorsese’s works to follow his signature narrative framework: a man hailing from an immigrant family (usually Italian) and living in New York City gets involved in shady dealings with a business partner, becomes rich, marries above his social caste, and achieves the American Dream only to lose it all to hubris and ego.
The titular Murray of this short film introduces himself by saying he wants to learn how to live A Good Life—it’s the pursuit of “The Good Life” that Scorsese’s films are all about, and his characters are determined to get it by any means necessary.
Scorsese graduated from New York University’s undergraduate program in 1964, and then went right back in to earn an MFA in Film. He finished in 1966, the same year he made NEW YORK CITY…MELTING POINT, a film about which little is known other than the fact that it’s a documentary.
My guess is that it was Scorsese’s master’s thesis film, but until it is publicly available, we’ll never know for sure. Thankfully, however, we have the above short films to show us that his aesthetic was already highly developed, thanks to a firm command of the craft that he’d cultivated from a childhood spent in the movie theatre. They prove, without a shadow of a doubt, Martin Scorsese was a natural born filmmaker from the very start.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967)
Nowadays, going to college to pursue filmmaking is almost as commonplace as studying law or economics. Nobody bats an eye when a young man or woman declares his or her intentions to become a filmmaker (except maybe for the parents shouldering those insane tuition fees).
It’s hard to believe, in the late 60’s when the idea of “film school” was new and untested, that pursuing a profession in film carried a certain stigma with it. That first class of school-taught filmmakers, comprised of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, or George Lucas, would prove invaluable in legitimizing the idea of film schools as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s top cinematic talents.
Sometime in the mid-60’s, a young man named Martin Scorsese was sitting in a film history course at New York University and found himself struck by his professor’s sheer enthusiasm and love for cinema, beginning a journey that bring him to the forefront of his particular generation of filmmakers.
The young Scorsese would try his hand at filmmaking by directing two shorts during his undergraduate studies—WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963), and IT’S JUST NOT YOU, MURRAY! (1964).
However, the real test would come in the form of a student short he embarked on the following year—a film about rambunctious young Italian men called BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS. He might not have known it at the time, but what he was reallyembarking on was his very first feature film—albeit the process of how it came to be deviated greatly from conventional processes.
In 1967, Scorsese added a romantic sublot with actress Zina Bethune to the short and changed the title to I CALL FIRST, eventually screening it at the Chicago Film Festival the following year (and even earning high praise from a young Roger Ebert).
This led to the film’s acquisition by exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner, who forced the young director to add in a gratuitous sex scene (spliced quite literally into the middle of a dialogue scene) and retitle the film to WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.
The film takes place in a world the young Scorsese knew quite well: the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan. JR (Harvey Keitel, in his first of several collaborations with Scorsese) is a young hood who spends his days raising hell around town with his no-good friends, and his nights getting his kicks with an endless rotation of loose women he dismisses as “broads”.
He’s a little bit of a dreamer, but for all his open-mindedness, he can’t help fall in line with the community mentality towards women. One day, he meets a girl (the aforementioned Bethune and the first of many Scorsese blondes) on the Staten Island Ferry and is taken with her effortless charms and virginal purity.
They begin a courtship, bonding over their differences as well as their similarities (for instance, a shared obsession with movies). When JR announces to the girl that he wants to marry her, she reveals a dark secret about her past—a few years ago, she was raped while on a date with another boy.
JR is unable to deal with the revelation and storms off into the night for a round of raucous partying with his friends. Unable to forget her, he returns to her apartment the next morning to say that he’s forgiven her—but it’s not forgiveness that the girl seeks, and their incompatibility as a couple is ultimately revealed.
A relatively simple narrative told in an endlessly complex fashion, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR shares its provocative insights into the double standards that men impose on women. It has lost none of its relevancy considering today’s problems with rape culture and attitudes of entitlement that perpetuate the objectification of women.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was cobbled together over the course of several years and different shoots, so the cinematography varies throughout its brisk running time. Michael Wadleigh and Richard Coll are credited as the directors of photography, shooting on a mix of 35mm and 16mm black and white film.
At first glance, Scorsese’s stylistic approach here reads like a grab bag of French New Wave tricks: handheld camerawork, jump cuts, fast-pacing, cross-cutting, non-chronological ordering, and impressionistic flourishes (like a party sequence rendered in slow motion).
Independent filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes was a big influence on Scorsese, and the mark of Cassavetes’ 1959 film SHADOWS can be felt in every frame of Scorsese’s debut. Thelma Schoonmaker had the unenviable job of piecing together no less than three separate stories and shoots into one coherent whole in the editing room.
For her efforts, she would be rewarded with a long, fruitful working relationship with Scorsese as his regular editor—a relationship that continues to this day. Scorsese is credited with helping to popularize the use of contemporary rock music in modern American cinema, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR gives us our first glimpse at the young director’s musical affectations.
Scorsese populates the soundtrack with several jukebox and doo-wop hits. They may sound antiquated to us today, but back in the 1960’s, these songs had the establishment clutching their proverbial pearls. The standout is the use of The Doors’ “This Is The End” during JR’s sex fantasy in the middle of the film, predating Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the song in APOCALYPSE NOW by nearly twelve years.
The sound of Scorsese’s music may have changed over the course of his career, but the character remains the same— full of vitality, energy, and rebellious spirit.
Scorsese’s early work deals heavily with Catholic concepts of redemption and guilt, as well as how it relates to the Italian American experience in New York. In this regard, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR is perhaps the bluntest instrument of the bunch, hammering its themes home with extended montages of old world Catholic iconography—cathedrals, statues of Mary, Christ on the cross, prayer candles, etc.
The love plot serves as a prototypical form of the classic Scorsese romance archetype—a man comes to love a woman who appears like a vision out of a crowd (usually a blonde wearing white), promising to be his salvation from a brutal world— but when she fails to live up to his exacting, ultimately unrealistic standards of purity and innocence, discord most surely ensues.
This Madonna/Whore complex runs through Scorsese’s work—it even pops up in his most recent narrative feature, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). It’s a conceit deeply rooted in the social and religious structures of Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Other hallmarks of Scorsese’s work—depictions of violence as messy and chaotic and cameos by his mother Catherine Scorsese—make their first appearance in the young director’s scrappy debut.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was a strong, albeit technically flawed debut that heralded the arrival of a major new voice in American cinema. It brought Scorsese to the attention of commercial production companies as well as the studios, and it saw the beginning of a long series of fruitful collaborations with Thelma Schoonmaker and Harvey Keitel.
It may have been overshadowed by the visceral power of his better-known masterpieces, but it holds it own as a daring entry in the annals of independent film. After an adolescence spent idolizing the cinema as a spectator, Scorsese was now officially a participant—and the art form would never be the same.
EARLY PROFESSIONAL WORK (1967-1970)
After the release of director Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), he found himself the recipient of attention from advertising agencies, who wanted him to bring his fresh, bold style to the world of commercials.
The relative infancy of educational filmmaking institutions at the time meant that there was a relatively small pool of directing graduates, thus it was relatively easy to gain attention after making a film and parlay that into a full-time career. That’s not to belittle Scorsese’s achievement, it’s simply a statement of fact— the odds of something like that happening in today’s media-saturated world are slim to none.
As the 1960’s drew to a close, the young Scorsese’s world was opening up. He made his first trip to Europe, immersing himself in its culture and applying his expanded worldview to his art while he made a living directing commercials.
THE BIG SHAVE (1967)
During this busy, exciting time, Scorsese was able to fit in another short called THE BIG SHAVE—his first work in color. The film takes place entirely in a colorless bathroom as a man undergoes his morning shaving ritual—only this particular morning he shaves until his face bleeds profusely, finishing it off by slitting his throat and letting the blood pour into the sink.
Shot by cinematographer Ares Demertzis mostly in punchy closeups, THE BIG SHAVE acts as something of a color study, studying the contrast of dark red blood against the pristine ivory sink with an almost fetishistic curiosity.
While the short definitely stays consistent with Scorsese’s career-long fascination with visceral violence and bloodshed, it also plays to the iconography of his Roman Catholic heritage—specifically the Old World notion of self-flagellation and punishment as a way to redeem one’s sins. It’s a pretty morbid piece of work, especially because of the playful big-band jazz song that Scorsese uses to counterbalance the macabre action.
ARMANI COMMERCIAL (1968)
As I previously mentioned above, Scorsese’s first commissioned gigs saw him traveling abroad for the first time. I was only able to find out about three commercials he made during this period, and only one of them is actually available online.
Scorsese’s spot for ICELANDIC AIRLINES is generally credited as his first commercial, and whatever information is available for his REVLON spot doesn’t leave a lot to go of off. The commercial that is publicly available—done for ARMANI—is interesting in how it is at once both anonymous in authorship (as most commercials are) and indicative of Scorsese’s hand.
Presented in artful black and white, the spot features a young woman teaching a young man Italian—so right off the bat there’s the nod towards Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Furthermore, the spot takes place in a baroque space that suggests something not unlike a Catholic cathedral.
STREET SCENES (1970)
Perhaps Scorsese’s most significant work from this period remains publicly unavailable—the 1970 feature documentary STREET SCENES. The first of many documentaries that Scorsese would make throughout his career, STREET SCENEScovers two historical rallies held to protest the war in Vietnam: New York City’s Hard Hat Riots and the Kent State protests in Washington DC.
The New York protest turns violent, which no doubt resulted in visceral footage. The film also features interviews with his WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR star, Harvey Keitel, as well as feature collaborators Jay Cocks and Verna Bloom. Coincidentally, one of Scorsese’s camera operators on the film was a young Oliver Stone.
Unfortunately, STREET SCENES was never released on home video, which seems like a huge oversight given the historical importance of its subject matter. The creation of STREET SCENES illustrates Scorsese’s desire to explore social issues not just in a narrative context, but also in a real-world one.
Indeed, Scorsese is one of the very few filmmakers who can regularly alternate between fiction and documentary and provide consistently brilliant quality. This busy time saw the young Scorsese developing and experimenting with his aesthetic while mingling with an older generation of artists who recognized his considerable talent.
After WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR, Scorsese cultivated a friendship and mentorship with independent film icon John Cassavetes, but his next feature project would come as a result of his association with an independent filmmaker of a very different kind—exploitation king Roger Coran.
BOXCAR BERTHA (1972)
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the first crop of film school graduates began entering the work force. Many were lured into the lucrative world of commercials, while others struggled to get their own films off the ground. Music videos hadn’t been invented yet, so that was not yet an option.
One of the biggest employers of filmmakers during this period was B-movie kingpin Roger Corman, who built an empire off of cheaply made exploitation schlock pictures. He’s still doing it, aided and abetted by an even cheaper production pipeline thanks to the digital revolution, and he’s still pulling promising young film school graduates to work for him (a good college buddy of mine recently starred in one of Corman’s producing efforts, 2010’s SHARKTOPUS).
It was through the Corman production pipeline that generation-defining filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma first came up, and in the late 1970’s, Corman roped yet another promising filmmaker into his fold: director Martin Scorsese.
Fresh off the release of his 1967 debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, Scorsese was hired to direct Corman and co-producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s production of BOXCAR BERTHA, based on the novel “Sisters Of The Road” by Ben L. Reitman.
For Scorsese, it was his first color feature, and it was strictly a for-hire project—Corman cast lead actors Barbara Hershey and David Carradine himself and oversaw the creative direction of the project. To his credit though, he recognized Scorsese’s immense talent and handed him a significant amount of artistic freedom.
The result is an artfully realized film that transcends its exploitation flick roots and joined an emergent wave of lovers-on-the-run films from the era like Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and, later, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).
Shot over the course of twenty-four days in Arkansas, BOXCAR BERTHA takes place in the deep South during the rail-riding heyday of the Great Depression. Bertha (Hershey) is a young girl in mid-blossom, on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman.
When her pilot father is killed in a plane crash, the newly orphaned Bertha falls in with a charismatic union organizer named Big Bill Shelly (Carradine). Big Bill is an outspoken critic of capitalism, and he’s followed wherever he goes by authorities suspicious of his Communist sympathies.
After Bertha shoots a wealthy gambler following a heated argument at a card game, she ropes Big Bill into going on the lam with her, along with their friends Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and Von Morton (Bernie Casey). The foursome embarks on a life of crime, riding the boxcars from town to town and stealing from the rich to give to…well, themselves.
As their notoriety grows throughout the land, they become aware that this won’t end well for them, so they might as well enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Their devil may care attitude turns them into folk heroes, admired for their open defiance of the authorities—right down to the bitter end.
Though he may not have had a say in the casting, Scorsese gets great work out of his performers, particularly Barbara Hershey as the titular Bertha. Hershey projects a virginal innocence to the undereducated and impressionable girl who grows into her own as she quickly adjusts to a criminal life on the road.
The late Carradine, who enjoyed a brief career resurgence as a very different Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004), plays the rakish folk hero Big Bill Shelly with a calm, inviting demeanor. Rounding out the band of crooks are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey as the foppish Yankee Rake Brown and the strong, quiet Von Morton, respectively.
The inclusion of Casey’s character is especially effective, as it gives off a real sense of period authenticity to the film and gives the film a racial tension that helps us sympathize with the criminal antics of our protagonists as they fight against authorities painted as reprehensible racists and sexual sadists.
Director of photography John M. Stephens helps Scorsese craft a naturalistic look for BOXCAR BERTHA, punctuated with a heavy dose of techniques popularized by the French New Wave—handheld, documentary-style camerawork, realism and immediacy, impressionistic compositions and edits, rack zooms, etc.
Scorsese applies these touches particularly well during the artfully rendered lovemaking scene, which plays out in fleeting closeups and echoes Scorsese’s prior use of the style during the love scenes in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.
Scorsese has built his career off of dynamic camera movements that bring an unparalleled sense of life and energy to his work, and BOXCAR BERTHA is certainly no slouch in that department. The climax in particular sees Scorsese bravely experiment with new visual techniques, such as assuming the POV of someone getting blown back by a shotgun blast.
While the technique itself is a little crude thanks to what little resources he had on set, Scorsese succeeds in injecting the scene with an exhilarating sense of impact and carnage. All in all, BOXCAR BERTHA’s low budget results in a lo-fi feel, an aesthetic that both works for and against Scorsese’s vision.
Given what we know about Scorsese’s immense interest in blues music and culture, BOXCAR BERTHA becomes very relevant indeed when it comes to talking about its music. Gib Guilbreau and Thad Maxwell provide a folksy score heavy on the harmonica and violin, resulting in a sound that’s very much country-bumpkin.
Outside of the score, Scorsese uses a plethora of blues songs—specifically of the Mississippi Delta variety—, each selection curated and informed by his lifelong love for the genre and an intimate knowledge of its culture and history that he showed off in his 2003 documentary THE BLUES: A MUSICAL JOURNEY.
This same knowledge and passion soaks through in every frame of BOXCAR BERTHA, making for a much richer experience than its makers probably aspired to initially. Scorsese had little to do with the film besides on-set directing and editing, but BOXCAR BERTHA still manages to bear the mark of his participation (outside of his brief cameo as a brothel customer).
For instance, he depicts the film’s violence as rowdy, chaotic, and messy. Like many of the protagonists that populate Scorsese’s work, the heroes of BOXCAR BERTHAaren’t actually heroes at all—they’re likable criminals, or antiheroes whose misdeeds eventually catch up to them and result in their downfall.
It’s in Big Bill Shelly’s downfall that the film most overtly shows the authorship of its director. Bill Bill is nailed to the side of a train—essentially crucified. It’s a very potent image that brings to mind Scorsese’s Catholic heritage and the iconography of his religious upbringing, and it wouldn’t be the last time Scorsese crucified someone onscreen during his career.
BOXCAR BERTHA didn’t make much of a wave when it was released—Corman’s business model was to cheaply make films, quickly release them and reap as much profit as possible before moving on to the next one. Corman specialized in disposable entertainment, but Scorsese made a film that has somehow endured through the ages as a film that can’t be disposed of.
While it lacks the authenticity of his NYC-based work, Scorsese’s vision manages to elevate the mediocre material to the level of historical curiosity.
Despite its status as one of Scorsese’s lesser films, BOXCAR BERTHA acts as unexpected turning point in the young director’s career. He could have very easily gone on to work with Corman again and become an especially good exploitation filmmaker.
Thankfully for us, Scorsese’s friend and mentor, indie icon John Cassavetes, had the courage to tell him that “he had just spent the past year making a piece of shit”—his next work needed to be more personal, or else he ran the risk of struggling in B-movie obscurity.
It was a very fruitful piece of constructive criticism for the young Scorsese to receive—and perhaps the most impactful—as his next project would take that advice to heart and subsequently launch his career in earnest.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
Director Martin Scorsese may have made his first feature in 1967, but it wasn’t really until six years later that his filmmaking career kicked off in earnest with the release of his third feature, MEAN STREETS. Fresh of the whirlwind shoot of 1972’s BOXCAR BERTHA for producer Roger Corman,
Scorsese was sat down by his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes (a fellow independent filmmaker who resided on the opposite side of the artistic spectrum from Corman) and told that while BOXCAR BERTHA was good, he had “wasted a year of his life making shit”.
Cassavetes feared that Scorsese might end up boxed in as an exploitation director, so he challenged Scorsese to tackle something intensely personal as his next project. Scorsese took Cassavetes’ advice to heart, and immediately began writing a feature film inspired by the culture he experienced in his youth in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Scorsese called this script SEASON OF THE WITCH, and it was a story about a young hood rising up the ranks of the Mafia while dealing with his religious beliefs and guilt. Corman offered Scorsese money to make the picture, but true to the producer’s exploitation form, his funding was contingent upon Scorsese assembling a cast comprised entirely of African Americans actors.
While this would be great from a diversity standpoint, Corman’s insistence was most likely rooted in making a proft from the “urban”/”blacksploitation” market, and it was ultimately a tone deaf demand that missed the point of Scorsese’s story entirely.
Thankfully, Verna Bloom (who Scorsese had worked with previously in his 1970 documentary STREET SCENES) was able to set Scorsese up with Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for The Band and was looking to get into producing.
This relationship would prove mutually beneficial in that Scorsese would later direct a documentary on The Band called THE LAST WALTZ (1978), but in 1973 this association was already proving quite fruitful in getting Scorsese’s vision off the ground.
The film was released as MEAN STREETS, named after a passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, and it would become instrumental in launching not only Scorsese’s career, but those of his collaborators as well.
MEAN STREETS takes place entirely within the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City (although ironically a great deal of the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Charlie (WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR’s Harvey Keitel) is a small time hood, quickly rising up through the ranks of the Mafia.
Far from the elegant, old-world, and moneyed mafia depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER only a year prior, these “made men” are living in slummy, crumbling tenements and are barely eking out the money with which to buy their fine Italian suits.
Charlie is still somewhat on the outskirts, not yet a made man himself. He’s held at arms length by his higher-ups, mostly because of his lack of seniority but also because of his jerkoff friends, whose wild ways constantly get him into trouble by virtue of association.
His good friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) is the worst of the bunch—an unpredictable loose cannon who owes money to just about everybody in the neighborhood and can’t ever seem to pay anything back. Johnny Boy’s in hot water with Michael (Richard Romanus), a local loan shark whose patience is growing quite thin.
Charlie feels responsible for Johnny Boy, partly because of the fact that their circle of friends looks to him as their unofficial leader, but also because he’s romantically involved with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson).
As he schmoozes with the sharks in a bid to solve Johnny Boy’s debt problems before they get out of hand, Charlie finds himself dragged into Johnny Boy’s downward spiral, and realizes he has to cut his ties from everything he’s ever known if he’s to make it out of this alive.
Take away all of its technical and aesthetic brilliance or its groundbreaking approach to music, and MEAN STREETS would still be one of the most important films of Scorsese’s career, because Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro are practically joined at the hip as far as cinematic history is concerned, and through the decades both men have continued to collaborate together to make truly incredible, unimpeachable masterworks of cinema.
MEAN STREETS was their first time ever working together, and their volatile chemistry literally explodes off the screen from De Niro’s first appearance. De Niro had acted in movies prior to MEAN STREETS, but the role of Johnny Boy—a wild anarchist and financial delinquent—would become his breakout.
Keitel’s brilliance remains consistent in his second starring role for Scorsese as a Roman Catholic man who questions his faith and tests himself by seeing how long he can hold his finger to flame, which points to a very Old World, self-flagellating view on religion.
As the chief antagonist—the loan shark Michael—Richard Romanus projects an icy, restrained demeanor that’s quite effective. As the sole female presence amidst all this unchecked machismo, Amy Robinson holds her own as a force to be reckoned with as well as Charlie’s refuge from a brutal, cold world.
Scorsese also peppers in a few cameos from his BOXCAR BERTHA cast (David Carradine as a drunk and Victor Argo and Harry Northrup as a Mafia underling and returning Vietnam vet, respectively), in addition to making one himself as a gunman for Michael that plays a crucial role in the film’s climax.
Stylistically, MEAN STREETS marks a return to the aesthetic that Scorsese cultivated in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, shooting this time on color 35mm film instead of the mix of 16mm and 35mm black and white film that he shot his debut with.
Lensed by cinematographer Kent Wakeford, MEAN STREETS incorporates Scorsese’s affection for the techniques of the French New Wave as well the aesthetic of John Cassavetes’ work, which– combined with the physical limitations of his budget—results in the predominant use of handheld camerawork.
The naturalistic immediacy of the handheld camera gives MEAN STREETS a very gritty and tough feel that lends well to fast cuts and bold compositions—the boldest of which is undoubtedly the strapping of a camera onto Keitel’s body and pointed to his face for a woozy, drunken feel that Darren Aronofsky would use even more effectively a generation later in his 1999 film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
The overall effect is a realistic, yet expressionistic aesthetic that would become a flashpoint in the development of the modern crime film. The experimentation that gives MEAN STREETS its vibrant originality extends to the editing, which was performed by Scorsese himself under the consultation of Sidney Levin (who ended up receiving the onscreen credit because of his membership in the editing guild).
Throughout his career, Scorsese would go on to shoot his projects in a variety of different formats, often even mixing them together and embracing the technical incongruities. MEAN STREETS sees the beginning of this aspect of Scorsese’s work in his use of 8mm footage during the opening credits, which results in a “home movie” feel.
There’s also Scorsese’s interesting use of voiceover in the film, which he recorded with his own voice—despite it belonging to Charlie’s inner monologue. Apparently, this was done as a way to separate Charlie’s thoughts and his actions, almost like two separate people were living inside his head.
A very interesting technique, no doubt—one that Scorsese pulled from a similar conceit of Federico Fellini’s in his 1953 film I VITELLONI. One of MEAN STREETS’ most enduring legacies can also be ascribed to Scorsese’s work as a whole, which is the popularization of the “jukebox” soundtrack, or the wall-to-wall incorporation of prerecorded needledrops—a boon to record labels and a curse to score composers everywhere.
MEAN STREETS in particular uses a lot of music from popular acts of the era like The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes, combining it with Italian folk music and opera to give us a sense of history and cultural heritage existing in concert with a fast-paced modern world.
MEAN STREETS marks the first time that Scorsese’s key aesthetic fascinations really come emerge. It’s a New York City-set story about the experience of Italian American immigrants chasing their own version of the American Dream—but as a put-upon, disenfranchised minority, they must cheat if they hope to even play the game.
They accumulate money and power through illegitimate means, and hold on to it through the use of violence and intimidation, which Scorsese depicts as messy, chaotic, and unorganized as it is in real life. The Feast of San Gennaro, the world famous festival that unfolds annually in the streets of Little Italy, factors heavily into MEAN STREETS’ plot, a further illustration of Scorsese’s fascination with his Italian heritage as well as a device in which to introduce religious imagery and dogma into a film about amoral, murderous mobsters and imbue his scrappy, low-level protagonists with a great deal of likeability.
The burden of religion hangs heavily over the film, looming large in the consciousness of Keitel’s character especially. He’s always testing how long he can hold his finger to an open flame, which calls to mind the fire and brimstone imagery of Roman Catholicism at the time as well as their self-flagellating approach to atoning for one’s sins.
Keitel’s character’s motivations are driven out of a fundamental Catholic guilt—from his association with his friends to his courtship with his girlfriend— but his constant doubt about his worthiness in Jesus’ eyes gives MEAN STREETS a rich ideological complexity that feels just as relevant today as it did then.
MEAN STREETS debuted to near-unanimous critical applause, hailed for its boldness in storytelling and technical mastery of craft despite its low budget. And rightly so—MEAN STREETS is essentially a cinematic declaration by Scorsese, announcing his presence to the world and just what he thought of it.
It was a career breakout for both the young director and his two leads, and with De Niro in particular it was the blossoming of a long, fruitful working relationship that would last decades. MEAN STREETS plays like Scorsese’s true first feature, wherein his aesthetic was solidified and the potent cocktail of elements that constituted a “Scorsese film” first gained traction as a tangible idea.
In the years since its release, Scorsese has gone on to fulfill the initial promise of MEAN STREETS with a string of inarguably classic works, becoming one of America’s most treasured auteurs in the process. It may not have won a great deal of awards in its day, but MEAN STREETShas proved its staying power with its inclusion into the National Film Registry in 1997, ensuring that Scorsese’s groundbreaking breakout will be accessible to film lovers for generations to come.
Director Martin Scorsese has built a decades-long career off of his explorations of his Italian American heritage, mostly through the more lurid aspects of his culture like the Mafia and criminals which, while they certainly gets butts into the seats, only represents a small slice of his people’s immigrant experience in America.
After his directorial breakout MEAN STREETS brought the young director to mainstream Hollywood attention in 1973, Scorsese wanted to shed some light on an underserved aspect of Italian American culture—the humble, everyday working family. In 1974, he created the documentary ITALIANAMERICAN, turning the camera on his own parents in a bid to chronicle the simpler pleasures of his heritage, like the communal experience of dinner.
ITALIANAMERICAN takes place entirely within Scorsese’s parents’ apartment in Little Italy, with the director himself appearing onscreen as he casually interviews his father Charles and mother Catherine. They talk about their forty years of marriage to each other, as well as their early lives as first generation Americans and children of Sicilian immigrants.
Catherine and Charles’ chemistry still sparks, even after four decades of marriage, and we can see how they informed and shaped key aspects of Martin’s own personality. Catherine in particular is quite the firecracker, joking to Martin and his friends and lovingly busting Charles’ balls at every opportunity.
ITALIANAMERICAN resembles documentaries of the era, with Scorsese and his cinematographer, Alec Hirschfeld, using natural light to capture the (what appears to be) 16mm film image. The handheld camerawork feels very improvisational, lending a cinema-verite feel to the proceedings.
Scorsese accentuates the natural banter and atmosphere by splicing in family photographs, stock footage of Little Italy at the turn of the century, and Italian folk music in a bid to weave his parents’ story into the larger tapestry of the Italian-American experience.
The documentary finds Scorsese intimately engaging with his roots, both in the superficial aspects like when he asks his mother how she makes her spaghetti sauce (the recipe for which is actually included in the end credits), as well as the deeper aspects about the immigrant experience.
One compelling part of the film concerns the idea of 1st generation Americans, born from immigrant parents, who as a result of their assimilation into American culture at birth gives them a worldview directly at odds with their parents—they see their cultural homeland, indeed their own flesh and blood, as exotic.
They have a distant concept of a place they may never get to visit. They experience their heritage in black and white still frame, while their parents remember it in glorious Technicolor. For instance, Scorsese’s parents recount how they didn’t visit Italy themselves until their honeymoon—forty years after their wedding.
That alone is a baffling concept to most second, third, fourth, etc- generation Americans, who have enjoyed the benefits of an upward mobility built on the foundation of their ancestors’ pursuit of the American dream. In exploring his heritage in this way, Scorsese is able to connect with a larger audience that may not share his Italian ancestry but shares a common human experience within their own family history.
While it’s a relatively minor work within Scorsese’s canon, even within his body of documentary work, ITALIANAMERICANis still an important one. It’s an unfiltered view into the young director at his most intimate and private—sharing a meal with the people who shaped him into the man he is today.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
In 1974, director William Friedkin released THE EXORCIST and created a genuine phenomenon. His lead actress, Ellyn Burstyn, was vaulted into a position of creative power off the strength of her performance in the film, bestowed with the enviable privilege to choose whatever role she wanted next.
A brilliantly gifted performer, Burstyn was dissatisfied with the limited number of options available to actresses—she didn’t want to play another supportive housewife or put-upon mother, but ironically her next role would be just that, albeit with a twist that would allow her to own the role completely— all the way to a Best Actress win at the Academy Awards.
She chose a script by Robert Getchell called ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, and acting as the de facto executive producer, she went about searching for a young, up-and-coming director to helm the film.
Burstyn started by soliciting suggestions from director Brian DePalma, who would serve as her conduit into the larger pool of young directors. Interestingly enough, they all knew each other from film school—they were an entire generation linked together as a social community, something that young filmmakers take for granted now.
DePalma led Burstyn to Francis Ford Coppola, who in turn recommended a young hotshot named Martin Scorsese, fresh of his breakout third feature MEAN STREETS (1973). Burstyn liked the gritty immediacy of Scorsese’s film, but was unsure his sensibilities would translate to a feminine perspective.
During their meeting, Burstyn reportedly asked Scorsese what he “knew about women”, to which Scorsese replied, “nothing, but I’d like to learn”. Burstyn hired him on the spot, and before he knew it, Scorsese was on the set of his first true studio feature film.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE takes place in the arid deserts and crumbling dwellings of the American Southwest. Alice (Burstyn) is a humble housewife living in New Mexico with her rowdy, rebellious son Tommy (Alfred Lutter), and a husband who only pays attention to her when he’s angry with her.
Alice is fundamentally unhappy with her situation—not that she’d ever admit it to anyone. One day, her husband is killed in a trucking accident, leaving Alice and Tommy’s future very uncertain. With little money to go off of, they decide to pack their things in search of a better life in Monterey, California—the idyllic town where Alice spent her childhood.
They hit the road, stopping along the way so Alice can find work as a singer. While this provides some cash flow, it also attracts bad characters, like a philandering, abusive young buck named Ben (Harvey Keitel) who is no better than the dead husband she left behind. Alice gets another job as a waitress in an Arizona diner so that she can more reliably provide for her young son.
It’s here that she meets David (Kris Kristofferson), a quiet rancher with kind eyes. Alice and David eventually fall in love, but like any relationship, it’s not without its share of turbulence. Ultimately, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is a character test—Alice has to go through a crucible of her very own in order to prove her mettle as a modern woman and take charge of her own destiny.
As I wrote above, Burstyn won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice, a modern woman with old-fashioned sensibilities. She’s put through the veritable wringer and somehow comes out the other end not just intact, but better than before.
The same year that ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE was released, Scorsese’s friend and mentor John Cassavetes released his acclaimed A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and Burstyn’s performance in the former film sharing some character traits with Gena Rowlands’ performance in the latter leads me to wonder if Scorsese’s direction wasn’t informed by Cassavetes’ work somewhat.
The Oscar win was just the icing on the cake of a banner year for Burstyn. Burstyn is surrounded by an ensemble of fine actors, led by Kristofferson’s strong silent-type rancher, David. Harvey Keitel, in his third collaboration with Scorsese, bring his signature New York-style machismo to the role of Ben, a foppish, philandering cowboy with a serious anger problem.
Alfred Lutter makes his film debut as the nerdy smartass Tommy, and while he makes quite a splash here, he couldn’t quite generate the momentum he would need to sustain a serious acting character as he grew up. A young Jodie Foster also appears as Audrey, a tomboyish delinquent and latchkey child.
Scorsese was pleased enough by Foster’s performance to bring her back for his next feature, 1976’s TAXI DRIVER and set her on her way to becoming the world-famous actress she is today. The film also contains a few cameos by early Scorsese regular Harry Northrup as a bartender and the director himself as a barely-visible patron in Alice’s diner.
Scorsese reteams with his MEAN STREETS cinematographer Kent Wakeford for ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, giving the film a brighter color palette and overall feminine touch to distinguish it from their previous effort.
Scorsese and Wakeford use a variety of handheld, dolly, and crane movements to inject an immediate sense of reality and grit to the 35mm film image, which contrasts quite starkly with the opening sequence set in idyllic Monterey, which—with its nakedly theatrical soundstage look—serves as an homage to THE WIZARD OF OZ and conjures up the idea of Monterey itself as this mythical place full of happiness and innocence that may have never actually existed to begin with.
Scorsese also incorporates touches of French New Wave technique, like rack zooms and jump cuts as a way to add some edge to an otherwise conventional “flyover-country melodrama”. His inspired approach to the execution of the film extends to the selection of his key collaborators behind the scenes.
As a young man, Scorsese wisely assumed he had no proper frame of reference to authentically portray a female point of view, and as such he turned to strong, talented women for help at every opportunity. For instance, Toby Carr Rafelson (wife to Bob Rafelson of FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) fame) served as the production designer, while George Lucas’ then-wife Marcia performed editing duties.
Finally, Richard LaSalle is credited for the film’s music, but ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is another instance of Scorsese’ affection for rock music bleeding into his art, incorporating contemporary tracks from artists like Mott the Hoople and Elton John in a bid to flesh out Alice’s particular world.
While Scorsese may be way out of his comfort zone in terms of locale and subject matter, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE still bears his undeniable stamp. The men in Alice’s life are impulsively violent and quick-tempered, and when they indulge in their impulses, the results are messy, chaotic and unpredictable.
Indeed, even out in the vast expanse of Southwestern desert, Scorsese still can’t escape the random violence of urban life, such as the scene where Alice and Tommy lay in bed listening to a couple loudly fighting in the next hotel room over. Like their east coast counterparts, the characters that populate Scorsese’s Southwest don’t put on any airs, unafraid to utter casual profanities or rough up their spouses in the presence of others.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE was released to near unanimous praise from critics, leading all the way to the aforementioned (and well-deserved) Best Actress Oscar win for Burstyn. The film was so well received that it even went on to inspire a sitcom called ALICE, set in the same diner as the film and featuring some of the original cast members in regular roles (Burstyn herself would not reprise her role).
For Scorsese, his great work here would eventually be overshadowed by the outstanding legacy of his later works, and thus remains a minor entry in his canon—a curious departure from the east coast world he knew so well and the hard-edged mentalities of the people who inhabited it.
Nevertheless, the production ofALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE broadened Scorsese’s worldview and bestowed him with the necessary creative momentum to get his next feature off the ground—a feature that would undoubtedly become his first true masterpiece.
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
I’ve always believed that great art is born from a place of deprivation. The state of needing something—love, companionship, comfort, etc.—can result in greater urgency and intensity on behalf of the person expressing an idea. Conversely, some of the most banal, meaningless art comes from a place of complacency—simply collecting a paycheck.
One of the most influential films of the 1970’s, director Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), was born of deep, existential deprivation. Writer Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay during a very turbulent time in his life that saw a series of escalating mishaps turn him into something of a recluse.
Inspired by his interior monologue and self-perceived outsider status, Schrader fashioned a story about an everyday taxi driver as a study of pathological loneliness. The script was picked up by producers Julie and Michael Phillips, and was separately brought to the attention of Scorsese by his filmmaking contemporary Brian DePalma.
By this point, Scorsese had a handful of successful features under his belt and was teaching film at his alma mater, New York University. He strongly responded to the script, and actively campaigned for the job. It was only after his MEAN STREETS (1973) star, Robert De Niro, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the young Viteo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) that Scorsese was able to leverage his collaboration with the actor into landing the job.
TAXI DRIVER would become a transformative project for both men, propelling them to the forefront of the contemporary cinema scene with a bold piece of work that would define not only its decade, but an entire generation.
TAXI DRIVER is striking to watch today because it depicts a New York City that simply does not exist anymore—a time before Giuliani, when crime and decay spread through the crumbling streets like a cancer. Travis Bickle (De Niro) is an insomniac Vietnam vet without much of a social life.
He takes on a job as a cab driver working the night shift, where he can connect with the beating pulse of the city and its eclectic mix of inhabitants. He drifts aimlessly through his days, eating junk food and going to porn theatres. The fog lifts when he encounters a beautiful young woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).
She’s put-together, elegant, and motivated—everything he’s not. He obsesses over her, lurking outside the Presidential campaign office she works for a few days before working up the nerve to ask her out. He bungles their first date by taking her to a porn theatre, and while he tries to regain her trust, he becomes simultaneously fixated on a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster).
At first he attempts to talk her out of leaving the profession, but a growing obsession with guns, knives, and Old Testament/fire & brimstone righteousness alters the plan to include forcefully liberating her from her sexual oppressors. Through it all, Travis Bickle is reborn as something of a vigilante—a man who will take the salvation of his beloved city into his own hands. A man who will cleanse it with fire and blood.
Scorsese’s second collaboration with De Niro proves so sharp that it draws blood. As the lonely sociopath at the center of the story, De Niro channels a quiet, intense sense of judgment and superiority, giving him a buzzing latent racism while abstaining from indulgences that would make the character unlikable.
The horror of the character comes in our recognition of ourselves in Travis Bickle, and De Niro is able to strike right to the heart of our deepest fears. Fresh off his Academy Award win, De Niro showed no signs of complacency and dove headlong into the preparation of his role, to the extent that he actually drove a cab around New York City for twelve hour stretches at a time.
Foster, who was only twelve years old during filming and had previously appeared in Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974) plays the extremely risky and controversial role of Iris, a child prostitute who may be disillusioned and cynical through her decidedly adult activities, but still has the naiveté and innocence of a young girl.
Also returning from the pool of previous Scorsese performers is Harvey Keitel, who plays Iris’ pimp, Sport, in a long black wig that makes him look like Tommy Wiseau. Scorsese rounds out this trio of antisocial weirdos with otherwise normal people who seem to be visiting from another world completely.
There’s Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, the first true Scorsese blonde and an intelligent, sophisticated, and ultimately unattainable beauty. She’s introduced wearing all white in a slow motion shot, which would become a recurring trope in Scorsese’s later work, and she also embodies the Madonna/whore complex that the director likes to give his protagonists. There’s also comedian Al Brooks in his younger days as the ineffectual, bookish Tom—Betsy’s co-worker and a fellow Presidential candidate canvasser at the office.
Scorsese populates his day players with cameos from past collaborators both present in the flesh and absent yet alluded to. Among the familiar faces we see are Harry Northup as a fellow taxi driver, Steven Prince as a black market arms dealer, Victor Argo as a racist shopkeeper, and Scorsese himself as a murderous, cuckolded husband.
Fleeting references are made to Kris Kristofferson, the star of Scorsese’s previous feature, as well as his parents Charles and Catherine Scorsese in a newspaper photo implying they are Iris’ parents. TAXI DRIVER is an undeniably gritty film, and Scorsese doesn’t shy away from exposing the seediness of Travis’ surroundings in full detail.
Working with cinematographer Michael Chapman for the first time, Scorsese aims to immerse us in Bickle’s consciousness while reinforcing the character’s internal dialogue with himself that permeates the film. Bickle’s New York is rendered in a sickly, lurid yellow/green patina, echoing his solitude and mental sickness, while the camerawork mixes the documentary immediacy of handheld shooting with virtuoso flourishes like the traveling God’s eye view of Bickle’s carnage after the film’s bloody climax.
The result is a dark, expressionistic aesthetic at odds with the relative realism of Scorsese’s other crime films. TAXI DRIVER is a fever dream of acid rain, sweat-soaked skin and cold metal, complemented perfectly by iconic composer Bernard Herrmann’s dissonant, brassy score that throbs along the long Manhattan avenues while dangling the promise of cosmopolitan happiness in the form of a sultry jazz theme.
Hermann was an Old Hollywood maestro, composer of the scores to classics like Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941), and his hiring points to Scorsese’s deep affection for film history. Ironically, TAXI DRIVER would be Hermann’s last work—he died only hours after returning home from the film’s final recording session.
TAXI DRIVER sees tremendous growth in the development of Scorsese’s aesthetic, especially in the evolution of his visual language. The cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave have informed his aesthetic from the start, but TAXI DRIVER marks the point where he’s no longer content to simply steal its stylistic conceits, opting instead to run with the ball and find entirely new visual ideas all his own.
Take for instance the scene where Travis calls up Betsy and begs for a second date in the phone booth of some dingy elevator lobby. As Travis’ pleas become more desperate and pathetic, Scorsese simply dollies the camera away from his original composition to look down the length of an empty hallway instead—as if we are physically looking away from the embarrassment of Travis’ phone call.
There’s also a scene in an all-night diner where Travis zeroes in on the alka-seltzer tablet dissolving in his glass of water. It’s a trivial detail, ultimately unimportant to the scene, but Scorsese slowly zooms in on the violent bubbles until they fill the screen.
Scorsese has said publicly that the shot was inspired by a Jean-Luc Godard film, but here the technique takes on a life of its own, becoming a rich metaphor for the bottled fury bubbling up under Travis’ calm exterior. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Scorsese directing TAXI DRIVER—its subject matter falls in line so squarely with his aesthetic fascinations that one could be forgiven he wrote the screenplay from his own idea.
There’s the New York setting (Schrader’s original script placed the action in Los Angeles), the unflinching portrayal of seedy urban life and the use of antiheroes and/or criminals as protagonists. TAXI DRIVER takes this latter point to its ironic conclusion, with the media hailing Travis as a hero after a violent rampage that leaves Sport and his colleagues dead, whereas if he’d only been a little more organized in his earlier assassination attempt of Presidential candidate Palantine, he’d be condemned as a villain.
While Travis does not share the Roman Catholic heritage of previous Scorsese protagonists, his inner convictions take on a somewhat religious bent and provide him with an almost biblical desire to purge the city of filth and sin. TAXI DRIVER is easily Scorsese’s most darkly disturbing film when it comes to depictions of violence onscreen.
While the action is staged in the chaotic, unorganized way that Scorsese is known for, it is rendered in exaggerated form. Bullet wounds don’t just cause bleeding—they cause profuse bleeding. Hands don’t just absorb a gunshot– they blow apart into millions of pieces.
It’s not enough to kill somebody with a single shot—it takes several. Indeed, it’s because of TAXI DRIVER’s bloodbath finale that Scorsese found himself having to deal with real censorship for the first time. To avoid an X rating that would doom the film before it was ever released, he had to desaturate the colors during the climax so the blood wouldn’t be so bright and red.
When it was released in 1976, TAXI DRIVER was met with healthy box office numbers, heaps of critical praise, and even some prestigious awards like the Cannes Palme d’Or. It was, without a doubt, Scorsese’s biggest success to that date. When the Academy Awards came around, it was rewarded with nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Foster), and Best Original Score.
TAXI DRIVER is something of an apex in terms of the kind of gritty dramas that Hollywood made in the 1970’s, but by 1976, the tide was turning against them—Steven Spielberg released the first modern blockbuster JAWS the year prior, and George Lucas would essentially blows the doors wide open the following year with STAR WARS.
In the decades since its release, TAXI DRIVER’s legacy has continued to grow, positioning itself as a critical film within Scorsese’s filmography. Several of its scenes would become iconic in cinema history, especially the “You Talkin’ To Me?” scene that everybody and their mother has imitated at some point or another.
On a more unfortunate note, the film would go on to inspire vigilante actions in the real world, with the most famous case being John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan—all so he could impress Jodie Foster. Nevertheless, TAXI DRIVER’s importance to the film medium cannot be overstated, and in 1994 it was inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation, ensuring the perpetuity of Scorsese’s first true masterpiece.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
There seems to be a particular aura about American life in the 1940’s that’s ripe for nostalgia. While we were engaged in the biggest, most devastating war in history, we ascribe a certain romantic, optimistic idealism to the period. We continue to celebrate the decade– especially within Los Angeles in particular, which came of age during the time and was fundamentally shaped by its cultural values and styles.
Even as I write this, I will be going to a 1940’s-themed song and dance show in downtown tonight, where my wife dances for a troupe that specializes in songs and styles from the era. The midcentury design and lifestyle aesthetic is an inescapable part of Los Angeles daily life, even today.
The 1940’s appears to have also had quite the profound effect on members of the Film Brat generation of filmmakers. Steven Spielberg is the most visible example, with a substantial majority of his works either taking place in or directly influenced by the 1940’s.
To a lesser extent, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas also took artistic cues from the period, with Coppola making THE COTTON CLUB in 1984 and Lucas drawing inspiration for INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS from the serialized format popular during the era.
In the late 1970’s, rising young director Martin Scorsese was coming off the runaway success of TAXI DRIVER (1976), and found himself in a position of power. For his follow-up, Scorsese desired to make a film that harkened back to the era of 1940’s MGM musicals that he had adored and grown up with.
But as a battle-tested acolyte of the French New Wave, Scorsese could not simply make a straight musical—he saw the idea as an opportunity to experiment with the boundaries of the genre and subvert its lavish production values. Working with screenwriters Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin, Scorsese developed NEW YORK, NEW YORK– an oversized musical about the city he called home and the artists that inhabited it.
It was the biggest film of his career to date, and when it was released in 1977, it would also become his first high profile failure. NEW YORK, NEW YORK begins in, where else, New York City on a momentous day: VJ Day, 1945.
The end of World War II. A young, brash jazz saxophonist named Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) shows up at a big USO celebration gala, where he proceeds to use the same pickup lines on every attractive girl in the room. He eventually winds up at the table of Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a pretty young singer sitting alone.
Her witty rejection of his lame lines only emboldens him, and from that point on, he dedicates himself to winning her heart. While he aggressively woos her, Jimmy tries to find a regular performing gig, but his tendency to improvise outside the lines of the sheet music grates on the ears of his potential bookers.
In a twist of fate, Jimmy and Francine are booked on a cross-country tour, boosting each other’s careers significantly. While on the road, they fall in love and are quickly and quietly married. As a gifted singer, it’s only a matter of time until Francine’s star starts to rise faster than Jimmy’s.
Envious of her success, he leaves Francine at a critical juncture—the birth of their son. NEW YORK, NEW YORK may be presented in a happy-go-lucky visual style, but it tells a very modern, complicated story about love’s waxes and wanes over the course of several years, as well as the explosive chemistry that can result from mismatched artistic styles.
Despite the lavish production values and large groups of bodies constantly moving through the frame, NEW YORK, NEW YORK really is an intimate examination of two people. De Niro’s third collaboration with Scorsese results in yet another bold protagonist—a womanizer and self-interested man whose very ambition will doom him to a life of loneliness if he can’t change.
Like just like had driven a taxi cab for twelve hours a day while preparing for TAXI DRIVER, De Niro prepared for his character here by not just learning how to play the saxophone, but mastering it to the point where it feels like he’s played all his life.
Every time I see Liza Minnelli on screen, I only see Lucille 2 from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but her performance here as Francine Evans positioned her as a glamorous starlet following in her mother, Judy Garland’s, footsteps.
She’s a natural fit for the role, bringing a strength and grace that’s slightly off-kilter in her signature Minnelli way. Barry Primus, who previously appeared for Scorsese in BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), shows up in NEW YORK, NEW YORK as Paul Wilson, a pianist in Jimmy Doyle’s band and a wedge that comes between the two lovers.
Scorsese intended for NEW YORK, NEW YORK to be a break from the gritty realism that had made his name, and to that extent, the film is quite successful. In a bid to achieve the old-fashioned grandeur and slickness of MGM musicals, Scorsese turned to venerable cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs to lens his film.
Shooting on the real MGM soundstages in LA, Scorsese used all the studio resources at his disposal to create a sweeping, operatic film quite unlike the gritty immediacy that marked his earlier work. Like the polished Hollywood musicals of old, Scorsese paints in the broad strokes of sweeping dolly and crane movements, framing his subjects in wider compositions while abstaining from close-ups as much as possible in a bid to emulate the stylistic conceits of the genre.
The central relationship between De Niro and Minnelli plays off the dynamic between structure and improvisation—Francine’s composed, controlled singing and Jimmy’s off-the-cuff rebellion against sheet music. Naturally, this dynamic is reflected in the actual look of the film, which juxtaposes realistic, Cassavetes style method improv acting against the palpable artifice of studio sets and theatrical lighting schemes.
Scorsese and his Production Designer Boris Leven never try to hide the fake facades and sets, opting instead to embrace the artifice as a means to evoke our collective romantic memory of old New York. Stanley Kubrick used this same approach, albeit to a more realistic degree, in the New York street sets for 1999’s EYES WIDE SHUT.
Naturally, music is a key focal point in the musical genre, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK is perhaps strongest in this area. Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the film’s music perfectly captures the jazzy, big band sound of the era.
Even if you’ve never seen the film, you know its music—the “Theme For New York, New York” came into existence because of this film, and it would go on to become an iconic theme song for the city itself when Frank Sinatra covered it in 1980. The song has gone on to outshine the film from which it sprang, and serves as perhaps NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s biggest contribution to pop culture.
Though NEW YORK, NEW YORK might be a huge stylistic departure for Scorsese, his unique worldview bears an unmistakable imprint on the film itself. The New York City setting falls in line with Scorsese’s career-long examination of the city’s history and people.
The film’s naturalistic approach to drama and conflict also results in outbursts of violence that are rendered in the chaotic, messy way that Scorsese is known for. The subversion of musical genre tropes is also indicative of Scorsese’s habit of filtering classical filmmaking techniques through the lens of postmodernism as a way to comment on the art form itself while finding new forms of visual expression at the same time.
The 1970’s were a triumphant era for personal filmmaking and experimentation. It was a perfect confluence of factors that gave rise to filmmakers with anti-establishment sensibilities like Scorsese and turned them into household names.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK is very much in line with this string of challenging, personal works, but it may have come too late to the party. Only a week prior, Scorsese’s contemporary George Lucas released STAR WARS to unprecedented success. The audience changed nearly overnight, effectively killing the market for smaller, unconventional films like NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
The box office and critical failure of the film reportedly drove Scorsese to depression and drugs, but reports from the set suggested that his downward spiral was already in motion—his insistence that the actors improvise their lines led to a lack of control on his part, and a rapidly worsening cocaine addiction wasn’t doing anything to help matters.
The disappointment over NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s reception would cause Scorsese to embark on something of a hiatus from narrative filmmaking for the rest of the decade. The newly humbled director turned his attention to documentary works while his wounds healed, but the time away would reset his approach while setting the stage for a triumphant return in 1980.
THE LAST WALTZ (1978)
After the disappointing reception of 1977’s improvised musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, director Martin Scorsese retreated from the narrative realm for a couple years. It was something of a crucible for his burgeoning career, and an escalating cocaine addiction threatened to derail everything he had built.
However, Scorsese’s recuperation period was by no means a dormant one. He embarked on a series of documentaries, the first being 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ—a concert film chronicling The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.
Scorsese became involved through Jonathan T. Taplin, a manager for The Band who had previously produced 1973’s MEAN STREETS. Rock and roll has played an integral role throughout Scorsese’s career, and though he would go on to make several more concert documentaries as the years went on, THE LAST WALTZ is generally considered his finest work in the arena.
THE LAST WALTZ is relatively straightforward, featuring The Band performing their hits in full, joined by a veritable who’s who of 1970’s rock like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters.
Scorsese also peppers interview footage throughout of the film in which he appears onscreen talking to members of The Band about their experiences with the group, focusing particularly on Robbie Robertson. The cinema-verite feel of the film’s presentation is complemented by a few instances of staged performance, shot a few days later in a nearby soundstage.
To accomplish a multi-camera shooting scenario while capturing artful footage, Scorsese recruits his TAXI DRIVER (1976) cinematographer Michael Chapman, who leads a small team of fellow venerated cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. The mid-to-late 1970’s were something of a “rock star” period for Scorsese—a time when his national profile soared as a director.
His success was offset by the hazards of fame and fortune, the most dangerous of which was his fondness for cocaine (which no doubt the green rooms backstage were awash in). In a way, Scorsese was the perfect guy to chronicle this event, further solidifying his artistic association with and importance to rock and roll music.
A concert film might not provide a plethora of opportunities for artistic indulgence, but Scorsese still manages to make his mark known by referencing his cultural heritage in the form of an Italian waltz during the opening credits, as well as continuing his examination of urban street life by showing the fans waiting in line for the concert.
THE LAST WALTZ may be a minor work within Scorsese’s filmography, but it was formative in his approach to music documentaries in the future. Even today, the film is still considered as one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time. For Scorsese personally, it would be a major development in his career in that his relationship with Robbie Robertson would result in him becoming a key music producer for Scorsese’s later works.
AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE (1978)
In addition to his prolific narrative output, director Martin Scorsese has also built up a healthy body of work on the side that focused on his personal fascinations with people and culture from a documentary standpoint. He had previously explored his Italian heritage through the stories of his parents in ITALIANAMERICAN (1974), and chronicled The Band’s final farewell concert in 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ.
For his next documentary work, Scorsese turned his camera on a bit player who could be found in several of his early narrative features—Steven Prince. Best known for his role as the gun-dealer Easy Andy in 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, Prince has arguably lived an even wilder life than Scorsese’s fictional protagonists.
Inspired by Prince’s wild stories and effortless charm as a raconteur, Scorsese pulled together producer/co-editor Bert Lovitt and his TAXI DRIVER cinematographer Michael Chapman to make AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE (1978).
Filmed over the course of fifteen hours in a nondescript house in Los Angeles, Prince captivates Scorsese and his crew with various stories from his life—his days as a road manager for the biggest bands of the 70’s… his tales of drug addiction… even the time he shot and killed a guy who was trying to rob a gas station he worked at.
AMERICAN BOY is shot in the improvisational, unstructured way that Scorsese shot ITALIANAMERICAN, making the two documentaries companion pieces of sorts. One might think an hour-long film about a guy sitting around a couch and telling stories might be boring, but Prince’s personal eccentricities and lively stories make for a compelling watch.
Scorsese organizes these stories into vaguely-defined chapters, punctuating them with home movie footage of Prince as a young boy. At this stage in his career, Scorsese appears to have a few stylistic trademarks he regularly implements in his documentary work.
As he does in AMERICAN BOY, he appears onscreen himself as he interviews his subjects, making for a very personal, intimate mood. There’s also the use of rock music, evidenced here by the inclusion of a Neil Young track during the opening and closing credits.
There’s even a quick bout of violence—Prince and another man playfully wrestle each other—and Scorsese captures it in the same chaotic, spontaneous way in which he depicts fictional violence in his features. AMERICAN BOY is undoubtedly an oft-overlooked work within Scorsese’s filmography, but it has influenced pop culture in an unexpected way.
At one point in the story, Prince recounts the story of how he saved someone who had overdosed on drugs by stabbing him in the heart and injecting him with adrenaline. This story reportedly inspired Quentin Tarantino to include a cinematic depiction of it in his 1994 breakout film, PULP FICTION.
In relation to Scorsese’s work as a director, AMERICAN BOY doesn’t show a distinct growth—in fact, it shows Scorsese at something of a low point; his dabbling with drugs and surrounding lifestyle can be seen at their most intimate here. The film makes no mention of Scorsese’s personal drug use, nor does Scorsese’s appearance clue us into cocaine addiction.
Yet, the dangers of his lifestyle hang in the air like the Ghost of Christmas Future. With this in mind, AMERICAN BOY becomes much darker than its intent, telling us just as much about Scorsese’s junkie days as it does Prince’s.
RAGING BULL (1980)
Every director, no matter how good he or she may be, will have to face failure at one point in his or her career. It’s an inherent part of making art—the personal nature of expression doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive, objective impression on the receiving end.
Thus, true artistic success or failure cannot be measured by financial or cultural metrics; it is how the director handles praise or rejection that decides his or her fate as an artist. By all accounts, Martin Scorsese in the late 1970’s was decidedly failing.
The cold reception of 1977’s postmodern musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK sent his career into a tailspin—a dive worsened by an escalating cocaine addiction. He retreated into the world of documentaries, releasing THE LAST WALTZ and AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE in the same year (1978) and toying with idea of retiring from feature filmmaking forever.
Scorsese no longer felt the burning passion for narrative film that had fueled the likes of MEAN STREETS (1973) and TAXI DRIVER (1976), so when his frequent collaborator Robert De Niro pitched him a movie based off the tumultuous life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, Scorsese shrugged with ambivalence.
It would take Scorsese nearly dying from a cocaine overdose for him to come around to the idea—when De Niro visited him in the hospital and repeated his plea to take on the job, Scorsese suddenly found himself connecting to Jake La Motta’s story of glory and ruin.
In relatively short order, Scorsese and De Niro turned to trusted writing collaborators Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader to translate the book to a script they called RAGING BULL. They set the project up through United Artists, an independent studio noted for its director-friendly approach to filmmaking—an approach that led their 1976 film, ROCKY, to Oscar glory.
To further cement their boxing bonafides, Scorsese and company brought the producers of ROCKY—Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler—onboard. And so it was that Scorsese found himself with the opportunity to redeem his narrative feature career, and if by chance he went down for the count, it would be on his own, uncompromising terms.
RAGING BULL tells the story of champion boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro) during his rise to glory in the New York boxing scene during the 1940’s. He’s a relentless fighter, and he won’t stop until he achieves greatness. However, his proclivity for violence extends outside of the ring, affecting his wife and his brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci).
His eyes are dead set on winning the title belt, but it isn’t long until those same eyes wander towards a young neighborhood girl named Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) and he sets about claiming her as his own as well. Soon enough he has both and retires to a life of luxury in Miami in 1956—but just like the hardscrabble New York life he left behind, Jake finds that retirement isn’t all daiquiris at the poolside.
Once the very image of fitness, Jake is now flabby and too complacent to fix his life as it crumbles around him. Ultimately, RAGING BULL is a cautionary tale as old as time, about the rise and fall of a man whose dreams exceed his grasp.
De Niro soars in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, arguably delivering the best performance of his career (and one rightfully recognized by the Academy with the coveted golden statue). As Jake La Motta, De Niro ably channels the Bronx Bull’s brutish charisma and explosive fury.
De Niro has a history of extensively preparing for his roles, and with RAGING BULL he trained with the real La Motta until he was up to professional boxing standards, and subsequently ruined it all when he put on the significant amount of weight required to play an older, obese La Motta in retirement.
La Motta is a fundamentally unlikable character, but De Niro imbues him with a relatable pathos, giving the audience a window into our own ambitions and the lengths at which we’ll go to achieve them. Joe Pesci, who would go on to become a regular Scorsese cast member in his own right, finds his career breakout here through the role of Joey, Jake’s brother and manager.
A character actor who had struggled in obscurity for decades and was just about to call it quits, Pesci’s anxiously combative performance in RAGING BULL is a revelation. To portray the role of La Motta’s duplicitous wife Vicki, Scorsese found an unknown named Cathy Moriarty, and her chilly, tough (but no less feminine) performance here rocketed her straight to an Academy Award nomination.
Out of all of Scorsese’s leading ladies, Moriarty is arguably the purest example of the “Scorsese blonde” archetype—a beautiful, calculating woman who knows how to manipulate the men around her to get what she wants. Finally, there’s Frank Vincent in the bit role of Salvy, a neighborhood thug and a rival of Jake’s for Vicki’s affections.
He was a non-actor when he was cast, but his compelling performance in RAGING BULL was enough to turn him into the go-to actor for Italian/Mafia type characters. RAGING BULL is infamous for its revival of black and white cinematography in a time dominated entirely by color.
This was done to give the film some period authenticity while also differentiating it from ROCKY. Scorsese enlisted his regular cinematographer Michael Chapman to lens the film, and together they create a hybrid aesthetic that deals in both documentary-style realism and impressionistic experimentalism.
They save the naturalistic cinematography for La Motta’s life outside the ring, punctuating it with documentary-style intertitles to quickly establish when and where we are. Additionally, they supplement the realism with color 8mm footage meant to evoke La Motta’s home movies. However, it’s inside the ring where RAGING BULL really distinguishes itself and leaves it mark on the history of cinema.
Whereas most boxing films prior to RAGING BULL covered the action from an outside perspective, Scorsese and Chapman literally step inside the ring. In that simple switch from an objective to a subjective perspective, Scorsese grants himself an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.
We first see hints of it during the opening credits, where La Motta is depicted in distant silhouette, pacing around the ring in slow motion, set to the mournful dirge of Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from the Cavalleria Rusticana. As the boxing sequences unfold, Scorsese turns the ring into a smoky, molasses-slow hellscape where La Motta must do battle with his own internal demons manifest in physical form.
Scorsese and Chapman’s expressionistic camerawork is complemented by editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s fearlessly dynamic cuts. Schoonmaker, who had previously worked with Scorsese on his feature debut WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), had been unable to work with the director ever since—barred entry into the editing guild simply because she was a woman.
The guild finally came to their senses in time for Schoonmaker and Scorsese to reunite on RAGING BULL, and the pair has been inseparable ever since. Scorsese has a habit of eschewing conventional original scores in favor of needledrops from his own record collection, resulting in films that feel like they inhabit the same world as ours.
Towards that end, RAGING BULL is consistent among Scorsese’s works in that it utilizes a mix of period music from the 1940s through the 1960’s—both popular jukebox tunes as well as traditional folk ballads that flesh out the Italian heritage of La Motta and the neighborhood that surrounds him.
Scorsese also uses a few works from classical composer Pietro Mascagni, most notably the aforementioned “Intermezzo” to add an air of melodrama, subverting the image of a brutish lout with a sophisticated, elegant sound. Funnily enough, the most powerful aspect of RAGING BULL’s soundtrack is silence.
The film is a master study in the strategic absence of sound during crucial moments, like La Motta’s final fight against Sugar Ray. Scorsese’s initial reluctance in taking on RAGING BULL stemmed from his distaste for sports and a general emotional disconnect from the psyche of a man who earned his living by knocking people out.
He must have been surprised then to find that RAGING BULL falls right in line with his artistic aesthetic and thematic fascinations. His affection for the Italian American experience in New York City provides colorful background detail to La Motta’s home life, perfectly capturing the shouting and random fights that constitute the chaos of an urban existence.
This acknowledgement of the messy violence in the streets allows Scorsese to draw compelling comparisons with the disciplined, almost elegant violence inside the boxing ring. An archetypical Scorsese protagonist is both saint and sinner, and Jake La Motta is no exception to the rule.
Despite associating with thugs and gangsters and being a lowlife himself, he lives by his own, principled code. La Motta isn’t outwardly religious, but he shares a similar Roman Catholic tendency for self-flagellation with protagonists like Harvey Keitel’s character in MEAN STREETS.
La Motta takes a lot of abuse in the ring (at one point even giving himself entirely over to his opponent in atonement for throwing an earlier fight), denies himself sexual pleasure, and beats himself up in a jail cell. Unlike a typical Scorsese protagonist, however, La Motta’s gospel doesn’t come from the bible– it comes from the streets.
Take the ending scene, where a plump, washed-up La Motta gives himself a pep talk in the mirror before going onstage for his nightly lounge act. He recites Marlon Brando’s seminal “I Coulda Been A Contender” monologue from director Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), a film which no doubt would have struck a profound chord with people of La Motta’s persuasion and background at the time.
On a surface level, the scene could be read as Scorsese paying homage to a cinematic influence of his own, but it really serves to illuminate the inflated “noble victim” mentality that La Motta uses to shield himself from actually changing for the better.
Scorsese couldn’t have known it at the time, but this scene in particular would go on to become one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, rivaling even that of the scene in ON THE WATERFRONT that it references, as well as directly inspiring the final scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)—a film similarly about the rise and fall of a showman whose greatest asset is his own body.
RAGING BULL is an incredibly significant milestone in Scorsese’s filmography, whereby he demonstrates his maturation as an artist and fulfills the promise of his early work. It is arguably Scorsese’s most pure and uncompromised film– indeed, he fought tooth and nail over every little artistic choice in a bid to make sure every frame demonstrated his vision.
All this passion wasn’t unwarranted—after the failure of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Scorsese truly thought RAGING BULL would be his last film, so he summoned all his creative energies to make it just the way he wanted.
The result was a cinematic rebirth for Scorsese, who went on to secure Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, alongside the film’s other nominations for Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, and Editing.
In a stunning display of short-sightedness on the Academy’s part, RAGING BULL was only awarded two Oscars—one for De Niro’s performance and the other for Schoonmaker’s groundbreaking edit. The film’s direction and cinematography have proven massively influential over the years, completely overshadowing the legacy of Robert Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE—the film that the Academy passed RAGING BULL over for.
Thankfully, RAGING BULL isn’t an easy film to forget, and it has stood the test of time. When it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990 (its first year of eligibility), RAGING BULL’s cinematic legacy was finally assured, marking it as the point in which Scorsese had emerged as a true master of the art form.
THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
There’s something about show business that attracts the most delusional, self-absorbed and borderline-psychotic of people. We’ve all seen the lurid tabloid headlines about the bizarre behavior exhibited by celebrities, as if being rich and famous were a license to flagrantly disregard any semblance of normal social standards and decency.
Perhaps even more interesting is the behavior exhibited by those who aspire to fame but for whom success has been elusive. One of my best friends has an acquaintance from film school that completely embodies this particularly noxious brand of ego and desperation.
His social media posts are single-mindedly about his meetings with studio heads to direct the next installment of a major franchise, or his interactions with A-list celebrities that consist of nothing but said celebrity’s effusive praise for his genius and unparalleled talent. That’s a pretty remarkable career for a guy without even an IMDB page to his name, let alone a single film.
His boasts are almost reckless in their falseness, yet he broadcasts them widely to his social media audience as if it were truth. Nothing can ever truly prepare someone for encountering that kind of wanton delusion in the real world. Judging by the reception of THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)– director Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his career comeback RAGING BULL (1980)—we apparently don’t even know how to deal with that delusion in a fictional world.
After the success of 1980’s RAGING BULL, Scorsese wanted to focus on a passion project he had developed for quite some time—a radical take on Jesus Christ and his crucifixion called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, starring Robert De Niro as the titular Son Of God. De Niro didn’t greet the touchy subject matter as enthusiastically as Scorsese, and instead suggested the idea of doing a comedy together.
He reminded Scorsese of a script he had brought to the director’s attention way back in 1974—a script by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman titled THE KING OF COMEDY.
Back then, Scorsese found that he couldn’t really connect with the material, but in the tumultuous years that followed—years that would see him skyrocket to fame with 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, then nearly lose everything from overindulging in eccentric projects and substance abuse, only to then reinstall himself at the top of the art form with RAGING BULL—Scorsese had gained a lifetime’s worth of experience in the trappings of fame, suddenly finding the content of THE KING OF COMEDY much more relatable.
Scorsese and De Niro’s explosive collaborative chemistry had fueled each other’s careers to ever-loftier heights, but 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY would slow their ascent to an abrupt halt with its disappointing reception. It would be their last collaboration for seven years. Despite the film’s perceived failure, the quality of Scorsese and De Niro’s work has endured, and THE KING OF COMEDY is now regarded as something of a minor masterpiece in the director’s filmography—a grand satire of fame, ambition, and the ravenous appetite of the media.
As Scorsese’s first outright comedy, THE KING OF COMEDY doesn’t try so much for hearty belly laughs as it does for the nervous laughter elicited in awkward situations we’d rather escape. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is an aspiring comedian—emphasis on “aspiring”.
He’s currently living in his mother’s basement in an outer borough of New York City, and completely preoccupied with meeting his idol, a Johnny Carson-type late night show host named Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). One night, he finally succeeds by saving Jerry from the other rabid fans outside the stage door, throwing himself into the getaway limousine as it speeds away.
Finally face to face with his idol, he does what most desperate wannabe’s do—immediately pitch his act. Jerry brushes Rupert off in the worst way possible; he tells him to call his assistant to set up an appointment to listen to his act, assuming that Rupert will never actually follow up.
Much to the chagrin of Jerry and his employees, Rupert dutifully (and repeatedly) shows up to the show’s offices until he has to be thrown out of the building by security. Undeterred by this minor “mishap”, Rupert continues his bid for Jerry’s attention, indulging in fantasies wherein he and Jerry are best friends.
His daydreams grow increasingly more delusional, with Jerry praising Rupert’s act as nothing short of revolutionary and inviting him out to his house in the Hamptons for the weekend. The extent of Rupert’s disconnect from reality becomes painfully apparent to everyone around him when he actually shows up at Jerry’s Hamptons house unannounced.
Feeling that his “friendship” with Jerry is slipping away, and by extension his chance for his big debut on Jerry’s show, Rupert concocts a last-ditch scheme to launch his career by kidnapping Jerry and leveraging his hostage for a spot delivering the opening monologue on the show.
In his old age, De Niro has tried to soften his tough guy image by appearing in comedies like MEET THE PARENTS (2000), so one could look at THE KING OF COMEDY as the beginning of De Niro’s desire to try his hand at comedic roles.
As the wannabe fanatic Rupert Pupkin, De Niro excels at projecting a disturbingly needy and desperate vibe—the complete opposite of the aloof tough guys he played in previous collaborations with Scorsese. This complete lack of machismo and posturing on De Niro’s part results in an unforgettable performance that Scorsese reportedly considers the actor’s best within their own work together.
THE KING OF COMEDY would serve as De Niro’s last appearance in a Scorsese film until 1990’s GOODFELLAS, a development that the director attributes to the uncomfortable nature of the story and the subsequent difficulty in shooting said uncomfortable moments. Real-life comedian Jerry Lewis plays the object of Pupkin’s idolatry- the conceited and egotistical Jerry Langford. Lewis has a reputation for being somewhat of a dick, so naturally he excels at capturing the authenticity of an impatient, rich asshole here.
De Niro’s then-wife, Diahnne Abbot, plays Rita—a bartender and a romantic interest for Rupert. Abbot is for all intents and purposes the straight character, giving a grounded performance that establishes perspective for the delusionary characters that populate the film.
While she had cameos in a couple of Scorsese’s films previously (most notably as a lounge singer in 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK), her performance in THE KING OF COMEDY is the first real instance of substantial screen time in a Scorsese film. Sandra Bernhard plays Masha, a contentious friend of Rupert’s and a fellow nutbag with a dangerous, unpredictable edge.
Additionally, THE KING OF COMEDY features brief appearances by Scorsese’s friends and family—both of his parents make respective cameos, with mother Catherine as Rupert’s heard-but-not-seen mother and father Charles as a patron at the bar. Scorsese’ longtime writing partner Mardik Martin also makes an appearance at the same bar, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s Liza Minnelli appears in cardboard cutout form in Rupert’s basement apartment. Finally, Scorsese himself appears briefly as a television director for Jerry’s show.
THE KING OF COMEDY greatly deviates from the established Scorsese “look”– that signature blend of grit, immediacy, and lurid color– opting instead for a straightforward, unadorned look. For whatever reason, Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Michael Chapman is absent from the proceedings, replaced by director of photography Fred Schuler.
Like most comedies, Scorsese emphasizes broad, even lighting and wide compositions to better capture the physical comedy on display. THE KING OF COMEDY makes no distinction between Pupkin’s humdrum, everyday existence and the ego-stroking daydreams he indulges in; indeed, the fantasy sequences are presented so mundanely they often feel more realistic than the grounded sequences.
Whereas works like 1973’s MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL spliced 8mm color home movie footage into the 35mm presentation, THE KING OF COMEDY marks an early acknowledgement of the aesthetic of television video. For the opening of the film as well as Rupert Pupkin’s big monologue delivery, Scorsese shot these sequences on broadcast video, the medium’s scratchy fuzziness standing in stark contrast to the crisp film visuals.
The rise of Steadicam in the early 80’s also allows Scorsese to experiment with long takes and sustained camera movement, often walking with characters for extended charges down the long Manhattan boulevards. The absurdity of the film’s humor is balanced with a straightforward, non-flashy edit by Thelma Schoonmaker, a key creative partner of Scorsese’s.
At first glance, THE KING OF COMEDY seeks like an odd choice of project for Scorsese to take on. There’s no swaggering masculinity, no Catholic imagery, no room for popular rock songs, or insights into the Italian American experience. On a surface level, the film’s setting of New York City and the participation of De Niro are the only markers of Scorsese’s participation.
However, closer inspection reveals the presence of a few more directorial trademarks, like the depiction of chaotic street life in the form of rabid, screaming fans and autograph hounds lurking outside the backstage door of Jerry’s show.
Scorsese’s filmography is also characterized by protagonists who are thugs, miscreants and lowlifes—Pupkin may not be a thug per se, but he’s most certainly a lowlife, dwelling haplessly at the bottom of the New York food chain, and he’ll have to resort to illegal means if he’s going to stand a shot at achieving his own version of the American Dream.
THE KING OF COMEDY proved something of yet another career setback for Scorsese, who had previously been riding high on the success of RAGING BULL. The film was a flop at the box office, with many people turned off by the awkward, uncomfortable nature of the comedy.
They might not have understood how a film this “unpleasant” would be nominated for the prestigious Palm d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but as the years have passed, the Cannes jury’s judgment would prove itself as remarkably ahead of its time. THE KING OF COMEDY has aged surprisingly well, growing in appreciation and critical regard over the years as an underrated gem within Scorsese’s filmography.
Scorsese’s “uncomfortable” satire has proved eerily prescient, predicting our media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed age, where anyone can become famous despite a total lack of talent or conviction. As long as there’s a little a little Rupert Pupkin inside all of us, THE KING OF COMEDY will endure as one of Scorsese’s most relevant achievements.
AFTER HOURS (1985)
The 1980’s was a turbulent decade for director Martin Scorsese—he kicked things off in high form with RAGING BULL (1980), overcoming a substance abuse problem that had nearly killed him and regaining his artistic relevancy in the process. However, the rest of the decade would not be so kind to him. He began to move away from the kind of projects that made his name (gritty urban crime dramas) and explored other avenues like comedic features (1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY), television, and music videos.
All the while, he was feverishly developing his true follow-up to RAGING BULL, a passion project called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Shortly after the release of THE KING OF COMEDY, it looked like Scorsese would have his shot to make his dream film. He had his cast assembled and funding secured, and had even gone out to Morocco to scout locations. However, it all came crashing down when the studio called Scorsese on Thanksgiving Day (of all days) to inform him they had abruptly pulled the plug.
Scorsese had just turned forty, firmly crossing the barrier into middle age. Now that his longtime passion project was dead, he was at a crucial crossroads in his career. What kind of filmmaker did he want to be? Were his best days, his best films, already behind him? Would the legacy he left be one of a swift rise to glory followed by excruciating decline?
It was at this time that his old MEAN STREETS (1973) star, Amy Robinson, contacted him with a project she was producing with her partner Griffin Dunne. She had a script called AFTER HOURS, written by a recent Columbia University graduate named Joseph Minion for his student thesis.
On a surface level, it seemed an odd choice for an Oscar-nominated director to adapt a script by a fresh-faced kid straight out of film school, but THE KING OF COMEDY had just bombed and the struggling director would try almost anything to get out of his current rut. He saw in AFTER HOURS an opportunity to return to his independent roots, using the mobility afforded by a small budget and crew to creatively reinvent himself.
In a way, it was almost like he was going back to school—only it wasn’t his grade that was at stake, it was his career.
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is a mild-mannered word processor content to live out his days at the office and his nights inside of his well-appointed (but personality-devoid apartment) in Manhattan. One night, he decides to break up the routine by going out to eat at a local coffee shop—a decision that he could never have guessed would have absurdly outrageous consequences.
He strikes up an innocent conversation with a pretty blonde a few tables over named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette). She indirectly invites him over to her apartment by giving him the number of her roommate, a local artist specializing in plaster paperweights—a product which Paul feigns some interest in. As soon as he returns to his apartment, Paul arranges to come over to her loft to “see the artist’s work”.
However, once he finally arrives in the unfamiliar neighborhood of Soho and starts getting to know Marcy, he decides that they aren’t exactly a great fit for each other. He tries to sneak out, beginning a cascading chain of events that will see him dodging the varied, colorful characters of the neighborhood and a series of absurd scenarios that no ordinary man could possibly encounter in the course of one night. He just wants to get home to his cozy apartment uptown, but as he finds out, that will prove to be a task far more difficult and dangerous than he ever thought possible.
In keeping with the “reinvention” conceit that he applied to the production of the film, Scorsese mostly dispenses with his habit of re-using actors from previous projects– including Robert De Niro. Indeed, the only familiar faces in AFTER HOURS include Victor Argo and Verna Bloom in a pair of unremarkable cameos.
Griffin Dunne proves himself a Scorsese protagonist of an entirely different kind– a reactive yuppie and beta male fine-tuned for the Wall Street-obsessed New York of the Reagan era. Rosanna Arquette equally embodies the classic Scorsese blonde archetype retooled for a brave new world characterized by prescription medication and open acknowledgment of mental health issues.
The rest of the cast is populated by the bizarre, mysterious characters that Griffin’s Paul Hackett encounters over the night, the most notable of which being Linda Fiorentino’s punk sculptor/artist Kiki Bridges and stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong as a pair of burglars stalking the neighborhood in their junk-filled van.
As appropriate for a scrappy, low-budget feature, the cinematography of AFTER HOURS is quick on its feet and unburdened by cumbersome equipment that would’ve been employed to sell a sense of scale. AFTER HOURS marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would go on to lens a majority of Scorsese’s future works.
Scorsese’s camerawork has always been dynamic, but in AFTER HOURS the camera threatens to run off the rails entirely, giving the film a reckless energy that’s aided and abetted by the mobility of the Steadicam. With the exception of the bookending sequences in Paul’s office, the film takes place entirely at night, so Scorsese and Ballhaus adopt a high contrast lighting scheme to better convey the lurid colors of Soho—providing a marked contrast to Paul’s drab, beige apartment.
This aesthetic dichotomy (that of young urban professional against urban bohemian artist) illustrates a major theme of AFTER HOURS, which is the convergence and collision of subcultures that marks the vitality and unpredictability of living in New York City. Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, returns to lend her talents to AFTER HOURS, creating an unrelenting pace that drives our wearied, haggard protagonist ever forward with nary a chance to catch his breath.
Revered composer Howard Shore, who would become a regular collaborator of Scorsese’s during his string of works in the early 2000’s, establishes his relationship with the director here in AFTER HOURS with a score marked by an electronic synthesizer and the propulsive percussion of a ticking clock.
This being a Scorsese film, AFTER HOURS naturally makes potent use of an eclectic mix of needledrop cues ranging from classical, mariachi, jukebox rock, and punk. This diverse musical landscape cannily reflects the film’s focus on the collision of radically different subcultures that New York City enables.
The early 80’s marked a period of Scorsese’s career in which he experimented with different aesthetic and filmmaking techniques, exploring his range as an artist and branching out into new genres. AFTER HOURS is much more of an outright comedy than the pitch-black farce of THE KING OF COMEDY, yet it still retains some of the qualities that signify Scorsese’s vision—the requisite New York city setting, the explosive chaos of urban life, and the messiness of passionate violence (like the scene where Paul witnesses the murder of a husband by his wife in the apartment across the street, via several angry bullets delivered haphazardly into his abdomen).
Despite these consistencies with Scorsese’s aesthetic, AFTER HOURS deviates greatly from other thematic conceits like the exploration of the Italian experience in America and protagonists who deal heavily in crime. In a stark contrast from films like MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL, the protagonist of AFTER HOURS is not a thug—rather, he’s a well-adjusted yuppie who’s main goal in life is to not rock the boat.
The story’s developments constantly seek to emasculate him, so Paul Hackett’s growth trajectory becomes reliant on him taking charge of his own masculinity—an idea that falls in line with Scorsese’s career-long exploration of masculinity as an engine of conflict and drama.
AFTER HOURS marks the end of a curious comedic phase of Scorsese’s career, managing to end said phase on a high note after the disappointment of THE KING OF COMEDY. By embracing his indie roots and scaling back his approach, Scorsese was able to rejuvenate himself creatively while delivering a lifesaving jolt of electricity to his career.
A warm reception at the Cannes film festival resulted in an award for Best Director, and while it may not have gotten any Oscar love, AFTER HOURS took home top honors (Best Feature and Director) at the indie sector’s equivalent gala, The Independent Spirit Awards.
Today, AFTER HOURS is something of a cult favorite amongst Scorsese’s followers, and while it may not rank among his most significant works, it is significant in the context of his filmography for re-establishing his value in the minds of Hollywood executives and giving him another shot at realizing his longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.
AMAZING STORIES: MIRROR, MIRROR (1986)
The mid-1980’s saw director Martin Scorsese experiencing a bit of a rough patch in terms of his career, with his attempts to branch out and experiment with his aesthetic largely falling flat. When his 1985 independent feature AFTER HOURS experienced modest success, he was able to pull out of his tailspin and right himself. In a bid to get more work under his belt, Scorsese would turn to the realm of television for the first time.
That same year, Scorsese’s contemporary Steven Spielberg had launched an anthology television series called AMAZING STORIES. Over the course of the show’s short run, it would feature contributions by several key members of the Film Brat generation of filmmakers, with Scorsese in particular adapting a story by Spielberg himself that was further fashioned into a screenplay by AFTER HOURS screenwriter Joseph Minion.
Titled “MIRROR, MIRROR”, Scorsese’s episode of AMAZING STORIES finds him tackling the horror genre for the first time. Actor Sam Waterston plays Jordan Manmouth, a successful and famous horror novelist who doesn’t actually believe in any of the spooky hokum he peddles.
That is, of course, until he starts seeing a mysterious black-clad phantom (played by Tim Robbins, randomly) lurking behind his reflection in the mirror. As the intensity of the phantom’s mirror appearances mount, he spirals into terror and insanity. But is the phantom really out to get him, or is it just another product of his overactive imagination?
After the goofy opening credits featuring positively prehistoric CGI, “MIRROR, MIRROR” unfolds primarily under the harsh light of day—a curious choice for an otherwise gothic tale that would be right at home among the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Due to the producer-centric model of television at the time, Scorsese doesn’t have as much creative leeway here as he does in his feature work, rendering the story instead with a straightforward, rather unremarkable look. This approach is reinforced by production designer and regular Spielberg collaborator Rick Carter’s set design, which paints Jordan’s suburban house in the hills in a modern, yet sterile white patina that feels more like a museum than a home.
“MIRROR, MIRROR” is a fairly anonymous piece of work, bearing almost no evidence of Scorsese’s hand at all except for surface things like the presence of his regular background actor Harry Northup in one scene as a security guard, or the open acknowledgment by the characters of movie culture.
The appearance of Robbins’ phantom plays into this, resembling Lon Cheney’s frightening visage in the iconic Universal silent monster film, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). As Scorsese’s first stab at the horror genre, “MIRROR, MIRROR” is a fairly effective chiller, but it doesn’t show a great deal of growth, artistically speaking.
However, his participation with the medium of television would recapture the attention of Hollywood executives, who would give him the opportunity to reclaim cinematic glory before the close of the decade.
THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)
The modest success of 1985’s independent comedy AFTER HOURS, as well as a detour into episodic television with 1986’s AMAZING STORIES brought director Martin Scorsese back to the attention of Hollywood studio executives following a long rough patch. Scorsese’s career had been flying through severe turbulence since the disappointing reception of 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK, but the surprise success of 1980’s RAGING BULL proved that Scorsese still had untapped brilliance to spare.
The same year that Scorsese delivered his AMAZING STORIES episode, he was given another shot at a big time feature, but it wasn’t an original work developed by the director himself. It was a sequel to 1961’s THE HUSTLER, with Hollywood icon Paul Newman attached to reprise his seminal role of Fast Eddie Nelson in a story set a quarter of a century after the original.
Titled THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), the film was written by Richard Price and produced by Irving Axelrad and Barbara De Fina, who saw in Scorsese an unexpected, yet highly inspired match for their material. THE COLOR OF MONEY was moderately successful in its day, and even earned Paul Newman a long-overdue Oscar. Today, it’s a forgotten work within Scorsese’s canon, eclipsed by far greater films.
The legacy of the film itself may not be much to sneeze at, but THE COLOR OF MONEY is important nonetheless for giving Scorsese the strong foothold he needed to launch his career’s second act.
Set twenty-five years after the events of THE HUSTLER, THE COLOR OF MONEY finds notorious pool shark Fast Eddie Nelson (Newman) living somewhere outside Chicago. He’s long since given up pool, scraping out a meager living hawking knockoff liquor instead—but he’s not removed from the sport entirely.
He grooms promising young men with the hopes they’ll become profitable hustlers like he once was, pocketing a share of their earnings in compensation for his mentorship. In a dive bar in a neglected section of town, Eddie encounters a young hotshot pool player named Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise).
Impressed by his raw talent, he encourages Vincent to quit his dead-end sales job and hit the road with him, where he’ll teach him how to be a true hustler. Thus begins something of a road picture, whereby Eddie, Vincent, and Vincent’s girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) drive down towards Atlantic City, taking every hapless sucker for the contents of their wallet every stop along the way.
Eddie and Vincent’s partnership is not without conflict, however—one of Eddie’s key strategies is losing on purpose, a skill that Vincent’s pride and stubbornness rails against. Causing further chafe-age is the possibility that Vincent might actually be a better pool player than the aging Eddie—a possibility that will be put to the test when they go head to head against each other during a large pool tournament in Atlantic City.
Scorsese’s history of working with star-name actors is somewhat funny, as we tend to think that he’s always done so. It’s easy to forget that Scorsese helped to discover Robert De Niro and turn him into a major Hollywood player. THE COLOR OF MONEY, made nearly twenty years into his filmmaking career, marks Scorsese’s first time working with a true Hollywood superstar in the form of Paul Newman.
Newman is highly effective in his reprisal of one of his most iconic roles, Fast Eddie Nelson. His seasoned, autumnal countenance provides countless layers of depth to what could otherwise be a stock “mentor drawn out of retirement” archetype. Newman’s nuanced performance would result in his first win for Best Actor—a win that many in the industry dismissed as a life achievement award rather than recognition of his particular performance in the film.
Tom Cruise, who of course is now a Hollywood superstar all his own, was cast by Scorsese right before his national profile soared in the wake of Tony Scott’s TOP GUN that same year. Cruise is a natural fit as Vincent Lauria- the untamed, passionate hotshot with an equally untamed bouffant. His pride can’t compensate for his naiveté, making him the perfect foil to Newman’s wizened, humbled old-time pool shark.
While the film is framed as a battle of wits and will between these two men, THE COLOR OF MONEY sheds some light on interesting periphery characters, such as Carmen (Mastrantonio), Vincent’s street-smart girlfriend who we come to suspect might just be conning Vincent herself, or Helen Shaver as Jannelle, an aging cocktail waitress and Eddie’s on-again, off-again love interest.
Notable characters actors John Turturro and Forest Whitaker make early career appearances in the film as a failed hustler protégé of Eddie’s and a small-time hustler who manages to con Eddie, respectively. Scorsese’s tendency to appear in his own films also manifests here in the form of a voiceover during the opening credits whereby he explains the game of Nine-Ball—a variant on classic pool that the characters play almost exclusively throughout the film.
Scorsese reunites with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to create a look that is, admittedly, not very appealing. The entire 35mm film image is awash in a drab, grey color palette that evokes the cold winters of the Midwest as well as the cigarette haze of cave-like dive bars. Scorsese and Ballhaus counter this unappealing look with delirious camerawork and dynamic compositions.
There’s an unrelenting sense of energy, with the camera constantly whip-panning to new tableaus, or screaming forward with a rack zoom onto pool balls scattered around the table. Indeed, Scorsese’s expressionistic rendering of the game of pool (artfully strung together by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker) takes a similar approach to the dreamlike boxing sequences in his other big sports film, RAGING BULL.
Whereas RAGING BULL tended to emphasize the increasingly diminutive size of boxer Jake La Motta in contrast to his opponent or the ring itself, THE COLOR OF MONEYtakes the opposite approach: distorting the pool balls into titanic spheres tumbling around a tiny arena.
The Band frontman and music supervisor Robbie Robertson once again collaborates with Scorsese, generating a bluesy score as well as sourcing an eclectic mix of needledrops like rock, blues, opera, and jazz. The effect is an energy that’s much more breathless and lively than a film about pool could ever reasonably hope to have.
Despite THE COLOR OF MONEY ostentatiously being a work-for-hire, Scorsese seizes the opportunity to stamp his distinct imprint on the material. As a result, the film falls right in line with Scorsese’s other examinations of dishonest men as protagonists, as well as the particular brand of conflict that arises from masculine pride and posturing. Of course, this being a Scorsese film, the violence is messy, chaotic and unpredictable.
THE COLOR OF MONEY’s third act concerns Eddie reawakening his talents at pool and mounting a comeback, ending with his victorious proclamation that whether he wins or loses, “I’m back!”. The same sentiment can said of Scorsese, who was able to mount something of a comeback himself– thus pulling out of the funk that had hung over his work for nearly a decade.
The film’s modest success and Oscar win for Newman was enough to re-establish Scorsese’s viability as a commercial filmmaker, paving the way for a new act in his career that would not only see his longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, finally realized, but his prestige and importance to the world cinema stage grow exponentially.
MUSIC VIDEOS (1986-1988)
The moderate success of 1986’s THE COLOR OF MONEY gave director Martin Scorsese the leverage he needed to finally put his longtime passion project THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST into production. Before the latter film would be realized, however, Scorsese’s rediscovered value as a filmmaker led to two music videos for some of the biggest names in music at the time—the late Michael Jackson and former The Band frontman Robbie Robertson.
MICHAEL JACKSON: “BAD” (1986)
Scorsese’s music video for “BAD” is arguably Michael Jackson’s highest profile music video, second only to John Landis’ groundbreaking video for “Thriller”. The video is set underground in an archetypical New York City subway station while Jackson and his tough-looking friends aggressively dance around and mean-mug to the camera.
Scorsese’s hand is very evident in the video—not just in the NYC setting but in the dynamic camera movement, which incorporates a series of whip-pans, zooms, dolly, and Steadicam moves to match Jackson’s explosive footwork.
One very interesting aspect about the video is Scorsese’s decision to incorporate production sound into the video. We can actually hear the chains of Jackson’s outfit clank together, boots scuffling along the concrete, and the guttural yells from the dancers. The overall effect is a liveliness and sense of presence that’s missing from the grand majority of conventional music videos.
“BAD” is perhaps Scorsese’s best-known work within the music video genre, and it is still highly regarded today as one of the best ever made. However, like other pop culture artifacts of the 1980’s, the video contains none of the timelessness of Scorsese’s feature work. While Jackson’s cadre of backup dancers might have passed for intimidating, tough street hoods in 1986, today it just looks like Jackson is hosting a leather daddy party.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON- “SOMEWHERE DOWN THE CRAZY RIVER” (1988)
Scorsese and Robbie Robertson have had a long, fruitful working relationship for many years, going all the way back to their concert film THE LAST WALTZ (1978)—so when Robbie Robertson released his new single “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”, hiring Scorsese to direct the music video must have seemed like a no-brainer.
“SOMEWHERE DOWN THE CRAZY RIVER” is a minimalist performance piece, with Robertson singing and speaking to camera while he stands against a series of stylized one-color backdrops. The lighting is very theatrical, washing over Robertson with bold, glowing color (and alternately framing him in silhouette).
Besides Robertson’s presence, the only other thing that suggests Scorsese’s hand is the appearance of a blonde woman wearing white, which we should recognize as one of Scorsese’s most-visible tropes in his narrative feature work.
Ultimately, the video is rather forgettable, as is the song. If it does manages to stick in the mind, it can probably be attributed to the creepy, sexually over-aggressive vibe Robertson gives off, akin to a dirty old man undressing you with his eyes.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
From the years 2000-2004, I went to a Catholic high school whose ministries were overseen by a group of Jesuit priests. It was an interesting time for Catholic education, as it was when Mel Gibson’s controversial film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) was released. The film caused an uproar over its focus on the gory details of Jesus’ crucifixion—a fascination that brought the film to the brink of the torture porn genre.
As a hardcore conservative and member of a controversial sect of Christianity, Gibson’s aim was to present a very literal interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice, using the actual language of the time and showcasing the true brutality of crucifixion in a misguided bid for “authenticity”. This approach proved incredibly divisive, with conservatives and evangelicals hailing it as if it were the literal Second Coming of Christ.
The release of the film caused me to realize that my Catholic high school was actually quite liberal—our priests-in-residence railed against the film during their homilies, calling it out as a single-minded bloodbath. They maintained that faith doesn’t deal in absolutes; it’s not about blindly following ideology and dogma.
True faith means questioning your beliefs—digging deeper, enriching it through other interpretations and personal experience. This is why a film like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is ultimately so ineffective, and why an equally controversial film like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) endures through the ages.
Scorsese’ film takes the opposite tack—depicting Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. The film (and the book it was based on) serves as likely the first time that anyone dared to really examine Jesus’ humanity—by showing us his naked thoughts, doubts, and hopes, the figure of Jesus as well as his teachings suddenly become very tangible, real, and relevant. Ironically, exploring Jesus’ humanity also makes his inherent divinity all the more powerful.
Jesus’ teachings played a hugely influential role in Scorsese’s development as a young man. His Roman Catholic and Italian backgrounds compelled him to be devout in his beliefs, to the point that he had even considered pursuing a profession in the priesthood. Even when he decided that he would become a filmmaker instead, a project about Jesus’ life never remained far from his list of dream projects.
The idea existed as a vague, remote notion until the production of Scorsese’s second feature film, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972). He was given a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, “The Last Temptation Of Christ” by the film’s star, Barbara Hershey, under the condition that she would be cast as Mary Magdalene if he ever made the film one day. Scorsese latched on to the idea of a film exploring Jesus’ humanity from an angle never before portrayed, and after a few more projects were under his belt, he hired his TAXI DRIVER (1976) screenwriter Paul Schrader to adapt the book into a screenplay.
This inadvertently began a long stretch of development hell and false starts that would prevent the film from being realized for nearly another decade. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was supposed to follow the making of 1982’s THE KING OF COMEDY, with Aidan Quinn starring as Jesus—but the original studio could not reconcile the film’s required budget with the risk of its anticipated reception, so it abruptly cancelled the film just prior to the start of shooting.
Scorsese was understandably depressed over the cancellation of his longtime passion project, but he channeled his energies into the production of other projects. After the surprise success of 1985’s AFTER HOURS, Universal stepped into the fray and offered Scorsese the chance to finally make THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST under the provision that he also shoot a commercial film for them (1991’s CAPE FEAR).
It was under these circumstances that Scorsese finally found himself in the fall of 1987 in Morocco, realizing a project he had dreamed about since childhood—a project that would become one of the most seminal, heartfelt films of his career.
We all know the story of Jesus Christ from Nazareth—the man who preached about God’s will and unconditional love and was subsequently branded as a blasphemer by his own people, crucified by the Romans, and rose from the dead three days later to prove his divinity. There’s a reason it’s known as The Greatest Story Ever Told—it’s one of the most well known stories throughout the entire history of humanity.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST tells this same story, but from a radically new perspective. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a Jewish crossmaker who suffers from debilitating headaches and terrifying voices inside his head. Scorsese doesn’t put Jesus up on a pedestal—he brings us right into Jesus’ head and lets us hear his own internal monologue as he wrestles with his faith and his doubts about his destiny.
When his good friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) rather forcefully demands that he follow his heart and begin preaching a radically new interpretation of God (one that eschews the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament in favor of a friendlier, unconditionally loving deity), Jesus finds himself cultivating a humble–yet steadily growing– following.
He finally accepts his destiny and agrees to be sacrificed on the cross in order to absolve humanity of sin, but it’s not until he’s actually up on that cross that the story diverges greatly from the established gospels. He is greeted by an angel in the form of a young girl, who brings him down from the cross and takes him to be married to his lifelong love, Mary Magdalene (Hershey).
He is told that all of his suffering was simply a test, and his reward is a normal human life with a wife and children. He grows old, begetting many sons and daughters, but upon his deathbed, he realizes that the angel may have actually been Satan in disguise, and in his selfish pursuit of happiness and normalcy, he has unwittingly betrayed his destiny and forsaken his people.
Right off the bat, Scorsese signals that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST isn’t your grandfather’s biblical epic. Whereas conventional Hollywood films about biblical times would have you believe everyone spoke in British accents, Scorsese allows his actors to use their natural vocal inflections and accents—to the point that a large section of the cast sounds like they walked right out of Little Italy.
While the approach sound incongruous in principle, it’s really no less incongruous than using British accents. On the contrary, Scorsese’s approach actually brings out a sense of truth and immediacy to the characterization while diminishing the pageantry of it all. Willem Dafoe makes for an unexpectedly brilliant Jesus—one who is very relatable in his quiet doubt.
Far from the strong, pious image of Jesus seen in a Sunday school textbook, Dafoe’s portrayal is conflicted and frail. Even his carpentry background is given a new complication with the revelation that he specializes in making crosses for the Romans.
Harvey Keitel had been absent from Scorsese’s frame since TAXI DRIVER, so the longtime collaborator’s gruff, self-righteous countenance is warmly welcomed here as Jesus’ friend and betrayer, Judas. Keitel’s bright red hair matches the inner fire driving his convictions and thirst for justice, and the actor’s unquestioning love for his master provides an extremely compassionate insight into one of the most hated men in all of recorded history.
As of this writing, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST would become the last collaboration between Scorsese and Keitel—a poignant capstone to a series of projects that propelled both men to the forefront of their respective professions.
Scorsese’s supporting cast is populated by some of the most iconic names of 70’s and 80’s cinema culture. There is, of course, Barbara Hershey’s performance as Mary Magdalene—a prostitute and the woman who would become Jesus’ wife if he were not called a life of celibacy.
BOXCAR BERTHA saw Hershey as a pretty and carefree young girl, so it’s incredibly striking to see her next collaboration with Scorsese blossom into a performance that’s world-weary and hardened. Verna Bloom, another longtime collaborator of Scorsese’s who had previously appeared in AFTER HOURS, plays Mary the mother of Jesus. Bloom’s Mary is frail and stricken with grief—a far cry from the traditional image of The Virgin Mary that adorns stain glass windows and paintings.
Victor Argo, who up until this point had been content to appear in small cameos throughout Scorsese’s work, is given a big job in the form of Jesus’ most famous apostle, Peter—a job that Argo handles quietly, yet powerfully. Harry Dean Stanton plays Saul, the murderous zealot turned prophet of Christianity, while THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) director Irving Kershner pops up as one of Jesus’ earliest and most curmudgeonly followers.
Finally, there’s David Bowie as the infamous Roman judge, Pontius Pilate. Bowie’s slender, androgynous physicality lends an urbane and sophisticated touch to yet another well-trodden biblical character.
In order to shoot THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese and company had to make sacrifices in their budget. This meant a scaled-back shooting aesthetic, but fortunately the minimalistic look works in the film’s favor. Scorsese reteams with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to recreate the warm, dusty landscapes of ancient Jerusalem, with the locations carefully chosen to convey a great degree of grit and immediacy.
Scorsese is able to retain the use of dynamic camera work, with the mobility of the Steadicam rig affording him the ability to convey delirious energy and movement despite limited time and resources. Longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker weaves it all together in expectedly brilliant fashion against Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking New Age score, which combines the ancient character of the old world with contemporary rock percussion that sounds like a prehistoric antecedent to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound.
The incorporation of seminal rock figures like Gabriel and Bowie points to Scorsese’s inherent love of the musical genre while taking some out of the piss out of the conventional Hollywood bible epic genre.
As Scorsese’s longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST understandably bears the director’s mark quite heavily. His filmography is littered with disadvantaged, sometime-criminal protagonists grappling with matters of faith and religion while navigating the unpredictable chaos of urban life.
His career-long incorporation of Roman Catholic dogma, imagery and behavioral practices (such as self-flagellation) goes right to the source in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, examining the genesis of Catholic ideas and iconography while underscoring their inherent meaning in a modern context.
Instead of a community of Roman Catholic Italian Americans attempting to eke out an existence under the established dominance of Protestant Anglo-Saxons, we are presented with a community of Jews scraping by under the watchful eye of the ancient Roman Empire.
Jesus in particular can be seen as a lowlife among lowlifes—he is a Jewish man making crosses for a foreign authority that will turn around and hang his own people up on his creations. This causes significant discord between Jesus and his friend Judas, who deplores Jesus’ work as an act of betrayal. Indeed, much of the film’s dramatic weight hinges on the interplay between Jesus and Judas.
Their conflicting ideologies represent the core sentiments of their respective Testaments; Judas represents the bloody righteousness of the Old Testament while Jesus puts forth the idea of a new covenant between God and his people based on love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
One of the film’s more striking directorial signatures plays into Scorsese’s membership in the New Hollywood school of filmmaking—a generation that embraced the medium of film directly into their work in a decidedly postmodern fashion. For instance, the film is infamous for its last shot, which is a close-up on Jesus delirious with relief and shouting, “It is accomplished!” shortly before dying on the cross.
The music builds into a crescendo as the frame itself bursts into a series of colors that imply his glorious entrance into the afterlife. In reality, this is actually a severe light leak happening in-camera and overexposing the film. A very technical and common occurrence, yes, but one has to admit that the timing is incredibly fortuitous. Scorsese chose to leave this “happy accident” in, taking advantage of the medium’s particular quirks to help tell his story.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was a lifelong labor of love for Scorsese, one that caused many years of grief and heartbreak in his attempt to realize his vision onscreen. It is one of his most significant achievements– a fact that the Academy recognized when it nominated him for a Best Director Oscar later that year.
The film is remembered as violently controversial still to this day, the irony being that those spewing the most venom haven’t actually bothered to see the film itself. Admittedly, a film that dares to show Jesus in the act of sexual intercourse with a woman is, suffice to say, going to be met with a great deal of controversy—but there’s no way Scorsese could have anticipated the level of furor that greeted the release of his film.
Forget the pearl clutching and condemnation from America’s pulpits— the global Catholic community was so outraged by the film’s existence that some individuals took to radical forms of protest. For instance, a fundamentalist sect reportedly torched a Parisian cinema during a film screening. This film is still banned in some countries.
In the long run, all this outrage has amounted to little more than white noise. Time has revealed THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST for what it is: a respectful examination of Jesus’ life and teachings that refuses to pander to blind ideology. It’s a responsible, thought-provoking look into Jesus’ humanity that’s more relevant to modern Christianity than anything Kirk Cameron is currently hawking.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is a triumph of passion and perseverance for Scorsese, and by creating an intimate reflection of Jesus as a man just like us—a man besieged by doubt, regret and fear—he has invited us into the most intimate aspects of his own life and worldview.
NEW YORK STORIES: LIFE LESSONS (1989)
The Film Brat generation of filmmakers—directors of the Baby Boomer persuasion like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—can be credited for popularizing the idea of filmmaking in the context of a social community. This could be credited due to their upbringing during the emergence of filmmaking as an area of academic collegiate study.
Their close personal friendships informed and influenced each other’s work, inspiring them to take risks with the assurance that their buddies would always have their backs. This communal, collaborative mentality also encouraged them to join forces on projects beyond the scope of conventional narrative features. One of these projects, 1989’s NEW YORK STORIES, was an anthology film comprised of three short works from directors with a reputation for New York-centric stories: Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese’s contribution, which opens the film, is called “LIFE LESSONS”, and follows the plight of a successful abstract paint caught in the throes of creative blockage in the wake of his lover/assistant threatening to leave him. Written by Richard Price, the short features Nick Nolte as the aforementioned artist, Lionel Dobie.
Dobie is a revered, massively successful New York abstract painter who derives inspiration from the women in his life. He’s got a big show coming up, but he can’t bring himself to create any work—he’s having a bit of a tussle with his live-in assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette).
For a while, they had a mutually beneficial relationship—she had a place to work on her own art and a mentor who always had some helpful paternal advice about her life and career, while he had sex, comfort, and inspiration. The trouble begins when Paulette returns from a trip home, only to reveal she didn’t actually go home—she went off on a sordid sexual affair with a young avant-garde comedian named Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi), the kind of pretentious prick who hosts his shows in abandoned subway tunnels.
The affair didn’t end well, and Paulette has returned heartbroken and homesick. She falls into a full-blown artistic crisis, but as her threats to give up and move out escalate, Dobie finds new creative inspiration in the turmoil—giving him the bold new work he needs for his big show and reaffirming his own creative talent.
Working with cinematographer Nestor Almendros for the first time, Scorsese gives “LIFE LESSONS” an unadorned, naturalistic look that’s complemented by an incredibly dynamic camera. The advent of the Steadicam in the early 1980’s gave Scorsese an unprecedented freedom of movement.
He had always been inclined towards flashy, daring camerawork, but the Steadicam gave him an ease of movement that was simply impossible on a dolly or crane. “LIFE LESSONS” also demonstrates the debut of a particular technique of Scorsese’s that I like to call the “scream-in”—a movement in which the camera rushes in on its subject (with the steadicam operator presumably running at full speed), going from a wide composition to a close-up in a deliriously forward motion.
While THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) had previously flirted with this technique, it’s in “LIFE LESSONS” that Scorsese fully incorporates the technique into his stable of visual tricks. “LIFE LESSONS” also makes frequent use of an old-fashioned visual motif en vogue during the silent era: the iris shot, which is used to spotlight our attention on one specific detail of the frame by quite literally blacking out the rest of it.
Scorsese’s filmography is littered with casual nods and homages to notable artifacts of cinema history, so while the iris shot’s inclusion here might seem off-tone, it certainly keeps in line with Scorsese’s larger body of work.
The short anthology format, while constraining in run time, proves actually quite liberating for Scorsese, freeing him from the expectations that a studio would normally impose on him if it were a narrative feature. The New York City setting conceit, while admittedly a recurring motif of Scorsese’s, is more so motivated by the larger ambitions of the project as a slice-of-life chronicle of The Big Apple.
“LIFE LESSONS” is sterling example of Scorsese’s penchant for rendering a gritty, naturalistic storyline in expressionistic, colorful ways. Working with longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese peppers “LIFE LESSONS” with signature tropes like the introduction of the blonde female lead in slow motion, or the heavy usage of rock music, blues, and Italian opera (with a particular focus on Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”).
By nature of being lumped into an anthology work with other filmmakers just as well known and revered as Scorsese is, “LIFE LESSONS” is an oft-overlooked gem within the director’s filmography. The piece’s focus on characters grappling with their own self-doubt about art is emotionally gripping—there’s a quiet drama in denying one’s inner voice for freedom and expression in favor of taking on a “rational”, non-creative occupation.
Scorsese’s own experience in this regard makes “LIFE LESSONS” all the more potent—one could easily see Nolte’s creative frustration as a fictional stand-in for Scorsese’s own soul-searching as his career collapsed around him in the mid-80’s.
Fresh off the controversial accomplishment of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese’s work on “LIFE LESSONS” serves as something of a palette cleanser and creative refresher that would lead directly into his next feature—a project that would come to be seen as a masterful capstone to his career and would enshrine his reputation as one of America’s foremost filmmakers.
Director Martin Scorsese had risen to prominence as a filmmaker primarily through his depiction of organized crime in the Italian American community in films like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973). Naturally, while he excelled at that sort of material, he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into only making those kinds of films.
Even as his national profile soared, Scorsese vowed to never make another mafia/organized crime film again—he had already said his piece on the matter, and there was an endless assortment of new stories to tell. However, during the production of 1986’s THE COLOR OF MONEY, Scorsese came across a book by Nicholas Pileggi called “Wise Guys”, which detailed the criminal exploits of Mafioso-turned-FBI-Informant Henry Hill.
Scorsese was fascinated by Pileggi’s authentic portrayal of life in the Mob from the perspective of the grunts on the street, and not as it was classically depicted and glorified in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972).
As a young boy growing up in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, Scorsese personally witnessed the good and the bad of the mobster lifestyle—an upbringing that made him especially suitable to bring Pileggi’s book to the screen. He enlisted Pileggi himself to collaborate on the screenplay, and reteamed with his regular producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina to set up the project with the biggest budget he had worked with to date (yet, still a modest one by mainstream Hollywood standards).
Scorsese may have reneged on his vow to never make another crime film, but the move would pay off in spades—the finished work, released in 1990 under the title GOODFELLAS— would become a seminal masterwork in the director’s career, and cement his legacy as one of cinema’s greatest artists.
GOODFELLAS tells the sprawling story of Henry Hill and his experience working for the Lucchese crime family in New York City and its surrounding suburbs from 1955-1980. Growing up as a half Irish, half Italian kid in Brooklyn, the young Hill finds himself fascinated by the lifestyle of the Italian gangsters that populate his neighborhood.
He volunteers himself to do small odd jobs for them, and is eventually taken in under the wing of local capo Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino), who teaches him how to exploit the system for quick, easy profit. As he grows into a young man, Henry finds himself in Paulie’s inner circle—amidst the likes of contemporaries like Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who become his closest friends and partners in crime.
They revel in the wealth that a life of crime affords them, building up homes and families of their very own. Not content having achieved the American Dream, however, they branch out into drugs and mistresses as if they were untouchable—a delusion that is coldly shattered when they kill Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), a made man from the rival Gambino crime family, in retribution for a petty slight.
Fearing that they might get whacked by some vengeful Gambinos, they bury their secret along with Batts’ body in the country, and turn to farther-fetched grabs for money and power. Conway orchestrates and successfully pulls off one of the biggest scores in New York history—the infamous Lufthansa Heist, netting him and his friends a cool six million.
Naturally, a quick influx of cash and a lifestyle suited towards the lavish spending of it doesn’t mix well when the authorities are watching your every move. As the weak links of his team begin to fray, Conway sets about silencing them permanently. Hill sees the writing on the wall, and decides to rat his former friends out to the FBI in exchange for his safety in the Witness Protection Program.
GOODFELLAS marks Scorsese’s first collaboration with Robert De Niro in eight years—the two hadn’t worked together since 1983’s divisive production of THE KING OF COMEDY, so De Niro’s presence here is a welcome, and long overdue, one. De Niro excels as James Conway, an Irish guy in an Italian world.
It’s a powerhouse performance, with Conway’s brutal and aggressive affectations perhaps driven by the frustration that no matter how close he gets to the Lucchese crime family, he will never be fully considered as one of their own. De Niro’s RAGING BULL co-star Joe Pesci also returns to Scorsese’s fold here as the explosively unpredictable Tommy DeVito, a small-time gangster with a nasty comic wit and an even nastier temper that would land Pesci the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
GOODFELLAS’ real revelation, however, is Ray Liotta as central protagonist Henry Hill. Liotta was born to play this role, that of a charmingly cavalier and somewhat narcissistic gangster. The film proved to be quite the career breakout for Liotta, and while he may have yet to transcend his work here, he has nonetheless enriched the art of cinema with a series of notable performances that live up to his initial promise.
GOODFELLAS’ supporting cast may not match the star power of De Niro, or even Pesci, but its members more than hold their own in memorable performances. Lorraine Bracco, who already had a longtime connection to Scorsese as Harvey Keitel’s partner and mother of his child, plays Henry Hill’s wife, Karen. She’s the antithesis of the archetypical Scorsese Blonde—she’s feisty, hotheaded, and very, very Jewish.
The film, like much of Scorsese’s other works, is a predominantly masculine affair, but Bracco’ willful, calculating performance sees her join in the proud tradition of headstrong, defiant Scorsese leading women. Paul Sorvino is perfectly cast as Henry’s father figure and revered criminal “Paulie” Cicero. He’s absolutely believable as a man who is at once both ferocious and gentle—a man who is not just respected, but feared.
Frank Vincent, who previously appeared in Scorsese’s RAGING BULL alongside De Niro and Pesci, plays the pivotal role of Billy Batts, a wise-talking, disrespectful ball-breaker from a rival crime family who winds up on the wrong end of our protagonists’ wrath. Two years before his breakout in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION, Samuel L. Jackson shows up in the minor role of Stacks Edwards, a member of the Lufthansa Heist crew and the first casualty in Jimmy Conway’s campaign to tie up loose ends.
Of course, GOODFELLAS wouldn’t be a true Scorsese film without an appearance by the director’s parents, and the film delivers rather memorably on that front. Mother Catherine appears in one of the best sequences of the film as Tommy DeVito’s doting mother, and father Charles shows up as a fellow inmate and cook in the spacious jail cell that Henry and Paulie occupy for several years.
GOODFELLAS marks the emergence of Scorsese’s late-era visual style, which combines flashy camerawork with an exhilarating pace, punctuated by French New-Wave-inspired techniques like jump cuts, freeze frames, extended tracking shots, whip-pans, and wall-to-wall source music.
The effect is very punk rock, and has served Scorsese considerably well from here to CASINO (1995), to THE DEPARTED (2006), and all the way to 2013’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. The vibrant energy of Scorsese’s visual style can be attributed to the strength of his collaborations with regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
The jumping off point for GOODFELLAS’ distinct presentation was Francois Truffaut’s seminal 1962 classic JULES AND JIM, which pioneered the dizzying mix of narration, quick cuts, freeze frame and location switches that GOODFELLAS concocts so effortlessly into an intoxicating Molotov cocktail.
The pace literally screams by, compacting years into minutes and further compacting the sequences themselves into exponentially tighter running times. By Henry Hill’s last day as a wise guy in 1980 (in a sequence which serves as perhaps the most effective depiction of a cocaine high in cinema), we feel like so much has already happened– but the momentum keeps building, threatening to careen out of control and spin off into space.
Scorsese and Schoonmaker charge into scenes like a gunshot—whip-panning, zooming, freeze framing, and “screaming in” with the mobility afforded by a Steadicam rig. Indeed, Scorsese makes excellent use of the Steadicam throughout GOODFELLAS, the most memorable instance of which is inarguably the extended tracking shot that follows Henry and Karen from the street outside the Copocabana club, through the back door and the twisting corridors, through the chaotic kitchen, and finally to their specially-reserved table right in front of the stage.
In that one shot, the allure and excitement of Henry’s chosen profession becomes immediately apparent. Scorsese’s unique approach proves just as effective in its subtleties, such as the observation that he frames his close-ups in such a way that other characters’ performances are incorporated into the frame—further reinforcing the film’s themes of family and community, while conveying the intimate nature of their relationships.
Scorsese also allows the characters to address the camera directly, inviting the audience into their world while implicating us in their crimes by association. One notable instance at the end of the film sees Henry Hill delivering his voiceover directly to camera, the first instance of a storytelling conceit that Scorsese would later explore in full in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.
Scorsese has been a key player in integrating rock and roll into the cinematic landscape, but GOODFELLAS goes above and beyond the concept of sourcing pre-existing records. The soundtrack is nearly wall-to-wall music, helping charge the narrative along while placing it in a proper cultural (and period-accurate) context. The mix Scorsese looks to is quite eclectic, ranging from big band performers like Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett, to jukebox mainstays like The Cadillacs and the Harptones, all the way to modern punk and rock.
GOODFELLAS makes especially potent use of The Rolling Stones’ iconic track “Gimme Shelter”, an anthem Scorsese would incorporate into several later works.
Simply put, GOODFELLAS is a sterling example of what constitutes “a Scorsese movie”. In addition to hitting all the requisite thematic beats, it is perhaps the best example of the classical Scorsese narrative archetype: the rise and fall of a member of a disenfranchised white minority (usually Italian or Irish) as they pursue the American Dream.
The aforementioned requisite thematic beats place GOODFELLAS squarely within Scorsese’s domain: examinations of Italian American immigrant culture, thugs and hoods as the protagonists, and explosively disorganized violence. He builds on his past use of internal voiceover—most effectively in MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER (1976)—by incorporating multiple points of view that show us characters and plot points from a different perspective (mostly Karen Hill’s).
Scorsese’s thorough knowledge of and affection for the history of cinema comes through in an unexpected, inspired moment at the film’s closing. Knowing that the general story beats of GOODFELLAS followed that of the classic silent film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), Scorsese decided to pay homage by emulating the latter’s final shot of a cowboy shooting directly at the camera, modernizing it with the image of Pesci in full gangster regalia doing the same.
In doing so, Scorsese manages to pay respect to the cinematic pioneers that had preceded him, even while furiously blazing new artistic trails all his own.
Any bit of behind the scenes footage or interviews one could watch for GOODFELLAS shows a cast and crew well aware of the fact that they were making an extremely special, once-in-a-lifetime film. Their collective hunch was validated whenGOODFELLAS premiered at the 1990 Venice Film Festival and Scorsese took home the Silver Lion for Best Director.
Big box office receipts and heaps of critical praise would greet the film when it was widely released, along with six nominations from the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director (Scorsese’s loss in the Director category is, to this day, still seen as an outrage). This immediate success wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan; GOODFELLAS has seen remarkable staying power in the years since its release.
Its influence is immediately apparent in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997), or anything Quentin Tarantino made in the 90’s. It went on to directly inspire David Chase’s THE SOPRANOS, which would itself serve as a watershed moment in the television medium– the full effects of which are still unfolding today.
The film would also be inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2000, its very first year of eligibility. Many film buffs have come to see GOODFELLAS as the apex of Scorsese’s talent, with the more cynical among them seeing his eventual Oscar win for THE DEPARTED as an apology for the Academy’s oversight here.
GOODFELLAS is consistently ranked among the very top of the best crime and gangster films of all time, locked in a constant duel with Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (or its sequel). For Scorsese himself, the film’s widespread success would mean a return to directorial glory and the beginning of a new, prestigious act in his career—one in which he would work as a world-recognized master of the medium and the preeminent cinematic chronicler of the American experience.
MADE IN MILAN (1990)
The same year that director Martin Scorsese released his crime epic GOODFELLAS to worldwide acclaim, he also released a short documentary work shot in Milan, Italy called (appropriately) MADE IN MILAN (1990). The latest installment in a series of documentaries about people that captured Scorsese’s interest, the short showcases high-fashion icon Giorgio Armani as its subject.
As the film unspools, Armani talks about his influences and his passions, as well as his philosophy towards his craft. Armani is shown to be a consummate artist, with a laser-like attention to detail and an intimate sense of connection with every single aspect of his work. Unlike the profession in which he works, Armani comes off as very modest and unpretentious—a man who values refined simplicity over exhibitionism.
Shot by Scorsese’s NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS” (1989) cinematographer Nestor Almendros, MADE IN MILANis very artful and expressionistic in presentation. Many of its visual techniques foreshadow the ubiquitous style of current fashion films—while they’re rooted firmly in the 90’s, Armani’s draping, baggy designs could pass for what you would see on the street in 2015.
Scorsese continues his employment of the Steadicam rig to give the film a nonstop, elegant sense of motion. The camera glides through iconic Milanese landmarks like The Duomo, as well as quaint, tucked-away avenues, eventually transporting us to Armani’s offices. The roaming exploration of the baroque architecture of Armani’s office combines with the designer’s reflective voiceover to create an evocative mood reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).
When the action shifts to the runway, Scorsese trades in the classical, Old-World look for a stark, modern feel that contrasts the pitch-blackness of the audience and the pure glowing white of the runway stage with the neutral tones of Armani’s clothing designs. Working once again with regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese punctuates the naturalistic aesthetic of the documentary format with expressionistic touches like slow motion shots and subjects breaking the fourth wall.
Composer Howard Shore builds upon said expressionism with a score that infuses a traditional Italian folk sound with a sense of brooding intrigue, as well as the rhythmic pounding of tribal drums during the runway sequence. The drums themselves seem to reference mankind’s ability to continually reinvent a technology (clothing) that’s been around for thousands of years.
MADE IN MILAN stays consistent with Scorsese’s career-long exploration of his Italian heritage, marking the first time in which he travels directly to his homeland to document his people’s traditions with fashion, family, and food—free from any American influence.
Technical signatures, like extended tracking shots and the exposure of the filmmaking craft within the piece itself mark the presence of Scorsese’s artistic vision, even going so far as to turn the camera around on the crew at one point and reveal Scorsese along with his producer Barbara De Fina and writer Jay Cocks. As a short documentary, MADE IN MILAN doesn’t particularly lend itself towards personal artistic growth for Scorsese, but it rather quietly announces a major milestone in his career—his ascension as an equal to cultural tastemakers on the world stage.
CAPE FEAR (1991)
For just over twenty years, director Martin Scorsese had consistently achieved something rather remarkable for an artist in his field— the development and realization of original ideas and passion projects. Outside of BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) and maybe ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974), the bulk of Scorsese’s output up until 1990 had stemmed from original visions or properties he was passionate about.
The runaway success of 1990’s GOODFELLAS—still regarded today as perhaps his finest film—gave him the opportunity to continue making the movies he wanted to make, but there was just one little snag. In order to get his longtime passion project THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST financed in 1988, Scorsese had agreed to direct an additional, more-commercial film for Universal Pictures at some point in the future. When they saw GOODFELLAS’ success, Universal decided it was time to collect.
The film that arose from this agreement (one could call it a deal with the devil) was 1991’s CAPE FEAR, a remake of the 1962 classic film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. The new version had been in development for quite some time, with a script written by Wesley Strick and overseen by super-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
Originally, CAPE FEAR was to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but Scorsese’s association with Spielberg and the larger generation of Film Brats led to the two men orchestrating a switch for the respective projects they were attached to: CAPE FEAR for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993). Let that sink in for a moment—we came this close to a Scorsese-directed SCHINDLER’S LIST.
It was thus that Scorsese found himself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, directing his first mainstream thriller– a move that would exhibit his flair for thrilling narrative while giving him the wide berth he needed to explore uncharted territory.
CAPE FEAR is a story about violation, intrusion, and redemption set in the idyllic vacation town of New Essex, North Carolina. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a successful, respected lawyer who has recently relocated his family here in a bid to make a new start after his infidelities nearly destroyed his marriage.
However, Sam finds that his past has followed him into his new life in the form of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a former client of Sam’s and an illiterate serial rapist. Fifteen years before, Sam had sold Cady out to the jury instead of defending him—a betrayal motivated by his utter disgust with Cady’s transgressions. Cady is now a free man, having spent his time in prison boning up on law books and the bible.
He makes his presence known to Sam, lurking on the edge of his property and always in his periphery in public. As Sam and his family rail against Cady’s cultivated climate of dread and fear, Cady becomes even more vicious and reveals his murderous intent. With the lives of him and his family now put on trial, Sam must contend with a purified force of true evil.
CAPE FEAR is a showcase for De Niro’s darkest impulses as an actor, and his longtime collaborative relationship with Scorsese allows him to go deeper and farther than ever before.
His Oscar-nominated iteration of Max Cady is a far cry from Mitchum’s original portrayal, decorating himself with ominous religious tattoos that hint at his Pentecostal fanaticism and hiding his slithery, pedophilic nature behind an almost-friendly Southern drawl. It may not be De Niro’s most powerful performance, but it lingers in the mind as a personification of some primal evil archetype lurking along the fringes of our subconscious.
Nolte also benefits from a prior collaboration with Scorsese (1989’s NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS”), with their personal familiarity giving Nolte the confidence to channel the driving fire underneath the mild-mannered, WASP-y character of Sam Bowden. Jessica Lange plays Bowden’s wife, Leigh, as a strong-willed woman who refuses to become a victim either to Cady’s campaign of terror or her husband’s unfaithful nature.
And then there’s 90’s indie queen Juliette Lewis, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as fifteen year-old Danielle Bowden– Sam’s pouty, rebellious daughter who finds herself turned on by Cady’s dark charisma.
Scorsese’s supporting cast features some surprising faces, such as Joe Don Baker (better known for his appearances in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films) as private investigator Claude Kersek. Illeana Douglas, a bit actor in Scorsese’s “LIFE LESSONS” as well as GOODFELLAS, plays Lori Davis, an emotional mistress of sorts for Sam and one of Cady’s victims.
In a pleasantly surprising move, Scorsese also casts the two leads of the 1961 CAPE FEAR in supporting cameos. Mitchum plays Lt. Elgart, an elderly, dignified police captain, and Gregory Peck (in his final film appearance) plays Cady’s lawyer Lee Heller— a performance that’s reminiscent of something like Atticus Finch’s evil twin.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Freddie Francis, Scorsese gives CAPE FEAR the distinctive aura of the Southern Gothic subgenre—taking his tonal cues from Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), the seminal hallmark of that particular style (which also starred Mitchum, funnily enough).
Right off the bat, CAPE FEARdeparts from Scorsese’s established aesthetic in that it’s shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. As a student of film history, Scorsese had always admired the panoramic vistas afforded by a wider canvas, but he refrained from using it in his own work simply because he didn’t like the fact that he would have to compromise his original framing when performing the pan-and-scan transfer for the home video market.
He decided to adopt the anamorphic ratio for CAPE FEAR partly out of an eager optimism that true widescreen video presentations were just around the corner. Of course, this didn’t come to pass and his nightmares were realized when he had to chop up the film to fit our square television sets.
As a mainstream studio thriller, CAPE FEAR benefits from a lavish, big-budget look that builds on classical filmmaking tropes popularized by old school masters like Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, CAPE FEAR plays like the best film that Hitchcock never made, with Scorsese using bold, sweeping camera movements and theatrical stage lighting to add scope and grandeur to the story.
Scorsese even steals Hitchcock’s closest collaborators, like iconic titles designer Saul Bass and composer Bernard Herrman (or rather, Herrman’s music reworked by Elmer Bernstein). Despite his desire to emulate the style of old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking, Scorsese still injects his own dynamic aesthetic into CAPE FEAR’s veins.
He utilizes a chaotic, dizzying mix of canted camera angles, whip-pans, rack zooms, split-focus diopter compositions, and even his signature “scream-in” shots—all assembled by regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker into a coherent (if delirious) whole. The overall effect is one of Scorsese adding his own particular brand to a familiar property while still being respectful to the original film’s legacy. If you’re going to remake a movie, this is how you do it, folks.
Color plays an important part in the visual storytelling of CAPE FEAR. The 1962 original was presented in black and white, and while the use of color in the remake is a no-brainer, Scorsese actually manages to justify its use as a storytelling tool that actually enhances the narrative. Bowden’s life is rendered in large, impersonal swaths of beige, pastels, and neutral tones—this is a man who doesn’t want to make a fuss, happy to live out a quiet life in relative anonymity.
By contrast, De Niro wears screamingly bold colors, with his blood red Hawaiian shirt and muscle car acting as particularly effective agents of aggression. In another nod to Hitchcock, Scorsese repeatedly makes lurid use of expressionistic blocks of color that bloom to envelope the frame, acting as a propulsive pulse that shifts the colors into black and white or even negative.
This creative use of color points to Scorsese’s genius as an artist and a storyteller—a lesser filmmaker would simply update an old black and white movie to color for the sheer sake of modernity, without giving it a proper justification in the first place.
As previously mentioned, Scorsese uses Bernard Herrman’s original 1962 score for CAPE FEAR to sell the old-school vibe of his modern-day update. Herrman’s disciple Elmer Bernstein reworks, re-arranges, and re-orchestrates the late composer’s work, even including portions of his unused score for Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (1966).
The score is iconic for its orchestral, brassy sound, and Scorsese knows not to mess with a good thing. Nevertheless, he does manage to find a few instances to include his own musical tastes, incorporating some opera as well as R&B into the soundtrack when characters play music on-screen.
In translating the story of CAPE FEAR to modern day sensibilities, Scorsese turns to his signature thematic fascinations in a bid to inject complexity and nuance. Scorsese’s take is less of a good vs. evil/hunter vs. prey parable than it is a meditation on machismo and power dynamics—comparing and contrasting the raw, unhinged masculinity of Max Cady with the quiet, disciplined masculinity required by Bowden’s existence as a father and husband.
The iconography and dogma of Christianity is quite prevalent as well, except in this case it takes on a particularly perverted brand of Pentecostal belief instead of the director’s own Roman Catholicism. De Niro sports a giant crucifix tattoo across his back, with the rest of his body covered in various passages from the Bible. Indeed, De Niro’s Cady seems able to call up any passage from the bible at will, entirely from memory.
Of course, he’s able to pervert those same passages for his own twisted means, giving him a deluded sense of righteousness that justifies his quest to punish Sam Bowden for the wrongs done to him. Scorsese’s use of the institution of cinema as an everyday part of his characters’ lives also sees an appearance here, with Cady and Bowden first crossing ill-fated paths during a movie screening.
And finally, other aspects of the presentation like characters breaking the fourth wall to gaze directly into the camera and messy, unpredictable displays of violence further point to Scorsese’s guiding stewardship and influence.
CAPE FEAR occupies a strange place within Scorsese’s body of work—it is lost in a sea of far superior films from the director, but for a long time, it stood as his most commercially successful work in terms of box office numbers. It also marks Scorsese’s first experience with optical effects, like matte paintings and blue screen replacement.
His confidence with visual effects would grow with each film, to the point where his most recent films make copious use of computer-generated effects and digital backdrops (for better or worse). Now, over two decades removed from the film’s release, CAPE FEAR holds up as a strong, albeit minor work in Scorsese’s filmography.
As an excursion into genre-oriented filmmaking (and a genre Scorsese was previously unfamiliar with, to that end), CAPE FEAR proves itself as an effective foray into the heart of darkness found buried at the bottom of each and every man.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
Director Martin Scorsese is best known for his cinematic depictions of New York City and its varied inhabitants.
Most of the time, these explorations are filtered through the prism of the contemporary Italian American experience, so when it was announced that Scorsese’s follow-up to the commercially successful CAPE FEAR (1992) would be an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”—a novel about forbidden love in the elite social circles of Victorian-era Manhattan– many were left scratching their heads as to why a director so prized for his skill with visceral on-screen carnage and foul-mouthed, thuggish characters would want to take on a stuffy chamber drama.
To his credit, Scorsese (along with co-screenwriter Jay Cocks and regular producer Barbara De Fina) manages to bring a sense of immediacy and devastating emotion to THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993) while expanding his own repertoire of New York-centric stories. Unlike CAPE FEAR, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE didn’t perform well at the box office, but it has managed to hold up as one of the finer, more-underrated films in his canon of work.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE takes place in nineteenth-century era New York City, complemented by brief detours into Paris, London and Manhattan’s eternal rival: Boston. Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) is a wealthy lawyer navigating New York’s elite social scene.
He’s recently become engaged to young socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder), but his feelings are complicated by the unexpected arrival of May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) from Europe. The Countess is having trouble integrating into New York society, on account of her failed marriage staining her dignity in the eyes of the Gotham elite.
Newland agrees to represent her in her bid for a divorce, only to fall helplessly in lust with her. While it is eventually consummated, their affair is one carried out from afar, yearning longingly across vast distances and societal constraints. All the while, a narrator styled in the literary vein of Wharton herself gives context to the events, filling out the world with some much-needed exposition.
Through it all, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE arises not as a love story, but a story about the specter of love when it goes unfulfilled, as well as the haunting, lingering nature of heartbreak.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE makes a clean break in terms of Scorsese’s gallery of recurring performers. Besides the absence of the obvious like Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel, Scorsese doesn’t even see fit to include smaller favorites like Victor Argo or Verna Bloom. Instead, he opts to work with an entirely new ensemble of actors, headlined by the inimitable Daniel Day Lewis as the distinguished, yet conflicted protagonist.
Caught between his emotions and a society that frowns upon them, Day Lewis is incredibly effective in his first performance for Scorsese. Day Lewis does not have a habit of working with the same director more than once, so his explosively iconic reunion with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK a decade later is a testament to the strength of their collaboration here.
As the Countess Ellen Olenska, Michelle Pfeiffer channels the effortless cool and aloof-ness of the Scorsese blonde archetype. Winona Ryder ably rounds out the third corner of the central love triangle as Newland’s innocent and demure (but most definitely not oblivious) fiancé/wife May Welland. Scorsese himself shows up briefly in a nonspeaking cameo as the wedding photographer. The performances in THE AGE OF INNOCENCEare effective enough, struggling valiantly against the unwieldy, formal vernacular of the time.
Though Scorsese may be working with an entirely new set of actors in front of the camera, his key collaborators behind it are quite familiar indeed. Having sat out the cinematographer’s chair on CAPE FEAR, Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus returns to lens THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.
Once again shooting in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, Scorsese and Ballhaus imbue the otherwise-stuffy, staid Victorian chamber drama style with New Wave-inspired camerawork and compositions that subvert the formalized nature of the subject matter. The dynamic camera injects a great deal of life into the picture, using a frenzied (yet always motivated) variety of dolly, steadicam and crane moves.
The straightforward, realistic presentation is given expressionistic flourish with picturesque matte painting backgrounds, theatrical stage-lighting setups (like an instance that dims the practical lights to focus on Newland), and the recurring use of crossfades and superimpositions to gracefully bridge each of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s cuts to the next.
Legendary titles designer Saul Bass, who first worked with Scorsese on the opening titles to CAPE FEAR, returns to render THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s opening with a simplistic design that juxtaposes blooming flowers over lace textures meant to echo the film’s themes of passionate love being boxed in by societal constraints and expectations.
Finally, Elmer Bernstein, who reworked Bernard Herrman’s CAPE FEAR score for Scorsese’s remake, jumps at the chance to create wholly original music as the composer for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Bernstein’s lush, romantic score is quite fitting for a period costume drama, dovetailing quite nicely with Scorsese’s use of pre-existing, era-authentic march and waltz songs.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is about as far as it gets from other, career-defining Scorsese works like TAXI DRIVER (1976) or GOODFELLAS (1990), but the film fits into the director’s overall aesthetic in several unexpected ways. On a technical level, Scorsese uses recurring visual tropes like extended track shots (see the scene where Day Lewis walks us through a grand ballroom and its surrounding parlors), silent film-era iris shots, and actors breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to camera.
Thematically, there’s the afore-mentioned Scorsese blonde character archetype—framed here (as in his earlier works) as the seductress that temps our male protagonist away from the brunette he’s currently involved with. One can draw several lines of similarity between Scorsese’s depiction of nineteen century New York WASPs and twentieth century Italian American immigrants: for instance, dinners are presented as large social events, and opera plays a large role in the entertainment culture.
As Scorsese’s expansion into the uncharted waters of the unfamiliar costume drama genre, THE AGE OF INNOCENCEpresents compelling insights into a culture and society that the filmmaker admittedly didn’t have much firsthand experience with growing up.
The film is something of a companion piece to Scorsese’s other Day Lewis-starring work about 1800’s-era New York, GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), in that it shows the trials and tribulations of Manhattan’s elite social circles (while GANGS OF NEW YORK took on the perspective of the street people who envied them).
While decidedly not a commercial success, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE was modestly successful on a critical level, resulting in an Oscar for Best Costume Design. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s real impact on Scorsese’s career, however, would be its status as the film on which Scorsese was working when his beloved father, Charles Scorsese, died.
The elder Scorsese had made several cameos in his son’s work over the decades, and his passing was marked with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’s dedication to his memory during the closing credits. For all of its mediocrity as a box office draw, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE has shown remarkable resilience in the years since—stubbornly refusing to be swept under the rug by its maker’s more famous, successful works.
There’s a reason that Scorsese considers THE AGE OF INNOCENCE to be his most “violent” film– it’s a stunning look into the emotional inhumanity and carnage that even the most well-heeled and extensively educated people are capable of inflicting on each other.
A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995)
One of the many defining characteristics of the Film Brat generation of filmmakers is their inherent affection and thorough knowledge of the medium. They were second-generation artists, the spiritual successors to early pioneers like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, DW Griffith, King Vidor, and several others.
They were born after the language and conventions of cinema had been firmly established, which meant that the very nature of their own roles in the medium needed to question and rebel against those very foundations. In order to do so effectively, they naturally would have to be well versed in the medium’s history, major works, and key players.
This cinematic literacy is common amongst the second-generation of filmmakers, the first to benefit from a formalized film education—but of all those directors, none were as arguably immersed in the art of cinema than Martin Scorsese. As a sickly child barred from outdoor activities, the majority of Scorsese’s formative years were spent in movie theatres voraciously consuming anything and everything that was released.
Scorsese’s work is littered with references, homages, and techniques gleaned from his influences, and in 1995, he decided to pay tribute to his cinematic forefathers with the feature-length documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES.
Produced by the British Film Institute and aired in three parts on the UK’S Channel 14, A PERSONAL JOURNEY unfolds over the course of three and a half hours (!) in a series of on-camera interviews and film clips. Scorsese plays host and narrator, framing the role of the director as that of a storyteller, an illusionist, a smuggler, and an iconoclast engaged in an eternal push and pull against the studio.
Through this framework, he presents a survey of the art form’s development from its birth to around 1969: the early silent works, the transition to sound and color, and finally the advent of Cinemascope. He focuses acutely on the genres that shaped him directly—the western, the gangster picture, and the musical—and spends a significant amount of time charting the growth and development of those genres.
Further solidifying his social connection to the Film Brat community of directors, Scorsese sees fit to throw in filmed interviews featuring George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Clint Eastwood, along with older filmmakers like Arthur Penn, Billy Wilder and Samuel Fuller. There’s even an appearance by Scorsese’s own personal mentor, indie pioneer John Cassavetes.
Because A PERSONAL JOURNEY is mostly comprised of pre-existing film clips, there is very little original material besides interviews that had to be generated. To this end, the film employs a combination of three cinematographers: Jean-Yves Escoffier, Frances Reid and Nancy Schreiber.
Despite the presence of new cinematographers and a new producer in Florence Dauman, Scorsese surrounds himself with familiar collaborators like Thelma Schoonmaker (overseeing an edit by Kenneth Levis and David Lindbom), Saul Bass (turning in a series of minimalistic, hand-drawn intertitles), and Elmer Bernstein (composing a quietly nostalgic, piano-based score).
However, it’s not just the returning collaborators that mark A PERSONAL JOURNEY as an inherently “Scorsese” work—his signature is evident in the documentary’s fundamental conceit of celebrating America’s major role in the medium of cinema.
Scorsese’s presentation is informed by a lifelong passion for movies, and as the narrator/host, he is able to penetrate the fourth wall and address the audience directly in his bid to reiterate the importance of our filmic legacy. One very interesting anecdote finds Scorsese describing one of the very first films he ever saw in a theater, King Vidor’s DUEL IN THE SUN(1946)—an epic western starring Gregory Peck—as a revelatory experience in the range of narrative that cinema was capable of telling.
This observation is all the more poignant knowing that Peck himself would later make his last film appearance in Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR (1991).
Anyone with a self-described love for cinema or Scorsese’s artistry owes it to their selves to watch A PERSONAL JOURNEY. It’s an exceedingly intimate portrait of Scorsese and his artistic worldview as informed by those who preceded him, and his refusal to comment on his own work or those of his contemporaries in the context of the documentary points to a fundamental respect and dignity that is sorely missing from most working directors today.
In its decision to focus exclusively on American cinema and its development, A PERSONAL JOURNEY barely scratches the surfaces of the wider story of film—but at three and a half hours long, it’s clear to see that Scorsese’s focus, while narrow, is exceedingly thorough and endlessly informative. With the completion of A PERSONAL JOURNEY, Scorsese doesn’t just take another step in his personal development as a documentary filmmaker, he establishes himself as America’s pre-eminent film historian and the guardian of its legacy to the world.
Director Martin Scorsese’s collaboration with author Nicholas Pileggi on GOODFELLAS (1990) led to arguably the biggest success of either man’s careers. Their shared affinity and thorough knowledge of Italian American culture as focused through the prism of organized crime created one of the best films of the 1990’s.
So when Scorsese heard that Pileggi was sniffing around a story on the golden heyday of Las Vegas and the mafiosos who ran it, a second collaboration seemed inevitable. The project was inspired by a newspaper article about a car bombing that nearly claimed the life of Stardust Casino boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal— an event which was only the latest salvo in a long-standing war between the organized crime families that ran Las Vegas.
Before Pileggi could finish his non-fiction book on the subject, Scorsese already had him collaborating on a screenplay that would serve as something of a spiritual sequel to GOODFELLAS. While CASINO isn’t quite the runaway success that GOODFELLAS was, it nevertheless stands apart as its own triumph and ranks amongst Scorsese’s very best work.
CASINO depicts the freewheeling golden days of Las Vegas, circa 1973-1983—before the corporations took over the Strip and turned it into a family-friendly Disneyland in the desert. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) runs the fictional Tangiers casino (realized in the film via The Riviera) like a mayor runs a town, overseeing all aspects and making himself highly visible and available to his employees.
Bequeathed this post by his mob associates back home in Chicago, Ace finds he has a real knack for the business, and CASINO follows his meteoric rise in a culture defined by excess and pleasure. Despite all his wealth and the ability to buy anything he’s ever wanted, there’s one thing he just can’t seem to have—love.
He marries blond bombshell Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) knowing full well she doesn’t love him, but that doesn’t stop him from hoping she might one day grow to love him back. Unfortunately for him, Ginger only cares about herself, her jewels, and her money. As Ace’s American Dream turns into disillusionment, his ties with the Powers That Be back home sours as his relationship to their local figurehead, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) begins to fray against a barrage of deceit and treachery.
As Ace struggles with the realization that his golden days are behind him, he finds that not only is his ownership of the Tangiers on the line– so is his life.
Scorsese and De Niro had come up together through the decades, forming a mutually beneficial symbiosis that propelled both men to the forefront of their craft. As of this writing, CASINO would serve as their last collaboration together, and while De Niro’s performance as “Ace” Rothstein might not match the iconic status of Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, he nonetheless hits it out of the park as a ruthlessly determined and savvy casino boss.
His low-key, non-flashy personality is offset by a flamboyant sense of style, and his Jewish nature sets him apart from the Mafioso types that surround him. Sharon Stone was nominated for an Academy Award for her unhinged performance as Ace’s wife, Ginger— a woman who initially strikes us as glamorous and confidently rebellious, but grows increasingly more manipulative and vindictive as the years pass.
Joe Pesci, in his third and final collaboration with Scorsese, plays the unpredictably explosive east coast transplant Nicky Santoro. Despite playing a character archetype quite similar to his role in GOODFELLAS, Pesci turns Nicky Santoro into an altogether different animal—a loose cannon with a pinpoint laser focus.
CASINO’s supporting cast is an inspired mix of eclectic actors and actresses, led by James Woods as the gloriously sleazy Lester Diamond, a smalltime pimp and Ginger’s longtime love interest. Woods effortlessly affects a low-class sleaze and poor taste that conveys how broke he truly is. Comedian Don Rickles plays Billy Sherbet, the affable Tangiers floor manager and Ace’s right hand man.
Scorsese stalwart Frank Vincent plays Frank Marino, a lackey of Pesci’s who betrays him quite brutally in the film’s denouement. Finally, there’s Scorsese mother Catherine in the latest of a long string of cameos, playing a mother to a mob boss operating a Kansas grocery store. Her comedic chops are on full display, hilariously prickling at her son’s constant profanity and verbal tirades like only a strong, no-bullshit Italian mother can.
CASINO’s visual style can be summed up in one word: excess. Scorsese takes the kinetic, roaring style he established in GOODFELLAS and amps it into overdrive. Every aspect of the film– the camerawork, the music, the lighting, the voiceover narration featuring multiple perspectives, even the costumes– are taken to their outermost limits (the costume budget alone was reportedly one million dollars).
Scorsese’s regular cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus was unavailable to work on CASINO, so instead the director turned to first-time collaborator, Robert Richardson, who Scorsese had previously known for his work shooting the films of Oliver Stone (a student of Scorsese’s from his side gig teaching film at New York University).
Richardson has since gone on to lens several further Scorsese works and become a regular collaborator akin to Ballhaus, a fact that’s evidenced by the strong work on display in CASINO. Shooting on Super35mm film and once again in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, Scorsese and Richardson render the world of Las Vegas in lurid, glowing neon and gaudy, twinkling lights.
Like GOODFELLAS before it, Scorsese utilizes dynamic, virtuoso camerawork to give his story a screaming pace and slick sense of motion. By this point, Scorsese has distilled his style into an eclectic mix of crane shots, steadicam moves, whip-pans, canted angles, freeze frames, speed ramps, iris shots, split-focus diopter compositions, and his signature “scream-in” technique (in addition to the new usage of grandiose helicopter-mounted shots).
CASINO is less of a film with linear scenes conveying plot than it is one long montage encompassing a decade of high times and bad behavior, and regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly puts every little piece in just the right place, making sense out of what must’ve been an incomprehensible jumble of dailies and fashioning it into the definitive Las Vegas film.
Iconic titles designer Saul Bass also returns, creating an unforgettable opening credits sequence that alludes to Ace’s narrative arc as a swift free fall into the fiery depths of hell.
With CASINO, Scorsese’s career-long habit of peppering the soundtracks to his films with preexisting rock, blues, and jukebox hits is dialed up to an unprecedented degree. The aforementioned excessive style that Scorsese is after translates to a nonstop string of wall-to-wall music. While some might this call this indulgent, it’s a choice that fits right in line with the world he’s depicting onscreen.
Because he has to cover a decade’s worth of story in just under three hours, Scorsese adopts the conventions of montage and applies them on a macro scale. The constant, ADD-style switchover to various rock, blues, jazz, country, and even operatic classical tracks communicates the passage of time as well as the characters’ dizzying, fast-paced lifestyle quite efficiently.
The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” is emphasized quite heavily in the narrative as a musical allegory for the dangers of a life lived in vice, but Scorsese also channels the spirit and character of Las Vegas itself through the use of tracks from Frank Sinatra and other members of The Rat Pack.
And of course, a Scorsese film wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by The Rolling Stones, and several of their tracks make it into CASINO—including “Gimme Shelter”, which had previously been used in GOODFELLAS and has become something of a theme song for Scorsese’s work itself.
Like GOODFELLAS before it, CASINO is seen as one of Scorsese’s most archetypically “Scorsese” films. This is thanks to the narrative’s “rise and fall” format, which in the context of Scorsese’s body of work takes the form of Italian-American lowlifes and hoods as the protagonists, trying to achieve a materialistic version of The American Dream through illicit criminal means.
While they succeed for a while, they are forced to watch their hard work implode around them in a frenzied fit of chaotic violence, domestic treachery, and legal consequences. When it comes to the depiction of essential components of this lifestyle—excessive profanity, nudity and violence—Scorsese doesn’t shy away from their hard R-rated portrayal, yet he doesn’t sensationalize it either.
To these characters, delivering a lead slug to the back of some schmuck’s skull is as everyday and routine as fetching the paper or making a pot of coffee. Some of Scorsese’s other identifiable tropes– like the archetype of the blonde bombshell/femme fatale– are exaggerated to an over-the-top degree, while others—Roman Catholic imagery and dogma—are relegated to mere cameo appearances.
If GOODFELLAS was the height of what might be considered a “Scorsese” movie, then CASINO’s highly exaggerated, almost-absurd appropriation of that same aesthetic could be considered a parody (despite its pitch-black seriousness).
This sense of indulgence on all fronts might be why CASINO isn’t held in the same regard as its sister film GOODFELLAS, but it doesn’t make it any less important to Scorsese’s body of work. Much like TAXI DRIVER is a document of the seedy decay of Times Square before Giuliani turned it into a corporate tourist trap, so to does CASINO preserve the character of a Las Vegas that no longer exists—a haven for sin and vice that was paved over to make way for one big family-friendly amusement park.
CASINO ends with the demolition of several of Old Las Vegas’ most iconic landmarks, marking the end of an era. In some ways, it was also the end of an era for Scorsese himself: CASINO would serve (as of this writing) as the director and De Niro’s last collaboration together—a collaboration that lasted nearly thirty years and gave us eight unforgettable performances that would define both men’s careers.
Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Jimmy Conway, Max Cady, and Ace Rothstein loom large in the collective cinematic psyche, each one a testament to the extraordinary relationship between director and actor.
While Scorsese has tried to recapture that magic in recent days with Leonardo DiCaprio and found success, their collaboration will always pale in comparison to his works with De Niro.
Both men are still alive and still actively working, and as such could easily get together once again and give us yet another iconic character, but perhaps it’s best that they stopped here with CASINO. Filmmaking, like gambling, is a game of both skill and chance—a triumphant outcome is never guaranteed, no matter how good you are at counting cards or framing up shots.
With CASINO, Scorsese and De Niro had come out ahead with a jackpot of creative fortune, and now perhaps the time had come to triumphantly cash out.
By the mid 1990’s, Martin Scorsese was well into his third decade as a successful filmmaker. After a long career spent as a chronicler of inherently American stories and worldviews, Scorsese now found himself on the world stage as a major voice in international cinema. This development would explain why, sometime in the mid-90’s, Scorsese sat down to dinner with Harrison Ford, his wife Melissa Mathison, and the Dalai Lama.
Mathison had written a script about the Dalai Lama’s life and his rise to prominence during a very tumultuous period in Chinese and Tibetan history, and she was convinced that Scorsese was the right person to put her vision on the screen. Scorsese was understandably skeptical— he was an asthmatic Italian Catholic kid from New York, how could be possibly be the right guy for this job?
Over the course of that dinner, however, Scorsese was inspired by the Dalai Lama’s gentle courageousness and began to see the project as something of a non-denominational prayer; an act of worship that strove to connect with the shared experiences of all humanity. So it was that Scorsese teamed up once again with producing partner and ex-wife Barbara De Fina and followed up CASINO’s (1995) rollicking tale of sin and excess with a paean to peace and modesty—1997’s KUNDUN.
Because Scorsese and company were not allowed to enter Tibet as a shooting locale, the production returned to Morocco—the site of filming for 1988’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST— as a substitute for the dramatic vistas of both Tibet and China. KUNDUN (the Dalai Lama’s alternative name and the Tibetan word for “presence”) charts the course of the Dalai Lama’s formative years during 1937-1959, a time of great social change and upheaval.
Eschewing traditional narrative structure, Scorsese presents the story as an episodic tapestry: he shows us Kundun’s discovery as a baby in a village located along the Chinese border, a childhood spent grappling with his preordained fate and duties, and his rise to power as a leader of the Tibetan people.
The key conflict in KUNDUN is the Dalai Lama’s struggle against the invading Communist forces, which have just emerged victorious from the Chinese Revolution and want to claim Tibet as its own while assimilating Tibetans into their atheistic culture.
Kundun meets with with Chairman Mao Zedong to find a peaceful resolution, but it becomes increasingly clear that not only do the Chinese have no intention of compromise, but they also have no qualms about killing him if that’s what it takes. In order to continue leading his people, Kundun must leave his native land and secretly smuggle himself out of Tibet and into India.
KUNDUN is notable within Scorsese’s body of work in that it represents a total departure from the director’s stable of regular collaborators. The cast is populated by real Tibetans—not a single American actor shows up. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, the real-life grandnephew to the Dalai Lama, plays his grand-uncle as a quiet, compassionate man who is resolutely steadfast in his convictions.
The character is a very unconventional protagonist for Scorsese to explore—in the absence of a character arc, Kundun emerges instead as the personification of human ideals about faith and grace. Because Scorsese chooses to portray the antagonistic Chinese forces as more of an unseen force, Robert Lin downplays the role of Chairman Mao Zedong into something more resembling an effete Saturday Night Live sketch instead of a nuanced portrayal.
Just as Scorsese is working with an entirely new set of faces in front of the camera, so too does he recruit a new key behind-the-scenes collaborator in the form of venerated cinematographer Roger Deakins. The first thing that strikes me about the visual presentation of KUNDUN is just how lush and gorgeous it is.
The film is awash in bold, brilliant reds and yellows (and to a lesser extent, blues). Deakins’ strengths with natural light are a key factor here, but so too is Scorsese’s decision to compose his anamorphic 2.35:1 frame as if it were a Western film. Scorsese was profoundly influenced by the genre in his youth, and KUNDUN serves as a chance to emulate that style of filmmaking.
As such, Scorsese often frames his subjects as small figures (on horseback too, naturally) against dramatic vistas and landscapes. The camerawork reflects this aesthetic choice, adding a sweeping sense of scope with inspired dolly, crane, and helicopter shots. Famous for his hyperkinetic camerawork, Scorsese surprisingly employs a fairly reserved sense of movement, allowing a lyrical presentation style to generate the requisite energy instead.
Working once again with regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese departs from his blunt, rough-around-the-edges editing aesthetic. Perhaps inspired by the visual motif of colored sand arranged in intricate patterns that recurs throughout the film, Scorsese and Schoonmaker fashion a refined edit that makes extensive use of dreamlike crossfades and expressionistic cross-cutting reminiscent of the French New Wave.
Combined with several slow motion shots that highlight the graceful beauty of movement, KUNDUN comes off as the most lyrical, poetic work Scorsese has ever accomplished.
Revered minimalist Philip Glass provides KUNDUN’s score, rendering his signature staccato/legato hybrid style in an appropriate mix of Eastern-influenced strings, gongs, and chants. The music flows like a coursing river through Scorsese’s vignettes, connecting each moment together into the grand flow of time while giving each story beat a poignant resonance.
On its surface, KUNDUN seems like a film extremely disconnected from Scorsese’s body of work, to the point that Scorsese himself initially questioned why he should become involved. However, KUNDUN actually dovetails quite harmoniously with Scorsese’s career-long thematic fascinations.
Grappling with religion and faith has always been an essential component of Scorsese’s work, and KUNDUN couches that search in the context of Eastern philosophies like reincarnation. Atheism is also tackled, with Chairman Mao’s line, “religion is poison”, given significant emotional weight as the yin to Kundun’s yang.
KUNDUN’s dramatics hinge entirely on this dichotomy of an ancient culture clashing with the rapid modernity of the 20thcentury, or in other words, a war of the Enlightened between religion and science. The friction caused by this collision of mismatched ideals is reminiscent of Scorsese’s prior portraits of old-world Italian culture—a culture steeped in tradition and ritual—butting up against the materialistic ideals of modern America.
Additionally, KUNDUN contains some other surface signatures of Scorsese’s aesthetic: violence portrayed as sudden and chaotic, and cinema as part of the characters’ lives (Kundun is shown watching a silent “magic” film and old Hollywood epics).
KUNDUN closes with a very notable dedication— Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, had passed away during the film’s preproduction. The director’s parents had always been an integral part of his filmmaking, even going so far as to make regular cameos, and Catherine’s passing (as well his father’s passing a few years prior) now meant that he was now truly on his own.
Despite any sympathy this may engender for the director’s efforts, KUNDUN failed to find success at the box office upon release, and reviews were… polite, to put it mildly. Many critics were reverent of Scorsese’s beautiful filmmaking, but were ultimately bored by the lack of a compelling narrative.
Stateside, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for its art direction, cinematography, costume design, and original score, but in Tibet and China, the film was hastily scorned (with Scorsese himself banned from ever entering China as a result of his making the film).
Nearly twenty years removed from its release, KUNDUN has positioned itself as something of a companion piece to THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. It’s an Eastern equivalent to the Western question of religion and man’s place in the grand cosmic machinery, a concept that Scorsese has struggled with throughout his whole life.
While KUNDUN may be an oft-neglected work in his filmography, Scorsese’s attempts to further his own understanding of his faith from a wildly different perspective gives the final film an enduring emotional richness.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999)
The emergency room is a space that’s inherently loaded with extreme emotion—the drama of life plays out here on a daily basis, constantly reminding us of our own mortality. It’s a place that nobody ever wants to go, especially when it’s an unexpected visit in the middle of the night.
In the mid-to-late 1990’s, director Martin Scorsese would find himself here on several occasions, summoned from his bed in the wee hours of the morning to bear witness– first to the passing of his father Charles, and then to his mother Catherine. He no doubt perceived the emergency room as a limbo made manifest on earth—a stopgap between the living and the dead.
It’s an admittedly easy allusion to make, and one that’s been made by many others, like New York City parademic-turned-novelist Joe Connelly, who’s book “Bringing Out The Dead” was sent to Scorsese’s attention by producer Scott Rudin.
It didn’t take long for Scorsese to make the connect with his own life, but it would be a different kind of connection that proved more compelling: the perspective of a lonely, haunted man who roams New York City’s nocturnal city streets and bears witness to the gamut of human experience was the purview of 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, and the subject matter of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) would serve as a return to that world and emotional state.
To this end, Scorsese sought out a fourth collaboration with his TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL (1980) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) scribe, Paul Schrader. While the finished film (produced by Rudin and Scorsese’s producing partner Barbara De Fina) was not fated to replicate the financial or critical success of Scorsese and Schrader’s prior collaborations, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD excels at capturing a particular nihilistic sentiment commonly expressed as the new millennium approached, and today stands as an underrated gem within Scorsese’s sterling body of work.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is set in the early 1990’s, shortly before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s city-wide crackdown on crime and subsequent “Disney-fication” of Manhattan. The action takes place entirely in a Hell’s Kitchen as perceived through the eyes of paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage), a graveyard-shift insomniac who becomes increasingly haunted by the spirits of those he was unable to save.
One of those people in particular—a young homeless girl he only knows as “Rose”—pops up almost everywhere he looks, poking at the fringes of his conscience. On the night we meet Frank, he’s reached the end of his rope and is actively trying to get himself fired. He transports the victim of a massive heart attack back to the emergency room, thinking he just might have saved this one.
The man fights for his life over the course of several days, during which Frank befriends the man’s daughter: a compassionate, but troubled woman named Mary (Patricia Arquette). As he steers his ambulance through the city’s rain-slicked streets, he and a revolving door of partners continue responding to calls.
He begins to notice that his calls all have one thing in common—a potent new street drug named Red Death whose tentacles are seemingly branching out into the city’s every nook and cranny. As Frank follows the trail, his journey becomes a descent into an underworld of sickness and vice—and the only way back up into the light is the one thing constantly eluding him: self-redemption.
Nicolas Cage is a loaded name in cinema these days— the internet loves him for his special brand of wild-eyed and bizarrely-toupee’d performance, but the pedigree of the films he has chosen to partake in recently are… dubious, at best. Thankfully, Scorsese recognizes Cage’s true strengths as an actor and puts them to sublime use in BRINGING OUT THE DEAD.
Cage’s gaunt physicality and heavy eyes are perfect at communicating a man who lives on the border between the living and the dead, acting as something of a ferryman at the river Styx. Patricia Arquette, at her prime here, plays Mary, a sinner whose hidden compassion is brought out by Cage. She comes to be seen in his eyes as a saint, and a path to salvation from of his own emotional purgatory.
John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore appear as Cage’s revolving door of paramedic partners, each with his own particular quirks and sensibilities. Goodman plays Larry, a boisterously jovial man with his wits still lodged firmly on the ground. Rhames plays Marcus, a suave and charismatic con man with a fondness for taking his tentpole-revivalist preaching and sermonizing out in the streets.
Sizemore plays Tom, a ticking time bomb of pent-up aggression and machismo. Additionally, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD contains a few notable cameos in the form of indie horror producer Larry Fessenden as a cokehead, future THE WIRE star Michael K Williams as a shot-up gangbanger, and Scorsese himself in voice form as the radio dispatch operator.
After the dearth of familiar faces to be found in 1997’s KUNDUN, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD brings us back home to New York, where regular collaborators like cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti are readily available. Filmed once again in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is easily Scorsese’s grungiest, most-atmospheric film to date.
The dawn of digital color correction technology at the turn of the millennium allows Scorsese and Richardson to boost the mood of their visuals after the fact, enhancing the film’s rain-slicked blacktops with glowing neon lights so as to resemble a scene out of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi dystopia BLADE RUNNER (albeit without the futuristic aspects).
The contrast is stretched almost to a breaking point, where any hint of black falls right off into the abyss, and the color of white is so pure that it literally glows. The overall color palette deals in blues, greens, greys, and cyans (notably colder than Scorsese’s conventionally warm color aesthetic), which makes it all the more striking when the color red does show up.
Like the lifeless cadavers he delivers to the emergency room, Frank Pierce’s world is one drained of color, and Scorsese’s strategic placement of reds cleverly conveys his transformation into a man rejuvenated by his experiences.
There was a distinct sense of nihilism to be found as the twentieth century drew to a close. With the specter of Y2K looming large as an unknowable existential threat, the idea of the end of the world took on something of a begrudged acceptance in American culture.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD capitalizes on this sentiment, conjuring a tone that’s reminiscent of a cocaine addict’s fever dream, or as one critic puts it: “a methamphetamine jag”. Scorsese and his editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker take the template of TAXI DRIVER (lonely man watching city streets from his car, figures in the night obscured by expressionistic smoke and slow motion, etc.) and crank it into overdrive.
Hopped on this anxious, jittery energy, Frank and his partners fly through the city like bats out of hell, accompanied by an eclectic chorus of blues, soul, reggae, and punk music (UB40’s “Red Red Wine” is particularly used to outstanding effect).
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is a fine return to form for Scorsese, the cinema’s great chronicler of New York City. Towards the end of the film, Patricia Arquette’s character proclaims, “this city will kill you if you’re not strong enough.” It’s a compelling conceit, one that echoes throughout several of Scorsese’s best works.
Much like 1985’s farcical AFTER HOURS, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD revels in the collision of New York City’s various subcultures—Frank’s journeys take him all over town and into the homes, offices, and nightclubs of varying kinds of people.
Scorsese’s New York City is one of great diversity, and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD uses the institution of emergency care as a lens to examine all the various walks of life the city has to offer. Finally, Scorsese’s long association with Roman Catholicism rears its head during a few scenes, when Frank and Mary talk about wanting to be priests and nuns.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD flopped at the box office, but critics found no shortage of things to like about Scorsese’s last feature of the twentieth century. While a cultural re-appraisal doesn’t yet seem to be in the cards for the near future, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD has a fair amount to offer in terms of signaling Scorsese’s development as an artist.
The most visible example is Scorsese’s discovery of stylized color correction as a tool to convey mood and tone— a platform he’d build upon in later films like THE AVIATOR (2004) and SHUTTER ISLAND (2010). In returning to TAXI DRIVER’s sphere of influence, Scorsese’s fourth (and final) collaboration with Schrader doesn’t quite recapture the magic of that first effort. Instead, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is an entirely different beast altogether, complete with a beating heart all its own.
MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (2001)
At the dawn of the new millennium, director Martin Scorsese was approaching a major life milestone—the venerated filmmaker was turning sixty, which meant that he was now emerging from middle age into his twilight years. While most people his age would start preparing for retirement by now, Scorsese was beginning a third act in his career—one that would finally see Academy recognition and prestige on the world stage with works just as dynamic and energetic as his early films.
Faced with the fact that the bulk of his career was now behind him, Scorsese was compelled to once again pay homage to his heritage and his influences. He partnered with longtime producer (and ex-wife) Barbara De Fina, as well as Italian fashion icon Giorgio Armani (the subject of Scorsese’s 1990 documentary MADE IN MILAN) to make a documentary on the legacy of Italian cinema and its voices.
Adopting the clip-heavy template of A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995), Scorsese set about making MY VOYAGE TO ITALY—a four-hour odyssey to Italy through the eyes of its greatest filmmakers.
Hosted by Scorsese himself, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY uses a treasure trove of film clips to study the broad sweep of Italian culture and history during the twentieth century. We’re all aware of Italy’s role in the Great American Century– beginning with the mass exodus of hopeful immigrants to Ellis Island, to the rise of dictatorial fascism via Mussolini and an ill-fated union with Germany in World War II.
Scorsese takes a particularly personal tack in his approach to the subject matter, detailing how Italian cinema affected his family and helped link their home in Little Italy to the Old World of Sicily. He focuses acutely on influential Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini—all of whom had profound influences on Scorsese’s artistic aesthetic.
He describes his experiences watching their films as he charts the development of Italian Neorealism, beginning with its inception in Rossellini’s ROME OPEN CITY(1945) and all the way through works like PAISAN (1945), BICYCLE THIEVES (1948), JOURNEY TO ITALY (1954), GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), STROMBOLI (1950), EUROPA ’51 (1952), UMBERTO D (1952) and 1953’s I VITELLONI(which would be a huge influence on Scorsese’s own MEAN STREETS (1973).
He traces how these filmmakers inspired artists of the French New Wave, artists like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut who lit young Scorsese’s imagination alight and motivated him to make films for himself. The hosting footage with Scorsese is filmed in 35mm black and white, effortlessly fitting in with the monochromatic Italian films thanks to the participation of longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker.
Despite its existence as a broad overview of Italian cinema at the macro scale, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY is as personal as documentaries get. Scorsese’s longtime exploration of the Italian immigrant experience in America is given added nuance and subtext, showing the audience how his homeland’s cinematic culture has shaped his people’s assimilation into American culture and laid the groundwork for a new set of social customs and traditions going forward.
When paired together with its companion piece A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES, we get an incredibly intimate glimpse into Scorsese’s artistic heritage, with Scorsese solidifying his position as the preeminent steward of the world’s cinematic legacy.
GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
Thanks to the rise of home video, it has become all but inevitable that we’ll see an R-rated film before the MPAA-mandated age of seventeen. However, it still somehow feels like a rite of passage to take in one’s first R-rated film at the movie theatre after crossing that age barrier. For me, that experience was particularly impactful—a few days after reaching that magic number in 2002, I went to go see a new film titled GANGS OF NEW YORK.
By this time, I had already decided that I wanted to pursue film as a career and had begun my cinematic education in earnest. I knew that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, and that he was a giant of the art form, but seeing as this was the first work of his I ever saw, I quite simply had no idea what to expect.
In a way, I suppose I was always predisposed to liking GANGS OF NEW YORK—I’ve long been particularly fascinated by the history and culture surrounding the Civil War and the mid-1800s (I even went through a strange Tom Sawyer phase when I was in grade school). But even my own enthusiasm for the time period couldn’t quite prepare me for the purely visceral experience of seeing GANGS OF NEW YORK for the first time.
It literally blew my young self away—a reaction only matched by my first viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) a few years later during college. I became a little obsessed with GANGS OF NEW YORK, even going so far as to read the 1920’s-era source novel by Herbert Asbury. From that point on, I was firmly in Scorsese’s camp, and GANGS OF NEW YORK reigned for quite a while as my favorite film of all time.
Going by my unbridled enthusiasm for the film, you’d think it was a universally beloved landmark in contemporary cinema. However, GANGS OF NEW YORK was received by the masses as something of a wounded lion—powerful and awe-inspiring, but ultimately compromised by fatal flaws.
I can only imagine that this must’ve come as a great disappointment to Scorsese, who had wanted to make the film since he first read Asbury’s novel in 1970. The troubled development history of GANGS OF NEW YORK is long, with a version starring Malcolm McDowell– fresh off his breakout in Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) –nearly going into production after the success of 1976’s TAXI DRIVER.
This was during the heyday of the American auteur, when art-minded directors easily found funding for expansive passion projects. That is, until the cataclysmic failure of Michael Cimino’s indulgent HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) brought that era to an abrupt end, and Scorsese’s first iteration of GANGS OF NEW YORK was indefinitely shelved.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. Scorsese was now pushing 60; worlds removed from the young man that he was in the 70’s. The raw, uncompromising works that established his career had been tempered by a string of disappointments and small victories (most notably, 1990’s GOODFELLAS). However, as the new millennium loomed on the horizon, Scorsese found his value in the business slowly declining.
He hadn’t had a bona fide hit since 1991’s CAPE FEAR, and his most recent film—BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999)—hadn’t performed as well as he had hoped. On the set of that film, Scorsese was visited by longtime friend and agent Mike Ovitz, who asked the director what project he wanted to do more than anything. Scorsese’s reply was simple—“Gangs of New York”.
Ovitz had been instrumental in helping Scorsese bring previous passion projects to the screen, and he was extremely beneficial in this regard towards GANGS OF NEW YORK. He brought producers Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein on board to produce, and helped to snag the participation of rising star Leonardo DiCaprio—a crucial development in securing funding.
While there was no way Scorsese could have known at the time, the production of GANGS OF NEW YORK would coincide with one of the most defining events in the city’s history—the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. What would result is a film whose epic scope is given something of a personal touch by a filmmaker who’s life and art had been so fundamentally shaped by the city of New York.
It would become an imperfect, wounded love letter to a heartbroken city and the bloody passion of all those who built it.
GANGS OF NEW YORK tells the story of the infamous Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan, a notorious slum which has long since been bulldozed over to make way for civic judicial structures and Columbus Park. Because this particular neighborhood no longer existed in the way that it did during the film’s Civil War setting, it had to be recreated entirely from scratch.
A gargantuan, mile-long backlot was constructed at Italy’s world-famous Cinecitta film studio, a massive undertaking that Scorsese himself admitted would probably never be replicated ever again. Scorsese’s contemporary George Lucas would validate this notion during a set visit where he remarked, “you know, they can build all of this in the computer now.”
While this may be true, watching GANGS OF NEW YORK makes it all too clear that a computer could never match the impact of an old-fashioned set. Watching the film is akin to witnessing history coming alive, but this effect did not come effortlessly. The production of GANGS OF NEW YORK was long and arduous, with Scorsese and Weinstein coming to blows quite often.
The story, written by Scorsese’s longtime friend and collaborator Jay Cocks, as well as Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonegan, distills the sprawling character and experience of life in The Five Points circa 1862 down to a battle between two strong-willed personalities. In one corner, there’s Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a native-born Protestant with a very strong “America for Americans” worldview and a sizable gang of followers who help him maintain power over the neighborhood.
His authority is challenged by Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio)– the son of an Irish immigrant named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) who twenty years before had led a rival gang called The Dead Rabbits only to be cut down by Bill The Butcher’s blade. Having spent the majority of his life in a reformatory outside the city, Amsterdam has returned to the Five Points as a young man—nearly unrecognizable to his father’s former cohorts, who have since exiled their convictions and ceded to The Butcher’s authority.
Amsterdam uses this anonymity to his advantage, managing to gain access to Bill’s inner circle as well as his trust.
Amsterdam plans to avenge his father by slaying Bill in a public manner, but while he waits for the perfect opportunity, he finds that Bill’s dark charisma is working itself on him—to the point that Amsterdam even throws himself into the line of fire to protect Bill from another would-be assassin.
When Amsterdam’s true identity is revealed by an act of betrayal, he’s cast out from The Five Points and brutally branded with the great indignity of being “the only man spared by The Butcher”. He retreats underground to lick his wounds, only to rise back up again with renewed conviction.
He rebuilds The Dead Rabbits from the masses of disenfranchised Irish immigrants who made the journey to the new world looking for opportunity, only to find poverty and Bill’s indiscriminate scorn. The immigrants are further angered by the civil unrest spreading throughout the city in response to the Civil War draft, which has polarized the population along economic lines.
Those who can pay $300 can send a substitute off to war in their place, which only feeds the mentality that the Civil War is a rich man’s war fought by the poor. With temperatures and passions rising, the powder keg finally explodes into what would become known as the Great Draft Riots of New York, plunging the city into anarchy and violence as the armies of Amsterdam and Bill meet in Paradise Square to settle their beef once and for all.
Scorsese’s sweeping examination of organized crime’s roots during a forgotten chapter of New York’s history manages to attract top-tier talent like the aforementioned DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, among many others. GANGS OF NEW YORK marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, who has since gone on to become a filmmaking partner in a similar fashion to Scorsese’s earlier work with Robert De Niro.
Coincidentally, it was De Niro who clued Scorsese into DiCaprio as an actor he needed to work with, having been impressed by the young man’s superlative talents during their collaboration on Michael Caton-Jones’ THIS BOY’S LIFE in 1993. Desperate to slough off of the teenage heartthrob reputation he had acquired from his performance in James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997), DiCaprio cultivates a feral grunge here as Amsterdam Vallon.
He depicts the character as crudely Machiavellian—hotheaded and undisciplined, yet single-mindedly focused on calculated vengeance. The role of Bill The Butcher was initially offered to De Niro, but Daniel Day-Lewis proves arguably an even better choice as the jingoistic “Native” American. His Bill is a far cry from the gentleman lawyer he played in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), his previous collaboration with Scorsese.
Sporting a waxed-up mustache, long plaid pants, and a glass eye adorned with an American eagle iris, Day-Lewis turns in a rather flamboyant, menacing performance. He doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of the character (like his indiscriminate racism and bilious hatred for Abraham Lincoln), but he also embraces a darkly attractive charisma, imbuing it with a respectful reverence for the virtues of his enemies.
Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role, stalking around the Five Points as if he were intent on sucking up every last extra drop of oxygen before the foreign hordes can get to it.
While the story hinges entirely on the dynamic between these two opposing personalities, Scorsese takes great care to flesh out the universe of characters spinning around their orbit (even placing himself into one scene as an unnamed aristocrat). Cameron Diaz is effective as the lone female presence and DiCaprio’s love interest, a street-smart pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane.
John C. Reilly plays Happy Jack Mulraney, a former Dead Rabbit turned corrupt cop, while unabashedly-Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays a fellow former Dead Rabbit who pursues a righteous future as a community leader with political aspirations. Finally, there’s Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father and the fallen leader of the Dead Rabbits. He’s seen only in the beginning battle, but is instantly memorable as a devout Roman Catholic leader with the heart of a warrior.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is a peculiar sort of historical epic, in that its grandiose sweep is confined to a relatively small, extremely grimy section of Manhattan. This deliberate mixture of nineteenth-century grunge and operatic theatricality is captured on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio by Scorsese’s longtime cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who comes back into the filmmaker’s fold after an extended absence.
The color palette deals primarily in earthy browns, searing reds, and amber sepias (along with shocking pops of blue). Overall, the picture is very warm, owing in large part to the decision to illuminate this pre-electrical world with lots of candlelight. Scorsese and Ballhaus take every opportunity to show off production designer Dante Ferretti’s expansive sets with sumptuous crane, dolly and Steadicam shots.
One such shot in particular is incredibly striking, in that it is acts as a condensed, poetic metaphor for the trajectory of a soldier. In one fluid move, Scorsese shows gaggles of Irish immigrants queuing up for military enlistment, then moves on to another group getting fitted for uniforms and boarding ships bound for battle while coffins containing dead soldiers returning from the battlefield are unloaded to make room for new blood.
It’s not exactly subtle, but it is very elegant in execution, fitting right in line with Scorsese’s long line of iconic tracking shots throughout his career. Combined with other signature visual techniques like whip-pans, split-focus diopter compositions, and a dynamic edit by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, GANGS OF NEW YORK is classic Scorsese, and then some—its outsized aspirations are reminiscent of the storyboards the prepubescent Scorsese drew for imagined Roman epics long before he ever touched a foot of celluloid.
To realize his vision of Civil War-era New York from a musical standpoint, Scorses reteams with his AFTER HOURS (1985) composer Howard Shore, whose profile was experiencing a huge surge in popularity at the time due to his work on Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003).
Because of the massive undertaking such a job entails, it is perhaps somewhat inevitable that the lilting, fairytale feel of Shore’s LOTR cues seeps into his approach for GANGS OF NEW YORK. The score is very orchestral, highlighted by low, heavy strings as well as fiddles to evoke the Irish heritage of the film’s protagonists.
Former The Band frontman and longtime Scorsese musical consultant Robbie Robertson utilizes his extensive knowledge of American folk music to cherry pick an eclectic mix of sounds that give a modern edge to antiquated rhythms and tones. The approach is somewhat anachronistic, but it works on an emotional level. The use of Mississippi mountain blues goes a long way towards communicating a sense of what the streets sounded like at the time, while newer works like Peter Gabriel’s “Signal To Noise” or even U2’s “The Hands That Built America” (one of the few U2 songs I can actually stand) work overtime to connect these long-ago people and events to our time.
This appeal to modern culture permeates the film, with Scorsese going to great lengths to avoid the airs of a stuffy costume pageant. Instead, he blurs New York City’s history in a somewhat expressionistic manner that seems to encapsulate the entirety of the city’s social story within the Five Points neighborhood. GANGS OF NEW YORK begins in an incredibly compelling fashion—down in the subterranean labyrinths of a manmade cave, populated by what looks to be a medieval tribe of people preparing for war.
We could be anywhere, anytime. We follow these people up to the surface, realizing that the caves are underneath what appears to be a large brick brewery. The warriors emerge onto the snowy streets of a small village and engage in battle with an opposing tribe. Scorsese’s camera soars above the bloody aftermath, pulling further and further out to reveal that this tiny, primitive village is in fact what we know today as the bustling metropolis of Manhattan, circa 1846.
Had we not known the title to the film in the first place, this revelation would surely rank among cinema’s most shocking surprises.
Just as the beginning of GANGS OF NEW YORK evokes the tribal nature of the origins of civilization, so too does the film allude to the present with its final shot, which features Amsterdam and Jenny walking away from the graves of Priest Vallon and Bill The Butcher, which stand on a hill in Brooklyn overlooking the Manhattan skyline.
Scorsese dwells on this shot, crossfading as the decades pass and the Manhattan skyline transforms before our very eyes. The Brooklyn Bridge appears, and then church steeples are replaced with early skyscrapers, themselves dwarfed by even taller, modern skyscrapers (all the while, the graves in the foreground are reclaimed by nature and fall into ruin).
Finally, the skyline appears as it did in the 2002 present-day, albeit with one major alteration: the presence of the World Trade Center towers, which in real life had been destroyed in terrorist attacks only a year earlier.
This inclusion was somewhat controversial, but Scorsese’s decision to keep them in (when everyone else was rushing to scrub them out) is reinforced by a body of work that is inherently about New York City and the people who built it (the triumphant strings of U2’s “The Hands That Built America” swelling over the soundtrack drives this notion home with all of the subtlety of a bull in a china shop).
Thirteen years after the film’s release, this shot remains as breathtaking as it’s ever been, and stands as one of the most moving directorial flourishes in Scorsese’s body of work.
Despite the story occurring over a hundred years ago, GANGS OF NEW YORK boasts several similarities to our current political climate. The film depicts an America greatly divided over various economic, political, and racial lines—a situation largely spurned on by a controversial, transformative President with lofty, progressive ambitions for the country’s future.
Bill The Butcher’s open hatred for Abraham Lincoln could just as easily be transplanted today to certain sects of the population who despise Barack Obama. In both cases, the offended party is threatened by a President who wants to diminish their stranglehold on power and influence in favor of bringing equality to Americans from all stripes of life.
In both cases, they come across like dinosaurs refusing to cede the world to mammals, completely unaware that a giant meteor has just entered the atmosphere. Watching GANGS OF NEW YORK in today’s context, it becomes clear Scorsese has hit on sentiments that stretch back to the country’s very founding, and as such they are an inescapable part of our social fabric and identity. This gives the film an added immediacy that will remain relevant into the foreseeable future.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is arguably the most overt example of Scorsese’s career-long exploration of the immigrant street-life experience in New York City, where conflict is driven by the eternal clash of opposing subcultures, ethnicities, and heritages.
These conflicts usually explode in fits of messy, chaotic violence, documented by Scorsese’s camera in an almost-documentarian manner—but in GANGS OF NEW YORK, these hostile exchanges take on the air of blood-soaked opera in their sweeping expressionism. Scorsese’s Roman Catholic heritage also plays an integral role in the proceedings, with the character of Priest Vallon becoming the personification of Catholic ideals and virtues (albeit in the body of a ferocious warrior).
Priest’s (and by extension, the Irish’s) identification as Catholic stands at strict odds against Bill the Butcher’s Protestant worldview, who’s unwavering belief in the supremacy of America and its founders leads him to be vehemently opposed to those whose loyalties lie an ocean away with the Pope. Quite literally, the central conflict in GANGS OF NEW YORK is between Church and State.
A tattered American flag is displayed prominently on a wall in Bill’s quarters, while the newly-reformed Dead Rabbits take over a local Catholic church as their home base– providing Scorsese yet again with the opportunity to fill the frame with the various iconography of Catholicism.
The process of making GANGS OF NEW YORK was a difficult, drawn-out one that saw numerous delays. It was so long, in fact, that Scorsese was able to release another project—a short film called “THE NEIGHBORHOOD” that screened during The Concert For New York City, a benefit concert held in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.
When GANGS OF NEW YORK was finally released in 2002, the city’s wounds were still raw, and as such, they might not have quite known what to make of it (especially that final shot prominently featuring the Twin Towers). This translated to somewhat disappointing box office numbers and mixed reception from critics, who appreciated Scorsese’s ambition and intent but felt the execution didn’t quite stack up.
Some critics would make an interesting observation that GANGS OF NEW YORK could be read as the end of the western film overlapping with the gangster picture, while others noted an increasing reliance on computer-generated imagery that sucked out the sense of immediacy and vitality that made his earlier work so affecting.
Despite the lukewarm reception, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. While it would win nothing, the film’s strong awards show presence was enough to knock Scorsese out of his recent slump and renew his energies towards creating a string of critically and financially successful works that count among the best in his career.
The beginning of the 21st century would coincide with the beginning of a third act for Scorsese—one that would see him take on the role of cinema’s elder statesman and finally bring him his long-overdue Oscar.
JOHNNIE WALKER “SCORSESE” COMMERCIAL (2002)
In between 2002’s GANGS OF NEW YORK and his 2004 follow-up feature, THE AVIATOR, director Martin Scorsese embarked on a series of projects that saw him step in front of the camera once again, not as an artist, but as a personality and authority figure in the mass media conversation.
Thanks to the success of his feature film career, Scorsese hadn’t directed a commercial since he was a young filmmaker struggling to get his first feature off the ground in 1968.
Several decades later, however, Scorsese didn’t need to make commercials to pay the rent, so his taking on a spot in 2002 for whiskey brand Johnnie Walker speaks to a genuine interest in the subject matter. And why shouldn’t he be interested— the subject matter is HIM. Titled “SCORSESE”, the commercial is a strange bit of advertising in that it doesn’t actually allude to whiskey or a product of any sort.
Instead, it is more of a lifestyle spot, providing a fictionally exaggerated look into Scorsese’s interior monologue in a bid to make the audience associate Johnnie Walker with a seasoned artistic elegance.
The spot is rendered in the visual and tonal aesthetic of Scorsese’s seminal work, TAXI DRIVER (1976), right down to the text font and Bernard Herrmann’s score. Instead of Travis Bickle driving through the city and delivering a monologue on his hatred of New York’s street scum, we get Scorsese riding in the back seat of a taxi and observing the street life around in wistful admiration.
The color palette is very cold, emphasizing blues and greens that blend together in a series of cross fades and speed ramps that suggest a hybrid between TAXI DRIVER and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999).
This being a spot that highlights Scorsese himself—a portrait of the artist, if you will—it’s expected that the director’s signatures (like the NYC setting and an appreciation for film history) will be front and center.
In a way, “SCORSESE” is a quick primer on the director’s worldview and lifestyle to those who, in the wake of his return to the highest echelons of treasured American filmmakers, are only now just becoming aware of the profound mark he’s left on the art form.
THE BLUES: FEEL LIKE GOING HOME (2003)
In the fall of my junior year in college, I took a class on the history of American blues music. Outside of another class on the sociological impact of world cities, this was a pretty striking break from an otherwise long stream of film production and theory classes.
Prior to taking the class, I wouldn’t have really called myself a blues aficionado—I was only taking the class in the first place because The History of Rock And Roll was all booked up. Thankfully, the blues class turned out to be one of my favorite classes of my entire college experience, and I relished the homework that sent me out to various blues festivals and concerts around Boston so I could report back on the experience.
I came to see blues as not only its own distinct genre, but the ancestor of pretty much all popular American music today, from jazz, to rock and roll, and even to hip-hop. It’s an incredibly eye-opening experience to see the interconnectedness of various musical genres, giving an immense appreciation for all styles regardless of personal taste.
This class was also where I first saw an episode from a documentary series titled THE BLUES (2003), commissioned by director Martin Scorsese in collaboration with several other prominent filmmakers in a bid to chronicle America’s musical heritage through the prism of blues music.
Scorsese himself directed the premiere episode, “FEEL LIKE GOING HOME”, which chronicles the genre’s beginnings in the Mississippi Delta region as well as its roots further back in Africa. Hosting via voiceover,
Scorsese blends together a mix of archival footage and original video documentary work in a bid to profile some of the biggest names in blues music: Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters (who showed up in Scorsese’s 1978 concert film, THE LAST WALTZ), Son House, and Charley Patton.
Perhaps as a reference to his previous work (2002’s GANGS OF NEW YORK), Scorsese opens the documentary with a drum and fife performance similar to the music heard at the beginning of his historical epic. Indeed, THE BLUES: “FEEL LIKE GOING HOME” is a natural fit within Scorsese’s documentary career, continuing his longtime exploration of rock music and its culture.
What’s perhaps most telling about Scorsese’s own personal interests is the significant amount of time he dedicates to the subject of John Lomax, who collaborated with the Library of Congress to travel the country and record authentic regional folk music in the early twentieth century.
Scorsese has made something of a side career for himself in his efforts with film preservation, and just as he believes its important to preserve our cinematic heritage, so too does he relate to Lomax’s own bid to chronicle the work of a certain set of people during a certain point of time before they’re lost to the tidal sweep of history.
All told, THE BLUES: “FEEL LIKE GOING HOME” is an interesting foray into the history of blues music, as told by an artist who was fundamentally shaped by the genre and has incorporated it into his own aesthetic.
AMERICAN EXPRESS COMMERCIALS (2004)
2004 was one of the busier years for director Martin Scorsese, who had been showing no signs of slowing down in his sixty-two years. Indeed, he was on the cusp of a new act in his career, which would see him garner international acclaim and recognition and establish his legacy as one of America’s pre-eminent stewards of the film art form.
He was putting the finishing touches on THE AVIATOR, his follow-up feature to 2002’s GANGS OF NEW YORK that was scheduled for release later on that year. He also found time to direct a television documentary for the History Channel, LADY THE SEA: THE STATUE OF LIBERTY (2004), commissioned to commemorate the grand re-opening of the iconic New York landmark after its closure following 9/11.
The documentary was produced in partnership with American Express, who also hired Scorsese that same year to direct two commercials that paid homage to the treasured filmmaker and his relationship with New York City.
The first spot out of the gate was an ad produced in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival, a New York-based festival established by actor Robert De Niro. Serving as an unofficial reunion between the star and his longtime director, “TRIBECA”features De Niro walking the streets of New York while reflecting on his relationship to its people and culture.
Scorsese creates a somber mood, bathing the frame in a monochromatic cobalt cast, cutting away from De Niro’s weathered mug to the clash of cultures that the city plays host to on a daily basis. While the reunion is fleeting and doesn’t offer much in the way of growth for either man, it’s nice to see them working together once again after their last collaboration nearly ten years prior in CASINO.
“ONE HOUR PHOTO”
The second spot, “ONE HOUR PHOTO” features Scorsese himself in front of the camera, lampooning his image with a gag that sees him obsessing over how the photos he took at his nephew’s birthday party turned out. It’s a pretty memorable ad, one that distinctly stood out to me when it first aired and that I still remember fondly.
The spot manages to capture the peculiar manic energy and rapier wit of Scorsese via the fast-paced editing and the curious choice to compose his set-ups with a large degree of headroom. An interesting note about this spot is that it really reinforces a particular perception of Scorsese’s character that was taking hold at the time—the idea of Scorsese as “Uncle Marty”, a jovial, grandfatherly man with a big heart and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
This is far removed from the young man Scorsese was at the beginning of his career: hoovering up lines of cocaine and threatening studio executives with handguns. We all tend to become gentler and mellowed out as we grow older, and the name of “Uncle Marty” becomes perhaps the best way to describe the master filmmaker during his late career resurgence.
THE AVIATOR (2004)
Despite the somewhat-middling success of his period epic, GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), director Martin Scorsese experienced a resurgent wave of popularity and critical appreciation that re-established his position as one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers.
Even though GANGS OF NEW YORK underperformed against expectations, a plurality of public goodwill prodded Scorsese towards yet another period epic—and another shot at the golden statue that had eluded him ever since his first nomination for RAGING BULL in 1980.
This new attempt would be 2004’s THE AVIATOR, a lavish biopic about eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and his innovations in the field of flight. The project, like Scorsese’s Oscar ambitions, had long been in development—the earliest version dates back to the early 1970’s as a vehicle for Warren Beatty.
As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the project landed under the stewardship of director Michael Mann, who had just come off a string of biopics like 1999’s THE INSIDER and 2001’s ALI and was developing the project in partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way.
When Mann decided that he no longer wanted to direct, DiCaprio immediately took the project to Scorsese, expressing a fervent desire to work with the master filmmaker again after their successful collaboration in GANGS OF NEW YORK. Scorsese agreed to take on the project, and despite knowing absolutely nothing about aviation, was able to channel his love for old Hollywood and cinema history into making THE AVIATOR an exhilarating spectacle that would count as one of the biggest successes of his career.
Despite their friction on the set of GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR finds Scorsese reteaming with executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein to realize a script by John Logan, who sets the action in California during the prime of Hughes’ life: a twenty year period that spanned the Roaring Twenties and World War II.
Hughes was a notable figure in American history—he was the country’s first billionaire, and was responsible for a number of game-changing innovations that would make aviation one of the dominant forces of the twentieth century. He was the embodiment of that particular brand of rugged individualism espoused by figures like Ayn Rand and perpetuated by hypocritical politicians who lack the courage to make bold choices out of the fear of alienating their base—but I digress.
THE AVIATOR follows Hughes from his days as an idealistic young man mounting his troubled passion project—a film called HELL’S ANGELS— and continuing onwards to chronicle his efforts to build the fastest, sleekest airplanes around. His high-profile business exploits, romantic dalliances with the biggest movie starlets of the day, and bottomless pockets make him the toast of the town.
He ably projects the aura of a charismatic playboy and titan of industry, but in private, he is a tortured soul—beset by his escalating condition as an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe and the looming encroachment of a US Government intent on discrediting him as a fraud. As his sanity threatens to depart from him entirely, Hughes channels his energies and obsessions into building the world’s largest airplane—a plane he lovingly calls The Hercules but the press dismisses as The Spruce Goose.
Building it is one thing… but getting it to fly is something else entirely, and it becomes a challenge that Hughes will only overcome by putting his reputation and entire life’s work on the line.
In his second collaboration for Scorsese, DiCaprio assumes a nasally affectation to channel the spirit of Hughes- an eccentric billionaire, filmmaker, aviator, and all-around Renaissance Man. While he can easily assume the persona of a rich playboy, the necessity of believably conveying a man crippled by his OCD provides a great challenge—the sort of challenge usually rewarded with an Oscar.
DiCaprio has often been called out for what appears to be a constant campaign to win a gold statue for himself, but the fact of the matter is that the guy is one of the best actors out there. He pours all of himself into every performance, just like Robert De Niro did at his age—it’s no wonder Scorsese continues to work with him again and again. As expected, DiCaprio was nominated for his performance, but he didn’t leave the ceremony with an Oscar of his own. That honor would to go his co-star Cate Blanchett, who would hold the dubiously-meta distinction of being the first person to win an Oscar for her performance as a real-life Oscar winner. As golden age Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn, Blanchett slathers on a thick Transatlantic accent to play the spunky, tomboyish thespian. Character actor Alan Alda plays Senator Owen Brewster, the film’s de facto antagonist—a cynical, calculating man who harbors a personal grudge against Hughes and uses his powers as a politician to pursue his petty vendetta.
As befitting a lavish period epic detailing the golden heyday of old Hollywood, Scorsese populates his supporting cast with some high-profile faces. Kate Beckinsale plays a secondary love in Hughes’ life– the aloof, sultry starlet Ava Gardner.
Beckinsale plays her as strong-willed and tempestuous, but she also allows us a glimpse into the character’s hidden compassionate side when she helps pull Hughes out of a debilitating downward spiral brought on by a particularly harmful obsessive compulsive episode. After his turn as a corrupt cop in GANGS OF NEW YORK, John C Reilly is called right back to action as Noah Deitrich, Hughes’ money man and business partner.
Danny Huston plays Jack Frye, Hughes’ partner at TWA. Alec Baldwin essentially plays himself, but in the guise of a Pan Am executive by the name of Juan Trippe. Interestingly, some of the most recognizable faces in the film are relegated to cameos, like the appearance of Gwen Stefani in the persona of platinum blonde starlet Jean Harlow, or Jude Law as the debonair actor Errol Flynn.
There’s also THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) star Willem Dafoe, who pops up in in one scene as a private investigator who’s Communist sympathies are used against him as blackmail.
Collaborating once more with his CASINO (1995) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) cinematographer, Robert Richardson, Scorsese applies a drastically different look to THE AVIATOR than any of his prior films—netting Richardson an Oscar win of his own in the process. The most immediately striking aspect of the visual presentation is the color timing of the anamorphic film image.
By 2004, digital intermediates were commonplace, and the tool set that a filmmaker had to manipulate his or her image had multiplied exponentially. Whereas most filmmakers at the time were giving their films highly stylized looks simply for the sake that that they could, Scorsese stood beside other artists like the Coen Brothers in using stylized color timing as a valuable storytelling tool.
In keeping with his extensive knowledge of film history, Scorsese colors THE AVIATOR in a way that conveys the look of color films from the era, depending on the technical limitations of the time. For instance, the first half of the film is rendered in various shades of red and blue—notice that there is no green whatsoever.
Indeed, the fact that naturally green objects, like grass on a golf course or peas on a plate, turn up in a bright blue hue caused many people to wonder if their projectionist was projecting a faulty print, or if was off on their TV sets. This is intentional—a look that’s meant to replicate the capabilities of the bipack color process that was in use during the 20’s and 30s—a process that could only convey color in shades of red and blue.
As time passes, Scorsese quietly switches to a naturalistic, albeit highly saturated color scheme—if we missed the greens before, they’re certainly here now and they won’t be ignored. This look resembles the midcentury advent of 3-strip Technicolor, a primitive iteration of the process now in ubiquitous use today. Scorsese complements this exaggerated color timing with theatrical, expressionistic lighting setups.
One shot in particular acts like a variation on Scorsese’s signature “iris shot”, wherein DiCaprio’s head is framed looking out onto a black void in the background, which is then illuminated section by section to reveal the large crowd before him.
Scorsese retains several core elements of his visual aesthetic in THE AVIATOR, like the constant use of Steadicam rigs, split-focus diopter compositions, push-ins, and long tracking shots. The sheer momentum of Scorsese’s camera allows for a dynamic, energetic, and Oscar-winning edit from his longtime cutting collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker.
Production designer Dante Ferretti also took home a golden statue for his Art Deco-inspired set designs, which help sell the exaggerated, grandiose sense of history that Scorsese is after. It’s interesting to note that a director’s most valuable technical collaborators– the cinematographer, editor, and production designer– all won Oscars for their work on THE AVIATOR; work that was done under the singular direction of Scorsese, who himself would be shut out from sharing in that glory with his collaborators despite a nomination of his own.
After their successful collaboration on GANGS OF NEW YORK, Scorsese re-enlists the talents of Howard Shore, who takes his biggest cues from the classical music that Scorsese inserts into various aviation scenes. To accomplish this, Shore incorporates several classical techniques, like fugues and canons, into his own compositions, supplementing them with trumpets and other regal-sounding instruments.
In order to give us a definitive sense of the period, Scorsese sprinkles the soundtracks with needle-drop cues featuring the rock music of the day: jazz, ragtime, and swing. He makes particularly strong use of Artie Shaw’s track “Nightmare”, as well as the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Moonlight Serenade”, hammering home the film’s 1930’s/40’s setting and capturing the romanticism of a bygone era in Hollywood history.
Despite personally knowing nothing about aviation itself, Scorsese’s approach to making THE AVIATOR comes across as personal and resonant as a result of the director drawing several connections from Hughes’ life to his own. The film’s first act concerns Hughes’ attempts to shoot his independent opus HELL’S ANGELS and gain entry into the elite bubble of Hollywood.
Scorsese knew this struggle well, having risen up through the indie ranks himself with low-budget labors of love like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973). The medium of film itself has always played a prominent role in the lives of Scorsese’s characters, and THE AVIATOR allows him to indulge in this affectation to an unprecedented degree.
The characters of THE AVIATOR are filmmakers themselves, key players living in a momentous time in cinematic history– the transition from silent pictures to sound—and their reactions to such developments comprise significant plot points within the narrative.
Scorsese has dabbled in this period before, in the guise of 1977’s revisionist musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Indeed, many of the scenes set in the lavish nightclub recall moments and imagery from his earlier film. However, THE AVIATOR gives us a much more comprehensive view of the era, utilizing the latest advances in computer-generated technology to bring the era back to life in glorious Technicolor.
While CGI has enabled Scorsese to realize his vision on a scale never before possible for him, it has had the unfortunate side effect of an increased reliance on the technology—making his recent output appear more stylized and fantastical than the rough, gritty street epics that he’s best known for.
However, audiences didn’t seem to particularly care for the loss of raw immediacy in favor of polished sleekness, as THE AVIATOR was met with positive critical reception and very healthy box office numbers. The film holds the distinction of being the first of Scorsese’s films to break the $100 million mark in grosses during its initial theatrical run.
Besides the aforementioned Oscar wins for Blanchett, Richardson, Schoonmaker and Ferretti, THE AVIATOR would go on to snag Academy Award nods for Best Picture and Best Director, for a grand total of eleven Oscar nominations.
In finding the wide success that had eluded THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATORpropelled Scorsese to even loftier heights as the most-nominated living director (equal to the late Billy Wilder and second only to the late William Wyler), and reinforced his entrance into a third act in his career—an act that would bring him international prestige and cement his legacy.
NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN (2005)
When I went off to college, I experienced an explosion in terms of my awareness of the music world. My exposure to different artists and genres was no longer limited to the radio, and I began devouring music of every type in a process resembling a chain reaction– the discovery of an interesting artist led me to research into their influences, which would then spiderweb into a broader excursion into their influences. Towards the end of my freshman year, I began really getting into Bob Dylan’s particular brand of politically-charged protest folk.
I eagerly told my parents about my newfound taste for Dylan, assuming that since they were growing up in the same period Dylan achieved popularity, they would naturally be fans themselves. I was taken aback to find out that my mother had no taste for him whatsoever—the news that I was into Dylan was met with mild disgust. I couldn’t comprehend why at the time, but as I began to delve deeper into Dylan’s artistic legacy, I became aware of just how divisive a figure he was in music and pop culture.
During my college years, Bob Dylan was undergoing something of a cultural re-appreciation, no doubt inspired by his latent relevance in the wake of protests against the war in Iraq. In 2007, director Todd Haynes released his expressionistic Dylan biopic I’M NOT THERE, which attempted to chronicle Dylan’s various artistic personas through the years as a series of vignettes revolving around fictional manifestations of said personas.
A few years earlier, Dylan’s manager seemed to have anticipated Dylan’s reinvigorated profile and commissioned a documentary film about the folk singer’s life and career. He conducted several filmed interviews with Dylan himself, among others, and gathered a mountain of archival concert footage.
He just needed someone to shape it, and to accomplish this, he turned to director Martin Scorsese, whose legendary rock documentary THE LAST WALTZ (1978) featured Dylan performing onstage with The Band and established the director as an astute scholar of rock and roll music. To help him in his task, Scorsese recruited his ex-wife and former producing partner Barbara De Fina and editor David Tedeschi.
In 2005, Scorsese released NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN, which initially aired on PBS as part of the American Masters series, but was soon quickly released to home video.
Dylan has been around for a long time now, but Scorsese chooses to concern himself with the most tumultuous period of Dylans’ career, beginning with his childhood in 1950’s Minnesota, to his rapid rise in the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York, and ending with his quasi-retirement following a motorcycle accident in the late 1960’s.
NO DIRECTION HOME uses a mix of vintage concert footage, archival stock film, and talking head interviews to create an oral history of Dylan’s music and its artistic and sociological impact on a country deeply divided over the Vietnam War. Scorsese digs deep, tracing Dylan’s roots and influences—especially his fascination with Woody Guthrie—and doesn’t shy away from showing some of Dylan’s alienating character traits (and the backlash they engendered).
Watching NO DIRECTION HOME, it’s a no-brainer on why Dylan’s manager decided to approach Scorsese. The film falls stands shoulder to shoulder with THE LAST WALTZ and Scorsese’s other chronicles of the social history of rock and roll music.
Vestiges of the director’s own personality crop up, such as the detailing of street life around Minnesota parades, or the inclusion of clips from old films like THE WILD ONE (1953) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Scorsese foregoes one of his most visible documentary tropes (appearing onscreen as the host, narrator, or interviewer) in favor of one singular instance of voice recording in which he recreates one of Dylan’s public speeches.
Rewarded with a Grammy for direction of a long-form video, Scorsese’s success with NO DIRECTION HOME would help fuel Dylan’s twenty-first century resurgence while reinforcing Scorsese himself as the go-to chronicler of American music.
THE DEPARTED (2006)
In the late 2000’s, the city of Boston experienced a surge of popularity in terms of its presence within cinema. A variety of films—from Ben Affleck’s crime thrillers GONE BABY GONE (2007) and THE TOWN (2010) to Dane Cook comedy vehicles like MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL (2008)—didn’t just use Beantown as their own personal Hollywood backlots… they channeled the city’s particular essence and character into the films themselves.
The trend started in 2006, when director Martin Scorsese released his Boston-set, Irish-mafia crime thriller THE DEPARTED to massive success and critical appreciation. Just like that, the city was red-hot—and as a film student at Emerson College during that time, it was incredibly exciting to be so close to the action. Emerson’s importance to the city’s local film community even proved helpful to Scorsese himself, who used the college’s facilities to view THE DEPARTED’s dailies.
Produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and written by William Monahan, THE DEPARTED started life as a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Monahan’s take transplanted the story to his native Boston, giving THE DEPARTED a flair and attitude all its own. If you have to remake a foreign film, this is how you do it.
Monahan and Scorsese’s fractured, tangled narrative hopscotches all over the place while disregarding traditional film narrative conventions—indeed, the title card doesn’t even show up until eighteen minutes in. The plot plays to a similar relationship dynamic that Scorsese previously used in GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), that of a young Irish man who is taken under the wing of the powerful crime lord who killed his father.
THE DEPARTED begins on Graduation Day at the Police Academy, focusing on two young cadets with similar backgrounds, but who couldn’t have turned out more different from each other. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a well-heeled, ambitious man and a rising star within the force.
Unbeknownst to his colleagues, however, he’s also a double agent providing inside information to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), one of the most prominent figures in Irish organized crime. On the other side, a less-promising recruit named Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is enlisted to go undercover on a very special assignment: infiltrate Costello’s inner circle and help the State Troopers take him down from the inside.
What follows is an elaborate game of “Find The Rat”, in which both sides manipulate the actions of the other and task themselves with finding the mole within their respective organizations. The crux of the plot revolves around efforts to stop Costello from selling valuable microprocessors to the Chinese, but the film’s heart lies in the cloak and dagger treachery between cops and robbers—but in this new post 9/11 world, neither side can afford to trust any of its own men.
THE DEPARTED continues Scorsese’s collaboration with his new leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. As Billy Costigan, DiCaprio takes an unexpected approach and injects a twitchy, strung-out sensibility into his performance aimed at assuring those around him that he is most definitely not a cop.
He’s a deeply troubled young man without much in the way of possessions or friends and family—the perfect guy to infiltrate Costello’s tight-knit unit. Being of Boston stock himself, Matt Damon is a natural at conveying Colin Sullivan’s cocky, swaggering bravado. The role is a rare villainous turn for Damon, and he uses his leading-man charisma to play the two-faced rat bastard brilliantly.
Ultimately, however, THE DEPARTED belongs to Jack Nicholson and his show-stealing performance as Irish mob boss and secret FBI informant Frank Costello. As Nicholson has gotten older, he’s become extremely selective in the roles he takes on, but the lure of working with Scorsese proved to be undeniable to the veteran actor.
In fact, Nicholson’s performance here will arguably go down as his last great role when the time comes to assess his legacy. The character of Frank Costello is based off real-life Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who fled Boston in the 90’s to escape arrest and was only recently discovered living in an nondescript apartment in Santa Monica.
Nicholson plays Costello like a loaded gun liable to go off at any moment, and the characters’ salacious affectations for casual racism, prostitutes, and flamboyant animal prints give him a carte-blanche license for an indulgent performance.
Scorsese’s brilliant supporting cast gives inspired, outsized performances that threaten to steal the show right out from under Nicholson and DiCaprio. Any film has its own alternate cast history— legends of offers made and rejected, actors and fans alike left to wonder what could’ve been.
We like to think that accomplished directors like Scorsese always get their first choices in talent– but had Scorsese’s original vision come together, we would’ve have a version of THE DEPARTED featuring Robert De Niro as Captain Queenan, Ray Liotta as Dignam, Mel Gibson as Captain Ellerby, and Brad Pitt as Colin Sullivan.
As it actually worked out, we got the version with Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon (respectively) instead. Thankfully, the result is nothing short of fireworks. Like Damon, Wahlberg is a born-and-raised son of Boston, and his Oscar-nominated portrayal of foul-mouthed staff sergeant Dignam comes off as extremely natural.
Sheen plays his superior, the paternal and soft-spoken Captain Queenan. After previously appearing in THE AVIATOR (2004) for Scorsese, Alec Baldwin again plays what I suspect to just be another fictionalized variant of his own self—the explosive, coked-out Captain Ellerby. Vera Farmiga plays Madolyn, a demure police psychologist who finds her affections torn between Costigan and Sullivan.
Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, and Kevin Corrigan fill out the remainder of the supporting cast of note—Winstone plays Costello’s right hand man, the gruff and stoic Mr. French. Anderson’s casting as a fellow State Trooper and colleague of Sullivan’s is pleasantly surprising, and Kevin Corrigan (who previously appeared in Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990) when he was just a kid) plays Billy Costigan’s cousin Sean- a smalltime Southie drug dealer.
As far as thrillers go, THE DEPARTED is quite possibly Scorsese’s most accessible film from a visual standpoint. Collaborating once again with regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Scorsese renders Boston’s gritty streets in a sleek, polished style that calls to mind the breathless energy of GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995). Shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, THE DEPARTED revels in its reckless disregard for conventional scene coverage.
Scorsese and Ballhaus utilize a delirious combination of Steadicam, crane, and dolly camerawork to give an operatic feel to the proceedings, while the intermixing of documentary archival footage of civil unrest in the opening credits creates a raw sociological immediacy. From extended tracking shots to simple push-ins, Scorsese keeps the camera in constant motion.
He indulges in expressionistic flourishes, such as the near-abstract rendering of a footchase through the streets of Chinatown, where (literal) smoke and mirrors obfuscate DiCaprio’s tracking of Damon.
Composition-wise, THE DEPARTED is filled with Scorsese’s usual imagery (split-focus diopter and old-fashioned iris shots to name a few), in addition to a few playful flourishes, like the placement of X’s in the frame whenever there’s an onscreen death—a subtle trick Scorsese uses to homage their original use in Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932).
Working once again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who won an Oscar for her work here), Scorsese reflects the jittery, jumpy nature of DiCaprio’s protagonist by employing New Wave-style jump cuts and dropped frames that give the picture a hopped-up sense of reality.
These jump cuts become yet another point of homage, with Scorsese alluding to Stanley Kubrick’s infamous millennia-spanning “bone to spaceship” jump cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) by depicting Damon’s character’s growth from boy to man in extreme close-up via a single hard cut.
Music plays an integral role in any Scorsese film, and THE DEPARTED counts as one of the most musically-distinguished films in the director’s oeuvre. Reteaming with Howard Shore for their fourth feature together, the soundtrack is notable for its inspired tango sound, which alludes to the back-and-forth pursuit of the film’s events as a kind of elaborate dance.
It’s one of the most original score approaches in recent memory, going a long way towards establishing a tonally-appropriate levity in an otherwise darkly morbid plot. Right off the bat, THE DEPARTED’s source cues inform us we are watching a Scorsese film, blending classic rock from the Rolling Stones (specifically, “Gimme Shelter”—the third time Scorsese has used it) and newer tracks (like the Dropkick Murphy’s anthemic “Shipping Up To Boston”) with the timelessness of Old World opera music.
Scorsese takes a particularly punk-rock approach to THE DEPARTED’s musical landscape, throwing everything together without any regard for harmoniousness or congruity; he even goes so far as frequently dropping the music out abruptly and entirely via a hard cut. The effect adds a vibrant, comedic punch to the proceedings.
This technique has been used before by younger directors like Quentin Tarantino, and Scorsese’s use of it in THE DEPARTED shows us that he may be an elder statesman of cinema, but he’s not afraid to look to the work of his successors for creative inspiration.
Boston and New York City share a peculiar kind of rivalry, and it’s not just limited to baseball. I’ve known several Bostonites who’d rather die before moving to New York. As one of New York City’s most-treasured artists, Scorsese’s depiction of Beantown stands to tell us a lot about how a native Gothamite might view the city.
It turns out that, in the eye of Uncle Marty, Boston is just a smaller version of New York in which the passionate staccato of Italian culture is simply replaced with the lilting brogues of the Irish. Scorsese has always been interested in chronicling the immigrant experience in America, albeit from his native Italian perspective, but THE DEPARTED’s modern context continues the director’s insights into the Irish experience initially explored in GANGS OF NEW YORK.
The city of Boston boasts one of the biggest population of Irish Roman Catholics in the country, thus Scorsese is able to naturally incorporate his fascination with his Catholic heritage and the iconography it engenders: cathedrals, priests, nuns, and funerals. Keeping in line with his very best work, Scorsese’s set of protagonists in THE DEPARTED is comprised of hoods, thugs, and otherwise-fatally-flawed men.
Moral ambiguity has always been the name of the game for Scorsese, but the twist here is that now these people are in a position of civil authority—they’re cops, charged with protecting the peace, yet they’re still resorting to crime and manipulative tactics for the sake of their own self-betterment.
THE DEPARTED might be one of Scorsese’s most commercially-accessible works, but that doesn’t mean he skimps on gore and violence; indeed, he portrays the bloodletting in unpredictably chaotic, signature fashion, with the climax taking this approach to absurd, near-comedic extremes. In a way, it both channels and parodies the climax to Scorsese’s other disturbingly-violent masterpiece, TAXI DRIVER (1976).
THE DEPARTED was released in the fall of 2006 to strong box office and healthy critical praise—to the point that it quickly overtook CAPE FEAR as Scorsese’s most commercially successful film to date. Much like they had done for GANGS OF NEW YORK or THE AVIATOR in recent years prior, industry insiders buzzed in hushed whispers that this might finally be the year that Scorsese takes homes The Gold Statue.
Oscar night finally arrived, and Scorsese and company sat patiently as Schoonmaker won for editing, and Monahan won for the screenplay. When it came time to announce Best Director, a beautiful thing happened:
The highest-profile filmmakers of the Film Brat generation—Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—strode on stage to present the award. I was three thousand miles away, watching the telecast in a dumpy apartment in Boston, but the sheer electricity in the air of the Kodak Theatre auditorium was palpable even to me.
We all knew he’d finally done it; the reading of the actual envelope was at this point merely a formality. Scorsese’s long-overdue acceptance speech was filled with his characteristic self-deprecating wit (“did you double check the envelope?”), but even he couldn’t help but be moved by the vocal approval of hundreds of people applauding in waves of overwhelming joy.
As night turned to day, and our collective euphoria began to wear off, detractors began to dilute the importance of the win, dismissing it as an unofficial Lifetime Achievement Award by an apologetic Academy for all those prior times he probably should have won. However, this detracts from the ability of THE DEPARTED to stand on its own merits, of which there are many.
Scorsese may jokingly attribute the success of THE DEPARTED to it being “the first film he’s ever done with a plot”, but as the film’s tenth anniversary rapidly approaches, time has shown that THE DEPARTED isn’t just his best film of the 2000’s—it’s one of the best films in his entire filmography.
THE KEY TO RESERVA (2007)
Hot off the success of 2006’s THE DEPARTED and his subsequent, long-overdue Oscar win for Directing, Martin Scorsese could do anything he wanted. What he actually did next, however, came as something of a surprise. It was an advertisement for Freixenet champagne, but simply calling it a commercial would do injustice to Scorsese’s vision and subsequent accomplishment.
Having built up a formidable reputation as a vocal preservationist of classic cinema, Scorsese used the opportunity to do something that had never before been attempted in the field of film preservation—preserving a work that had never been realized on-screen in the first place. To accomplish this feat, he looked to a lost script, of which only three pages still existed.
The script was called THE KEY TO RESERVA, and it was written by one of Scorsese’s key influences, the late Alfred Hitchcock. In a bold conceit that would seamlessly combine narrative filmmaking with documentary, Scorsese aimed to recreate those three pages in an attempt to channel to the ghost of Hitchcock via his own handiwork.
Hitchcock’s pages are set in an opera house, where a dashing spy (played here by Simon Baker) attempts to steal secret plans hidden inside the cork of a bottle of Freixenet champagne before his presence is discovered. Helping him in his mission is a classic Hitchcock blonde (a conceit Scorsese has incorporated into his own work), played by Kelli O’Hara.
Scorsese successfully emulates Hitchcock’s filmmaking style, right down to Hitchcock’s particularly iconic use of subjective perspectives and his signature “falling” shot. The late, great Harris Savides serves as cinematographer, helping Scorsese pull off his ambitious vision with classical crane and dolly-based camera movements and polished, old school Hollywood lighting setups.
Scorsese scores the scene to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic theme for NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), played by the onscreen orchestra, and longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker ties everything together with a vintage flourish. Finally, Scorsese caps off the Hitchcock homage in a playful way during the film’s final shot, which calls out to Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece THE BIRDS as countless flocks of ravens begin assembling outside of Scorsese’s meeting room.
The documentary side of THE KEY TO RESERVA also boasts Scorsese’s signature documentary conceits, right down to the director appearing onscreen and incorporating handheld photography to capture the unpredictability and immediacy of real life. All told, the extended spot is quite striking, and anticipates the wave of “branded content” that pervades the advertising field today.
AMERICAN EXPRESS “MEMBERS PROJECT” COMMERCIAL (2007)
The same year he shot the long-form commercial THE KEY TO RESERVA, director Martin Scorsese also created another commercial for American Express, entitled “THE MEMBERS PROJECT” (2007). Featuring celebrities like Alicia Keys, Sheryl Crow and Ellen Degeneres against a generic photo portrait cyc, the spot pokes fun at those self-serious celebrity charity/human rights campaigns.
The spot has little to do with Scorsese’s own development as a filmmaker, but the director’s playful onscreen appearance as himself further points to the solidification of a particular image that he’s presented to the media as his age has advanced—that of the friendly, jovial “Uncle Marty”.
SHINE A LIGHT (2008)
Director Martin Scorsese has made something of a two-pronged career for himself—the prong that gets the most attention would undoubtedly be his work in narrative feature films. While the lion’s share of attention towards the auteur focuses acutely on that side of his output, Scorsese has built up a formidable documentary filmography, focusing almost entirely on rock and roll music and its key players.
After winning his long overdue Best Directing Oscar for 2006’s THE DEPARTED, Scorsese leapt right back into production on a concert film featuring The Rolling Stones—a band that’s as inextricably tied to Scorsese’s own body of work as they are to the history of rock music itself.
Shot over the course of two nights in New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre, SHINE A LIGHT (2008) plays like a relatively conventional concert film, albeit a blockbuster one with some giant names on the marquee. Besides the Stones’ iconic roster consisting of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts, SHINE A LIGHT also features surprising appearances from Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and even former President Bill and (future President?) Hillary Clinton.
This being a Scorsese documentary, the director also puts in a sustained appearance as well—mostly during the beginning of the film when he takes us behind the scenes of mounting a concert as large as this one.
For the most part, SHINE A LIGHT is your run-of-the-mill concert film, covered by multiple cameras while the talent performs onstage. But this being a Scorsese picture, the people behind those cameras read like a veritable who’s who of world-class cinematographers: Robert Richardson, Robert Elswit, Andrew Lesnie, John Toll, Ellen Kuras, and Emmanuel Lubezki.
The fact that they’d all collaborate together in capturing a live event under Scorsese’s direction speaks to the immense stature that the director enjoys in the film world. SHINE A LIGHT was shot using a variety of formats, including 35mm film and HD video, making this the first time that Scorsese had worked with digital footage.
The choice to shoot HD may not have been the best choice in shooting the Stones, as the increased detail makes them positively ancient. Scorsese’s regular documentary editor David Tedeschi helps cull the best angles from what was no doubt a massive amount of coverage, and that’s before one counts the behind-the-scenes documentary footage shot prior to the concert or the archival interview footage featuring the Stones in their prime.
In what could be read as one of his signature directorial flourishes, Scorsese ends the film with an extended Steadicam tracking shot that maneuvers the backstage corridors en route to the chaotic New York City streets. Reminiscent of similar shots in 1980’s RAGING BULL and 1990’s GOODFELLAS, this shot is notable for the opportunity it provides for Scorsese to appear as a subject himself within one of his own signature conceits.
SHINE A LIGHT premiered as the opening film for the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, and went on to a healthy run at the box office (arguably due to its presentation in the IMAX format). While it doesn’t tell us anything new about the Rolling Stones and their music, Scorsese’s reverent approach captures the sheer energy of their live performance. In the process, he preserves the band’s cultural legacy while preserving his own as our country’s greatest rock documentarian.
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
The east coast has a storied history in regards to thesubject of asylums and mental hospitals. The landscape is dotted with imposing Gothic structures like Eastern State Penitentiary– built to house and rehabilitate the mentally ill and criminally insane.
Their foreboding architecture and lurid accounts of torturous experimentation tend to grip our horrified imaginations—they’re haunted houses on a massive scale, and as such they tend to make excellent settings for scary stories. One such story is Dennis LeHane’s novel “Shutter Island”, a haunting yarn about a federal marshal traveling to Ashecliffe, a mental hospital on the titular island, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient.
Boston-bred LeHane’s novel is, like his previous works “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone”, is naturally suited towards cinematic adaptation. In 2010, its potential as a provoking horror film was realized in SHUTTER ISLAND, director Martin Scorsese’s feature follow-up to his Best Picture-winning film THE DEPARTED (2010).
Writer Laeta Kalogridis adapts LeHane’s prose to the screen, keeping the book’s setting of an isolated island somewhere in Boston Harbor and the 1950’s timeline intact. Scorsese and company combine multiple locales around the greater Boston area to form the eponymous island on which federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives to investigate the disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solando.
Accompanied by his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels commences his investigation by interviewing various patients, employees, and the facility’s head, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). However, strange behavior and conflicting testimony leads Daniels to believe that something is amiss about the entire situation.
Nobody is quite who they say they are, but then again, neither is Daniels, as it is revealed when we find out that he’s using this investigation as an opportunity to locate and kill an inmate named Laeddis, an arsonist who he believes is responsible for his wife’s death. The story builds to a lurid twist of a climax that dares to venture into the innermost chambers of the psychotic mind.
While the twist itself may be predictable, it helps to make repeat viewings of SHUTTER ISLAND a completely different experience, as every line, glance, or gesture can be interpreted as entirely different. Thanks in no small part to Scorsese’s direction and attention to generating dramatically rich performances, SHUTTER ISLANDcomes off as more than the sum of its parts—a hauntingly dense horror film that operates on multiple levels.
With his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio officially gives Robert De Niro a run for his money as the director’s leading-man muse. DiCaprio once again relishes the chance to subvert his boyish good looks with a haunted, twitchy performance as federal marshal Teddy Daniels. For a horror film, the role demands quite the heavyweight performance, and DiCaprio delivers in kind with a nuanced pathos.
Mark Ruffalo plays the cool and collected Chuck Aule, a fellow marshal and Teddy’s enigmatic new partner. Veteran performer Ben Kingsley plays the island’s head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley as a sophisticated dandy and caring father figure to the patients at Ashecliffe.
By contrast, Max Von Sydow plays his colleague Dr. Naehring, a German psychiatrist from the Freudian old school—he views everything in terms of Jungian archetypes and styles himself as a Van Helsing who has committed himself to slaying the monsters within man’s mind.
Michelle Williams plays Dolores, Teddy’s dead wife that appears to him in ghostly visions as a calming, feminine presence amongst the brutish insanity only to reveal herself as an altogether different monster. Scorsese’s prestige as a director also affords him the opportunity to cast some intriguing names in what amount to extended cameos.
The character of Rachel Solando is played by two different actresses- Rachel 1 is embodied in Emily Mortimer, who channels a quiet desperation into her otherwise demure demeanor, and Patricia Clarkson, who is found hiding out in a cliff-side cave and presented as “the real Rachel Solando”, but who may just be a figment of Teddy’s overactive imagination. Jackie Earle Haley plays the deformed, ratty inmate George Noyce, and Elias Koteas appears in a nightmarish dream sequence as the heavily-scarred arsonist Laeddis.
Shot by Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, SHUTTER ISLAND’s anamorphic presentation channels the late Stanley Kubrick in its visual precision and foreboding atmosphere. Ominous storm clouds hang over every scene, casting the image in cold, desaturated blue tones that contrast with the warm, golden glow of several dream sequences.
Scorsese and Richardson unify these distinct looks with a stylized lighting scheme that blows out highlights to the nth degree (similar to 1999’s BRINGING OUT THE DEAD) and incorporating strategic use of artful camerawork that keeps us guessing just as much as the characters.
Longtime collaborator Dante Ferretti’s realistic approach to Ashecliffe and its environs is augmented by somewhat-noticeable CGI and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s skillful editing, both of which work together to seamlessly combine the various Massachusetts shooting locales used to double for the fictional Shutter Island.
Scorsese wisely doesn’t resort to cheap jump scares to spook his audience—rather, he uses the natural expressionism inherent in the film medium as a classical horror filmmaker might have done fifty years prior. For instance, during a key dream sequence, Scorsese has his actors perform their actions in reverse, which, when the film is run backwards in the edit, gives off a supremely unnerving vibe that the motion isn’t quite right.
It’s a simple, yet chillingly effective technique, and Scorsese’s use of it in SHUTTER ISLAND echoes its earlier use in his close friend Francis Ford Coppola’s nouveau gothic film, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992).
In lieu of a traditional composer, Scorsese enlists his longtime music supervisor Robbie Robertson to assemble SHUTTER ISLAND’s soundtrack from a mix of dark classic cues from modern artists like Max Richter, Brian Eno, Ingram Marshall and Gustav Mahler. Richter’s beautiful, elegiac track “The Nature of Daylight” is a particular standout, appearing during a soulful, haunting nightmare Teddy experiences.
The scene itself is already stacked with memorable imagery—black ash falling like snow, blood pouring through the cracks in fingers from an unseen wound, a body collapsing into a pile of embers and ash, etc. By overlaying “The Nature of Daylight” over the soundtrack, Scorsese inadvertently creates one of the most poetic, expressionistic, and beautiful sequences in his entire film career. Much like he did in THE DEPARTED, Scorsese finds key junctures to abruptly end his music cues with a hard cut, like someone being forcefully awoken from a dream.
The Boston Harbor setting of SHUTTER ISLAND allows Scorsese to return to that particular salt-of-the-earth idiosyncratic brand of personality that he previously explored in THE DEPARTED, albeit with flashbacks and dream sequences that take the action back to Scorsese’s home city of New York.
While a gothic horror film about dead wives and insanity is a far cry from the rough and tumble Italian street films Scorsese is best known for, his singular artistic fascinations permeate every nook and cranny of SHUTTER ISLAND. For instance, the confused, merciless slaughter of Nazis lined up in a row speaks to Scorsese’s penchant for rendering violence as sudden, unpredictable, and horrifyingly chaotic.
A tattoo of the crucified Jesus Christ emblazoned across the back of an inmate is indicative of Scorsese’s long association with Roman Catholic imagery and dogma. His usage of gothic iconography throughout the film—candelabras, an ominous storm, spooky shadows and dark, cavernous spaces—evokes the imagery of classical horror films from cinema’s golden age heyday while further pointing to Scorsese’s obsession with film history and its disparate genres.
Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) comes immediately to mind, no doubt owing to Max Von Sydow’s round glasses and mad scientist-esque demeanor evoking the character of Van Helsing, while still other elements of SHUTTER ISLAND’s direction point to the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s work.
After its initial premiere at the Berlinale film festival, SHUTTER ISLAND went on to become Scorsese’s highest-grossing film to date. Despite a mostly positive critical reception, the film is seen by the larger film community as something of an albatross in Scorsese’s late-era career—a misstep or misguided choice, as if doing a horror film was beneath a director as prestigious and respected as he was.
However, Scorsese’s first foray into horror proves just as successful as his last genre venture- 1992’s CAPE FEAR. Both films take major cues from the work of Hitchcock rather than attempt to emulate the trends and fads of modern chillers, and in the process achieve a transcendent timelessness. With the great majority of his career behind him, the aging Scorsese proves he still has a few unexpected surprises in store.
This is not to say that SHUTTER ISLAND doesn’t have its share of flaws, but it is, by and large, an extremely underrated film that easily outclasses its genre contemporaries to become something of a modern classic.
BLEU DE CHANEL “THE FILM” COMMERCIAL (2010)
In 2010, director Martin Scorsese collaborated with Chanel on a sixty second commercial for the brand’s new Bleu De Chanel cologne line. Titled “THE FILM”, the piece stars French model Gaspard Ulliel as a famous film director besieged by the media during a press conference for his new film, only to experience a reverie into his early days as a struggling young artist when his former muse presents herself to ask him a question.
Kinetic and fast-paced in signature Scorsese fashion, he shoots the press conference scenes in a slick, high-fashion style that’s bathed in a cobalt blue hue (to match the branding of the product, naturally). The flashback scenes are rendered in a mix of different vintage film stocks, suggesting his rise from nothing to the top of his field.
The piece is scored “She Said Yeah”, performed by Scorsese’s perennial favorite band The Rolling Stones. The in-story film that our protagonist is promoting is evidently set in New York City, but that’s not the only affectation of Scorsese’s permeating through the piece. His love for midcentury Italian cinema and history is also reflected here, with the story playing a little bit like a modern-day update to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.
Scorsese may seem like an odd choice to spearhead a commercial shoot for an international fashion juggernaut like Chanel, what with a feature filmography consisting of tough, brutish Italian Americans and explosively unrefined violence.
However, Scorsese’s choice in commercial projects has always leaned towards a sense of international glamor, from 2007’s THE KEY TO RESERVA ad for French champagne all the way to his first ad in 1968 for Armani. “THE FILM” continues this tradition with a cinematic flair that plays into Scorsese’s late-career stature as a master filmmaker operating on the world stage.
A LETTER TO ELIA (2010)
Of all the filmmakers that director Martin Scorsese could cite as a key formative influence on his own art—filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica—he keeps coming back to one in particular: Elia Kazan. A fellow New Yorker, Kazan was a kindred spirit to Scorsese, helping the young director understand his own place in the world through powerful, staggering films that explored the hardened men and women of the American immigrant working class.
After a series of documentaries paying tribute to the midcentury American and Italian films that inspired him to pursue filmmaking as his vocation, Scorsese collaborated with co-director Kent Jones on a documentary that zeroed in on Elia Kazan’s work and legacy in particular.
Much like A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995) and MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (2001) before it, 2010’s A LETTER TO ELIA blends a series of film clips and stills to illustrate how profoundly Kazan affected Scorsese’s worldview and established a standard to which he still holds himself to today.
Narrated by Scorsese himself (an endearing touch that recurs throughout his documentaries), the film goes into detail on three works in particular—ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), EAST OF EDEN (1955), and AMERICA AMERICA (1963)—and explains why they best embody Kazan’s unique worldview and artistic fascinations.
Despite being about another filmmaker, A LETTER TO ELIA can’t help but bear Scorsese’s mark when it explores how Kazan’s Greek heritage informed and shaped him as not just an artist, but as a man. After all, the same thing could be said about Scorsese himself and his cinematic chronicles of the Italian immigrant experience in New York City.
2010 was a relatively prolific year for Scorsese, but not in the way that one might immediately suspect. The year saw him release a feature film, a television pilot, a commercial, and two documentaries. Ironically, this increased output happens to coincide with a general slowdown in the pace of his feature film delivery.
Yes, SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) was quickly followed the next year by HUGO, but there’s a two year gap between HUGO and WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) and a void of four years between THE DEPARTED (2006) and SHUTTER ISLAND. The slowdown is probably not attributable to Scorsese’s old age, like some would naturally think—we’re seeing instead the trickle-down effects of a much larger movement in the film industry.
This particular climate was born from the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, a recession that hit the film industry hard and made it significantly harder for even prestigious directors like Scorsese to find financing for their projects.
This climate continues to this day, and while other filmmakers have simply withered on the vine, Scorsese’s inherent nimbleness and resourcefulness have allowed him to recalibrate his approach and pave the new for a new generation of filmmakers, all while safeguarding the principles and legacy of the generation that preceded him.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE: “PILOT” (2010)
As the multiplexes have become more crowded with the latest blockbuster superhero epics at the expense of richly-drawn, adult-oriented character pieces, television has emerged as an unlikely candidate to fill the void. Channels like HBO and AMC have paved the way for premium episodic content that can match cinema from nearly every angle– save for the building-sized screens.
HBO in particular has been a trailblazer on this front, regularly producing cinematic, compelling shows like THE SOPRANOS, THE WIRE, and TRUE DETECTIVE. In 2010, HBO added another feather to their cap with creator Terence Winter’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE, a series about crime and corruption in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and inspired by the book of the same name by author Nelson Johnson.
Such material demands a strong, visionary director, which Winter found in Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s successful direction of BOARDWALK EMPIRE’s pilot episode launched the series in high style, setting the stage for a five season-run that would become one of HBO’s most prized properties.
The pilot episode begins on the night that the alcohol ban takes effect and Prohibition becomes the law of the land. In Atlantic City, the occasion is marked with a mock New Orleans funeral and a lavish, booze-soaked gala. The smirking revelry, however, belies the fact that alcohol’s illegality is a huge problem for a city whose main source of income stems from sin and vice.
Where most see a great loss, others, like city treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), see an opportunity for immense profit. Over the course of the episode, the story follows the fledgling underground booze trade while setting up its key players. Like any good pilot, the episode establishes the tone and the world quite well, and ends with a dramatic flourish that compels us to keep watching more.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE benefits from an immensely talented cast; a development that is no doubt directly attributable to Scorsese’s involvement and inherent attractiveness to serious actors. In a rare starring turn, Steve Buscemi headlines BOARDWALK EMPIRE as Nucky Thompson, a brutish dandy and the corrupted treasurer of Atlantic City.
Michael Pitt plays his right hand man, Jimmy Darmody- an ambitious former Princeton student and veteran of the Great War. Kelly MacDonald plays Margaret Schroeder, a demure, pregnant housewife who is active in both the temperance and woman’s suffrage movements. Michael Shannon plays Nelson Van Alden, a newly-minted lawman tasked with cracking down on offenders in the alcohol beat.
Shea Whigham plays Eli Thompson, a crooked lawman under Nucky’s employ. Finally, Paz de la Huerta plays Lucy Danziger, a tempestuous nymphet who is currently shacking up with Nucky. Due to the conventions of the pilot episode tradition, no one actor really gets a chance to shine in the spotlight, but each one is set up with a strong set of motivations, ambitions, and flaws that will no doubt be explored to their fullest dramatic potential as the series unfolds.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE is similar in spirit to Scorsese’s other period crime epic, 2002’s GANGS OF NEW YORK, in that both projects recreate the rough-and-tumble grit of a bygone era with expansive sets and a generous costume budget. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh bathes the image in a wash of earth tones, ambers, and sepias, while Scorsese employs his signature mix of camera techniques— like Steadicam shots, cranes, still frames, whip-pans, push-ins and iris shots—to add immediacy and energy.
For reasons most likely owing to the shorter television format, Scorsese eschews some of his regular collaborators in favor of people like editor Sidney Wolinsky and production designer Bob Shaw, who help him in establishing a look, tone, and pacing for others to follow in future episodes.
Directing the pilot episode of a given series is often an enticing prospect for established filmmakers because it allows them to imprint their stamp on a project that will continue long after their initial involvement (and the regular Executive Producer payments that go with it aren’t bad either).
As such, BOARDWALK EMPIRE fits in quite naturally with Scorsese’s feature filmography—a body of work well known for featuring hoods and gangsters as protagonists (usually of the Italian variety), as well as depictions of chaotic, violent street life and explorations of the American immigrant experience. Nucky sums up Scorsese’s sentiments quite tidily when he casually remarks, “we’re all immigrants, are we not?”.
Scorsese’s love of film history is also acknowledged in a scene where Pitt’s character’s family takes in a viewing of a silent Fatty Arbuckle film. Music, a hugely important part of any Scorsese project, likewise plays an integral role in fleshing out BOARDWALK EMPIRE’s bygone era.
Scorsese starts on an anachronistic, yet inspired note, with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s modern rock track “Straight Up and Down” accompanying the opening credits. As the story unfolds, he peppers the soundtrack with vintage recordings from the period, with a particular emphasis on the era’s version of popular rock and roll music—ragtime, blues, and opera.
Not having been involved in the narrative television medium since his contribution to 1986’s AMAZING STORIES, Scorsese’s first full-on TV pilot was a smash hit, whose big ratings and strong critical praise helped to propel the show onwards for five more seasons.
In addition to being a boon for the series’ longevity, Scorsese’s involvement in BOARDWALK EMPIRE had a much bigger effect than he probably could have ever anticipated. An Oscar-winning director of Scorsese’s stature taking on an episode of television was a huge deal—his participation helped to legitimize the current phenomenon of major directors moving into the televised entertainment space.
This development created a safe space for an endangered species—directors of intelligent, challenging, and thought-provoking fare—and ensured their survival in a landscape dominated by corporate homogeny, bloated budgets, and disposable blockbusters.
PUBLIC SPEAKING (2010)
As an artist whose work is inextricably tied to the city in which he lives, director Martin Scorsese can be mentioned in the same breath with notable Gotham luminaries from a variety of disciplines—Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John Lennon, and even Jay Z. Something about the culture and makeup of New York City fuels groundbreaking creativity, and as long as he’s been around, Scorsese has been capturing that quintessential Big Apple spirit in both his narrative and documentary works.
In 2010, Scorsese collaborated with HBO and American Express to make a documentary on Fran Lebowitz, a speaker and writer best known for her sardonic acid wit and hilariously blunt honesty. Entitled PUBLIC SPEAKING, Scorsese uses the subject of Lebowitz to explore the broader scope of New York’s long history with unconventional creativity.
Shot by cinematographer Ellen Kuras and edited by Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi, PUBLIC SPEAKING is presented in the conventional documentary format, mixing talking head interviews filmed in a dark, quiet booth in some tucked away corner of Manhattan with vintage footage of Lebowitz at old book readings and press interviews.
Scorsese largely abstains from his usual habit of placing himself inside the documentary, save for one brief appearance, but he does incorporate some footage from his own quintessential New York film, TAXI DRIVER (1976), as well as Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score from the same at different points in the timeline.
He also stitches in a recurring motif of French pop singer Serge Gainsbourg performing “New York USA” throughout as a kind of punctuation mark. This has the effect of placing Lebowitz’s personal accounts and anecdotes against the bigger landscape of New York’s varied art scene. To put it another way, it’s a portrait of NYC from the perspectives of those who shape it in the collective hive mind of culture.
PUBLIC SPEAKING is a natural fit within Scorsese’s filmography, serving as yet another love letter to the city that he calls home. Like his best work, it is fundamentally about American ideals, as told from a minority perspective. At one point in the film, Lebowitz notes that when she was a child, her habit of being outspoken and honest “used to be called talking back… now it’s called public speaking”.
When taken in context of Scorsese’s broader explorations of success in America, the message becomes quite clear—it’s in our national character to take what makes us unique and turn it into something of value.
While PUBLIC SPEAKING may not be Scorsese’s most high-profile documentary, its message of recognizing our calling through our own natural-born talents (which may seem like flaws to some) positions itself as an intimately optimistic look into one of the cornerstone conceits of Scorsese’s own artistry.
GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (2011)
Director Martin Scorsese’s long and storied film career has followed two distinct paths—narrative features and documentaries about culture, music, and identity. Both paths have been lauded with equal heaps of critical praise, with his documentaries on music being a particular beneficiary of said plaudits.
Scorsese’s artistic aesthetic is tied to music—early works like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973) helped to popularize the idea of the “jukebox soundtrack”, or the usage of popular music instead of an original score. The sound of a Scorsese film is congruent with the sound of some of the greatest acts in rock and roll history, like The Band, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan to name a few.
It was only a matter of time until he tackled the subject of arguably the most iconic rock band of all time, The Beatles.
The Beatles are one of the most-listened to, most written-about, and most-dissected acts in the history of music, so what more could Scorsese possibly have to add to the conversation? To answer this question, he decided to focus the grand narrative of The Beatles through the eyes of its most enigmatic member, George Harrison.
It was thus in 2011 that Scorsese teamed up with Harrison’s widow Olivia to release GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD, a long documentary on Harrison’s involvement with the Beatles and subsequent struggles with fame, as well as his lifelong search for spiritual enlightenment through Eastern philosophies and Transcendental Meditation.
Scorsese presents the documentary in the conventional format, featuring talking head interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Ravi Shankar, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector, Eric Clapton, and Tom Petty (among many others). Harrison himself even makes a filmed appearance in an interview taped before his death in 2001.
Shot by Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson (as well as Martin Kenzie), and edited by his regular documentary cutter David Tedeschi, GEORGE HARRISON breaks up the informative interview footage with several vintage film clips, archival footage, and live concert recordings. Starting in midcentury London and extending all the way to present day, the film charts Harrison’s personal growth and experience with fame and fortune.
Besides being just a signature Scorsese “rockumentary”, GEORGE HARRISON tells its story in such a way that finds the subject’s artistic fascinations dovetailing with Scorsese’s own. For instance, he takes the time to paint a larger picture of the culture in which Harrison was brought up, a culture that placed an importance on family and ritual even while the chaotic social unrest that marked the mid twentieth century raged in the streets around them.
The director’s love of film history is present in the form of clips from classic films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966), employed to demonstrate the counterculture that The Beatles themselves helped to shape.
Most importantly, GEORGE HARRISON shares a kinship with narrative works like THE LAST PASSION OF CHRIST (1988) and KUNDUN (1997), in that Scorsese obliquely uses his own identity struggles with his Roman Catholic heritage to understand alternative religious viewpoints—in this case, the influence of Hinduism and other schools of Eastern thought that took hold of Harrison later in life.
As a documentary, GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD paints a thorough, detailed portrait of a man who lived an extraordinary life and left a profound mark on international culture. Harrison’s journey is characterized as a search, or an ongoing dialogue, rather than a definitive statement on who he was and what kind of legacy he leaves behind.
This is very personal territory for Scorsese, whose lifelong soul-searching with his own faith has led to some of the cinema’s most affecting and thoughtful works on religious belief and conviction. Judging by the Emmy that Scorsese collected for his direction here, this shared journey between director and subject results in one of the finest and most unexpected rock documentaries ever made, shedding new light on a figure that’s already been in the blinding glare of the spotlight for over half a century.
Since the beginning of filmmaking, the city of Paris has played an integral role in its development. It was, after all, where cinema was born—the Lumiere Brothers held the first public exhibition of a film in the basement of what is now the Hotel Scribe, located along a major boulevard in the Ninth Arrondissement.
Indeed, the ideals of Parisian culture are instilled into the DNA of celluloid itself, and as long as the art form is around, the City of Lights will continue to be its gleaming capital. Naturally, this makes Paris a natural fit as a setting for a film that concerns itself with bringing back a sense of wonder and awe that has long since taken a back seat to blockbuster box office receipts and gimmicky fad “innovations” like 3D or High Frame Rate.
This film is 2011’s HUGO, a love letter to the cinema from an unexpected, yet highly qualified, admirer—director Martin Scorsese. He’s done more for today’s cultural appreciation of film history than perhaps any other living filmmaker, which makes him the obvious candidate to tell a story about rediscovering the magic of film.
Best known for his gritty, hard-hitting and hard-R rated urban crime films, Scorsese’s artistic aesthetic doesn’t seem particularly suited to a project marketed as an adventure for children, but ever since Scorsese’s young daughter Francesa gave him a copy of the source novel and expressed a desire for him to make it, not even he could deny his inspired appropriateness for the material.
And so it was that Scorsese was hired by producers Graham King, Johnny Depp, and Tim Headington to direct HUGO from a script by his scribe on 2004’s THE AVIATOR, John Logan. As perhaps Scorsese’s most radically different work, HUGO holds an interesting place in his filmography as a critically-lauded, yet financially, unsuccessful film– but in the context of his late-era career, it becomes an intimate glimpse into the director as a young boy and the blooming of his own lifelong love affair with cinema.
HUGO unfolds in 1930’s-era Paris, where a young boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in an apartment carved out of the interior workings of the clocktower topping the Gare Montparnasse train station. He lives there alone, having lost both his father and uncle to untimely deaths, and he steals food and other items to scrape out a life for himself.
One day, he picks the wrong man to steal from—the owner of a toy shop within the station, who seizes Hugo and doles out punishment by taking the boy’s prized notebook, which he carries everywhere and contains his father’s drawings and schematics for a broken writing robot (known as an “automaton”) that he’s been trying to fix.
In a bid to get his notebook back, Hugo befriends the man’s goddaughter, a plucky young sprite named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). To his surprise, he discovers that Isabelle is unknowingly carrying the last missing piece to the puzzle of the automaton—a heart-shaped key she’s currently wearing as a necklace.
They use the key to bring the automaton back to life, and watch rapt as it begins to scrawl out a mysterious picture of a bullet slamming into an anthropomorphized moon’s agitated visage—an image that’s then signed with the name George Melies.
Isabelle recognizes the name as belonging to her godfather, and so they start investigating his past only to discover that he was once a great magician and filmmaker who made hundreds of films, only to fall into ruin when the Great War broke up and devastated Europe. Armed with this knowledge, Hugo and Isabelle set about restoring Melies’ faith in cinema by trying to arrange a private screening of his last remaining work, A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902).
Anchoring a Scorsese film is a tall order for anyone still dealing with the ravages of puberty, but child stars Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz more than capably deliver. As the precocious gearhead Hugo, Butterfield puts an interesting, unexpected spin on the classic “orphan pickpocket” archetype, while Moretz’s friendly and compassionate Isabelle provides a nice counterpoint to Hugo’s hardscrabble existence.
The kids are surrounded by a group of extremely talented adults, many of whom have performed for Scorsese before. Ben Kingsley, who previously appeared as the head psychiatrist in 2010’s SHUTTER ISLAND, plays the legendary filmmaker/magician George Melies as a cranky, forlorn old man who has lost the creative spark.
While Melies is a real-life figure, Kingsley reportedly chose to model his performance after Scorsese’s own personality instead. Emily Mortimer, who also showed up in SHUTTER ISLAND, plays a meek flower seller in the station named Lisette, and THE DEPARTED’s (2006) Ray Winstone plays Hugo’s Uncle Claude, a drunkard who’s vice propels him to his untimely demise.
Jude Law, who had a bit role in THE AVIATOR as actor Errol Flynn, has another bit part in HUGOas Hugo’s father, a mild-mannered clockmaker with a voracious imagination. New to the Scorsese fold are Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen as Monsieur Labisse and the Station Inspector, respectively.
Labisse is a kindly bookshop owner who lends books to Isabelle, while the Station Inspector is a bumbling, doggedly rigid lawman hobbled by his bum leg. Finally, Scorsese incorporates a couple playful cameos in the form of his BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010) star Michael Pitt as a disgruntled projectionist for the Lumiere Brothers, and Scorsese himself as a photographer in a flashback sequence with Melies as a younger, successful man.
Scorsese once again collaborates with regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, who won the Oscar for his efforts with HUGO. The film’s visual style is extremely important in the context of Scorsese’s career in that it marks a bold new foray into both digital acquisition and 3D.
These two developments are directly related, as shooting digital was necessary to capture the footage in the new three-dimensional format championed by James Cameron and his blockbuster phenomenon, AVATAR (2009). The film is presented in the standard Academy aspect ratio (the first time Scorsese has done so since 1999’s GOODFELLAS), which leaves plenty of frame for the director to fill his practical green-screen compositions with the computer-generated vistas of a Paris long past.
Indeed, the film comes across as very digital and artificial, almost like a storybook. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this approach would be off putting and unconvincing, but Scorsese finds a charming balance that encourages us to entertain the fanciful and allows us to immerse ourselves in the world.
This digital set allows Scorsese to explore uncharted territory with camera movement, taking his penchant for extended tracking shots and giving him the means to design shots only possible in the virtual space. Two such shots bookend the film, starting out with the Parisian cityscape on a wide macro scale before gliding onwards with omniscient precision to a close up detail far in the distance (like Hugo’s eye peering through a hole in the clock face, for instance).
Scorsese already possesses a considerable reputation for virtuoso camerawork, but the technology afforded him during the production of HUGO allows him to re-conceptualize his entire approach to coverage from new, never-before-seen angles. In the process, he exhibits an unbridled energy that even filmmakers half his age struggle with attaining.
Returning production designer Dante Ferretti, who also won an Oscar for his work on the film, fills the industrial, labyrinthine Gare Montparnasse set with a fine layer of smoky haze and lots of churning gears, all rendered in bold color tones that confine themselves to a complementary blue and orange dynamic (similar to the bipack process that Scorsese incorporated in THE AVIATOR, except more naturalistic).
Scorsese’s editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker blends all the film’s disparate practical and CG elements seamlessly, topping things off with a poignant tribute to celluloid itself in a swelling montage of clips from Melies’ actual films and other cornerstone works of silent film history like SAFETY LAST(1923) and 1903’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (the last shot of which serves as the source for an homage Scorsese placed at the end of GOODFELLAS).
Howard Shore once again reteams with Scorsese to create HUGO’s soundtrack, which swells and flows through the entirety of the film like a coursing river, albeit one with a distinctly Parisian flair thanks to the recurring use of an accordion.
While the 1930’s setting doesn’t allow much opportunity for Scorsese to throw in a Rolling Stones track as per his signature, he employs a few needledrops in the form of opera and the modern classical piece “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saens, which is generally regarded as the earliest song ever commissioned for a film’s soundtrack.
HUGO contains many of the thematic hallmarks of Scorsese’s work, like hardscrabble, disadvantaged protagonists who resort to crime as a means to live, detailed depictions of street life (the train station in particular serves as a contained social ecosystem), and the Roman Catholic imagery of popes and monks scattered throughout the landscape in the form of cold, imposing statues.
Most of all, HUGO speaks to Scorsese’s lifelong affection for the cinema, a love that drives every frame and camera flourish with an endless energy. The film dedicates large portions of the story to cinema’s profoundly emotional affect on the characters. The fact that the film is set in the city of cinema’s birth makes this aspect of Scorsese’s approach all the more poignant.
The idea of film preservation, another avenue of the art form that Scorsese had dedicated his career to, makes a strong case for higher visibility in HUGO when Scorsese shows us the tragic development of Melies’ beloved films boiled down and destroyed because the raw chemicals from the celluloid were deemed more valuable than the images they contained.
In Scorsese’s eye, this is a great crime toward humanity akin to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria—countless works of art and knowledge become lost forever if we don’t take the necessary steps to safeguard and preserve them.
Scorsese’s love letter to cinema was well received by critics, who couldn’t help but be infected by the director’s unconditional affection for the art form. While this reception unfortunately didn’t translate to strong box office, it did result in several Oscar wins for its cinematography, art direction, sound design, sound mix, and visual effects.
In his first large-scale experience with digital cinematography and the 3D format, Scorsese proves himself more than capable of adapting his craft to new technologies, lending firm evidence to the notion that a film’s strength is attributable to its author and not the particulars of its production.
Some will find great irony in the fact that the movie wasn’t shot on the celluloid film it places so much celebratory emphasis on, but to dwell on that aspect is to miss the point of Scorsese’s message entirely. HUGO is not a celebration of film… it’s a celebration of cinema, and cinema will endure long after the last rolls of celluloid are exposed to the light.
COMMERCIAL WORKS (2011-2013)
In the years between the production of HUGO (2011) and (as of this writing) his latest feature THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, director Martin Scorsese picked up some quick work back in the commercial realm. He appears himself in all but one of them, and such, continues to maintain a presence in pop culture as a brand unto himself—that of kindly, kooky old Uncle Marty.
AT&T COMMERCIAL (2011)
What appears to be a domestic scene of a young boy calling his out-of-town father to wish him goodnight is revealed to be a film set commanded by none other than Scorsese. Playing an exaggerated version of himself like he’s done in his previous American Express commercials, he breaks the focus of the scene to deliver direction to his subjects in his characteristic rapid-fire delivery.
His direction to imbue the performance of this sweet little boy with all the pathos and angst of a broken home parodies the decidedly adult themes that Scorsese is best known for within his feature work.
APPLE: “SIRI” (2012)
Scorsese’s spot for Apple hawks the iPhone’s voice assistant function Siri with a playful spot that puts Scorsese himself front and center, albeit in the backseat of a taxi cab in his native New York City. The piece shows an ever-busy Scorsese using Siri to schedule his many work appointments and meetings, emphasizing the comedic dynamic between Scorsese’s manic, off-the-cuff ramblings and Siri’s monotonous precision.
The success of the spot hinges on the audience’s recognition of Scorsese as a prominent social figure within mass media, and any effectiveness it does hold in that regard owes to the groundwork he previously laid in prior spots as his exaggerated Uncle Marty character.
DOLCE & GABBANA THE ONE: STREET OF DREAMS (2013)
In 2013, Scorsese directed another long-form fashion film in the vein of Bleu De Chanel’s “THE FILM” (2010). This time, the commission came from Dolce & Gabbana in a bid to promote their fragrance The One. Titled “STREET OF DREAMS” the spot drops any pretense of Uncle Marty’s media profile and allows for the director to use classical cinematic conventions to evoke an old-fashioned glamor.
The spot stars Matthew McConaughey, fresh off his collaboration with Scorsese in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and well into a career resurgence colloquially dubbed The McConnaissance, as well as Scarlett Johannson as two wistful former lovers reconnecting in New York City. There’s no real story to speak of– just a series of vignettes meant to generate a glamorous sense of nostalgia.
Scorsese’s execution of the concept accomplishes this quite effortlessly, with the gorgeous black and white anamorphic cinematography paired with midcentury Italian singer Mina’s soulful love ballad “Il Cielo In Una Stanza”. Scorsese emphasizes elegant camerawork via Steadicam shots, cranes, and subtle push-ins.
“STREET OF DREAMS” is quintessential Scorsese, what with it’s New York City setting and Johansson’s embodiment of the “Scorsese Blonde” archetype that is present throughout most of his best feature work. Crucial influences like Federico Fellini are also felt in the piece’s DNA, brought out to the fore by the aforementioned Mina track.
While fashion films as a concept can all too easily veer into nonsensical indulgence, Scorsese’s “STREET OF DREAMS” sublimely captures an old-school elegance appropriate to the brand, and stands to endure as the reference-grade gold standard to which all fashion films should aspire.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
The Great Recession drastically changed the American landscape like a megathrust earthquake. The epicenter was Wall Street, which, during the freewheeling, deregulated Bush years, enjoyed unprecedented levels of financial revenue and autonomy.
When the bottom fell out, and all those zeroes in our bank accounts turned out to be just that—zeroes that amounted to nothing– the finance industry imploded, and took countless other industries, companies, and jobs with it. There is perhaps no greater cinematic metaphor for greed and excess than Wall Street (thanks in no small part to Oliver Stone’s seminal 1987 film of the same name), so in the aftermath of such unrivaled financial destruction, stockbrokers and bankers became very easy villains to pin the blame on.
It was around this time that a novel by disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort named “The Wolf Of Wall Street” was published and gained traction as a scathing expose on the immense fraud perpetrated upon the American public as told through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time until the book was optioned for translation to the feature film format. Actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio and his team scooped up the rights as a starring vehicle for himself. In relatively short order, DiCaprio was able sign filmmaker Martin Scorsese to direct a script by his screenwriter on the 2010 BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot, Terence Winter.
One would think this dream team of director, actor, and writer would be enough to immediately greenlight THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) with a budget of ALL the dollars—and maybe it would have been prior to the 2008 crash.
But the landscape was different now—film studios had taken a major hit too, and the prospect of making a hundred million dollar film without a popular pre-existent property to base around it was simply off the table, no matter who behind the wheel.
In light of this new, filmmaker-hostile climate, DiCaprio, Scorsese, and co-producers Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff financed the film independently via lots of foreign cash. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s greenlighting is a direct result of Scorsese’s ability to adapt to the shifting business landscape, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the seasoned director weathered a similar storm when the challenging character dramas he’d excelled in during the 1970’s gave way to the mindless corporate blockbuster fare of the 1980’s.
It’s a good thing that Scorsese was up to this new challenge, because otherwise we’d have never been blessed with his best film since 1990’s GOODFELLAS.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, much like its amped-up, cocksure protagonist, is all over the place in terms of setting, but Scorsese chooses to focus the bulk of the action as it occurred during the late 80’s and early 90’s in New York City and Long Island.
Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) starts out as an aspiring stockbroker at a legendary Wall Street firm, only for the ’87 market crash to hit hard during his first week on the job and subsequently wipe out the entire company. Desperate for work, he takes a job at a small time brokerage firm out in the Long Island suburbs hawking worthless penny stocks, but his natural, aggressive salesmanship sends him rocketing up the ranks of power and fortune.
When he decides to step out on his own, he recruits a business partner named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) as well as a group of his childhood buddies—a motley crew of scoundrels and miscreants whose only sales experience is hawking weed. The newly-formed firm of Stratton Oakmont quickly rakes in obscene piles of cash by bending the rules of the game (or outright breaking them), and as the office grows in both size and personnel, so too does their indulgence in vice, revelry and debauchery.
With a massive mansion, bottomless pockets, and a blonde trophy wife in the form of Margot Robbie’s Noami Belfort, Jordan soon finds himself with more than one man could ever possibly want. The only problem is that, for him, it’s not enough.
His unquenchable thirst for profits and pleasure lands him under the suspicious eye of both the SEC and the FBI, and it’s only a matter of time until all these factors converge into a catastrophe whose cost is too high– even for a man with all the money in the world.
DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese cements his bid to succeed Robert De Niro as the director’s male muse with an Oscar-nominated performance that could, quite frankly, be the best of his career. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a shameless braggart, a philandering playboy, and a voracious drug and sex addict all wrapped up into a singular, darkly charismatic package.
Channeling the same sort of supreme hubris exhibited by Ray Liotta in GOODFELLAS, DiCaprio is endlessly entertaining to watch in the role, and his innate likability allows him to get away with everything short of murder.
If DiCaprio is the star of the show, however, his co-star Jonah Hill outright steals it in his depiction of the awkwardly bespectacled Donnie Azoff, an impish little devil of a business partner who goads Belfort on towards new heights of debauchery. Fulfilling the hothead/clown archetype previously filled by Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995), Hill received his second Oscar nomination for his work here, which uses nuance and genuine inspiration to transcend the raunchy, juvenile comedies he’s best known for.
A director of Scorsese’s stature can get pretty much any actor he wants, and it’s in his supporting casts that he injects an eclectic and offbeat ensemble energy. A relative newcomer to the scene, Australian national Margot Robbie makes quite the splash as Jordan’s second wife, Noami—the self-styled “Duchess of Bay Bridge”.
Her feisty, fearless performance doesn’t just fulfill the “Scorsese blonde” archetype that’s present in Scorsese’s classical rise-and-fall narratives, it outright smashes the competition to establish her as one of the very best of Scorsese’s leading ladies. Matthew McConaughey turns in a brief, memorable appearance as the powerful broker Mark Hanna, Jordan’s first mentor figure and one spacey dude.
Kyle Chandler, best known for his involvement in the FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS series, positions himself for a feature breakout as FBI Agent Denham, the boy scout tasked with taking Belfort down. Shea Whigham, who previously appeared in Scorsese’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot, pops up briefly as the captain on Belfort’s yacht.
Jean Dujardin, fresh off his breakout turn on the Academy Award-winning THE ARTIST (2011) plays on his “suave rich gentleman” physicality as Jean Jacque Surel, a French banker who hides Belfort’s immense cash reserves in Swedish bank accounts. Noted NYC personality and writer Fran Lebowitz, subject of Scorsese’s 2010 documentary PUBLIC SPEAKING, also makes a brief cameo as the judge who sentences Jordan to prison.
Like other directors of his generation, Scorsese occasionally likes to cast other directors in bit roles, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET boasts the participation of no less than three. Rob Reiner, best known for 1989’s WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, subverts his warm, cuddly image as Max Belfort—Jordan’s father and a man with a foul mouth and a hairtrigger temper.
Jon Favreau, of IRON MAN (2008), MADE (2001) and CHEF (2014) fame, plays Manny Raskin—an SEC attorney who aids and abets Jordan’s corrupt business practices. Finally, there’s HER (2013) director Spike Jonze, who briefly appears as the meek owner of the smalltime penny stock firm that Jordan turns to in desperation.
Whereas 2011’s HUGO was shot entirely digital due to the demands of 3D technology, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s return to two dimensions meant that Scorsese could return to his beloved film, but the nascent digital format left a lingering mark on the seasoned director.
The piece incorporates a seamless mix of 35mm film and digital footage courtesy of the Arri Alexa (mostly during visual effects shots or low light nighttime scenarios), unified by an anamorphic aspect ratio and the consistent mixing of bright pops of color with neutral tones.
He may be working for the first time with a new cinematographer in Rodrigo Prieto, but the aesthetic is vintage Scorsese: whip-pans, freeze frames, extended tracking shots, mixed media, characters breaking the fourth wall, and colorful voiceover narration all swirl together into a noxious brew of unbridled testerone.
Indeed, Scorsese’s high-energy take on this modern-day Caligula tale gives the viewer a dizzying contact high, as if they were mainlining it directly into their veins. If the brisk, freewheeling style of CASINO was the amped-up son of GOODFELLAS, then THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is like their trucker-speed snorting cousin on an eight day bender.
Thankfully, Scorsese’s veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker knows this territory like the back of her hand, cultivating a delirious pace that never falters or wobbles– which is quite an achievement, considering its near-three hour running time.
Like GOODFELLAS and CASINO before it, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET incorporates a jukebox-style soundtrack to musically reflect Belfort’s rollercoaster ride of a lifestyle. Scorsese popularized the usage of rock needledrops in contemporary films, but as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s soundtrack suggests, his tastes are far more diverse than his earlier work might suggest.
The sonic palette here is just as ADD as its protagonist– chasing down a meal of rock and blues with washes of samba, opera, rap, and punk. Despite the disparate genres and styles, the cumulative effect is that of a cohesive, colorful vision that only Scorsese can provide.
Just as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET shares its structural DNA with the rags-to-riches formula of GOODFELLAS and CASINO, so too does it revel in the same type of thematic fascinations. This makes for an old-fashioned, quintessentially Scorsese-ian experience.
The director is at his best working within the confines of a narrative that has us rooting for a ragtag crew of hoods and thugs as they try to make their own way in America. We care about these brutish, foul-mouthed, and unpredictably violent characters, no matter how reprehensible they may be– but why? It’s certainly not because we find them “likeable”, despite their slick charlatan charisma– it’s because we recognize a fundamental aspect of ourselves in them.
The desire to improve one’s station in life is a universal feeling, and we can’t help but admire Scorsese’s characters for working hard to achieve their goals, even if the nature of said work isn’t exactly legitimate. The coup de grace in this approach is imbuing these thugs with a sense of responsibility and love for the family unit, an understanding that that likely stems from Scorsese’s family-centric Italian heritage.
Like many of the director’s best works, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET hangs its dramatic values along the hinges of Belfort’s family dynamics– while a good deal of the film’s tension arises from Belfort’s attempts to elude the SEC and the FBI (and subsequently, jail time), the meat of the story resides in the conflict between Belfort and his wife, or his co-workers at Stratton Oakmont (who he loves as if they were blood-related).
The establishing of a family dynamic amongst otherwise non-biological tribes is a very American idea, rooted in the twentieth-century immigrant experience from which Scorsese draws one of his chief artistic inspirations. It should come as no surprise that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET feels like the most-inspired Scorsese film in years.
Just as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was produced through unconventional means that hinted at the future of large-scale indie film financing, so too was it distributed in a way that heralds the arrival of a new industry paradigm. Towards the end of 2013, Paramount announced that it would no longer distribute its films to cinemas on celluloid prints, opting instead distributing them digitally.
By virtue of its release timing, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was thus the first major studio feature to be distributed entirely digitally. No release print was ever struck on film– an ironic development, considering Scorsese’s reputation as one of our most vocal film preservationists.
Of course, at the end of the day, a film’s quality isn’t decided by its release format, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s digital-only release certainly didn’t hinder its performance. The film was financially successful despite being unabashedly controversial– with its rampantly shameless drug use, copious nudity, and the current record for most “fucks” dropped in a single narrative feature, the film is probably one of the hardest R’s (rating-wise) in recent memory.
It went on to become a major contender at the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to the aforementioned acting categories. It would win none, but when it comes to Scorsese, awards don’t matter. He had proved himself as one of our greatest living filmmakers yet again, turning in what no doubt will be remembered as one of his best works, as well as one of the best films of the decade.
At 72 years old, Scorsese is approaching the tail end of a long, celebrated career. Thanks to the success of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, he could retire tomorrow and go out on a hell of a strong note, but thankfully Scorsese’s unflagging energy and zeal for filmmaking shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
In 2015, he’s already released a documentary entitled THE 50 YEAR ARGUMENT, and is set to release a new short called THE AUDITION that will reunite him with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s currently shooting SILENCE, a long-gestating passion project that will see him return to the realm of influence that fueled his introspective religious epics, KUNDUN (1997) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988).
Beyond that, he’s attached to direct a biopic on Frank Sinatra. As one can see, that’s a pretty full slate for someone approaching his fifth decade of filmmaking. At this point, every new Scorsese work is a gift, which makes it hard to accept the fact that one day he will stop. When that day arrives (and not soon, hopefully), Scorsese will leave behind a towering collection of works and an unrivaled legacy in the history of the medium.
Like the early filmmakers he so often cites as inspiration, Scorsese has fundamentally shaped and defined cinema– and unlike a lot of contemporary directors his age or even younger, he’ll continue shaping the medium for as long as he’s around.
THE AUDITION (2015)
Director Martin Scorsese’s celebrated collaborations with legendary actor Robert De Niro are the stuff of cinematic legend– TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), GOODFELLAS (1990); to name just a few. Each project they undertake together seems to bring out the very best in the other, even if the finished products don’t quite meet expectations.
To a somewhat lesser extent, this is also true of Scorsese’s more-recent string of collaborations with Leonard DiCaprio, an acclaimed performer in his own right. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), THE DEPARTED (2006), and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) may not be on the same level as Scorsese’s earlier classics but they too constitute a body of work that has seen both director and actor feeding off the other’s highly-attuned creative energies.
Most directors are lucky to get one muse in their lifetime, let alone two, so it’s understandable that many in the cinema world viewed a collaboration between both men under Scorsese’s direction as something of a cinematic holy grail akin to the long-anticipated team-up between De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995).
In 2015, this dream scenario finally arrived, albeit not in the form fans were expecting. Instead of a sprawling feature with characters these actors could really sink their teeth into, we would get a 16 minute short film called THE AUDITION. Actually, to call it a short film is disingenuous; a more accurate description would be an overbaked commercial and one of the more egregious displays of #content in recent years.
Commissioned by the owners of the then-unbuilt City of Dreams and Studio City casinos in Manila and Macau, respectively, at a cost of $70 million dollars, THE AUDITION is nothing less than the most expensive advertisement ever made. With RSA and Brett Ratner’s Ratpac Productions serving as his production team, Scorsese and his key collaborators are just barely able to stay above the profound level of sleaze coating the project.
Written by Terence Winter, Scorsese’s writing collaborator on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and the then-upcoming HBO show VINYL, THE AUDITION plays like one big meta joke. De Niro, DiCaprio, Scorsese, and even Brad Pitt appear as highly exaggerated versions of themselves, with De Niro and DiCaprio running into each other in a Manila casino and discovering they’ve both been summoned by Scorsese to audition for his next picture.
For the ensuing 16 minutes, the two actors expend a great deal of energy trying to one-up each other and prove they’re the right choice for the part. For some reason, this effort takes them from Manila, to Macau, and finally to Japan, where Scorsese realizes (erroneously) that Brad Pitt is actually the man for the part.
Visually speaking, THE AUDITION plays like the cinematic equivalent of the uncanny valley– as if some 22nd-century artificial intelligence used the raw data from the director’s previous films to simulate a new “Martin Scorsese” picture long after he and his collaborators have passed. In other words, there’s no life to this picture; no blood flowing under its veins.
It’s an animated corpse of a movie; a zombie. This is due in no insubstantial part to the heavy use of poorly-rendered CG environments– indeed, the entire film was shot in a matter of days in a small soundstage in New York, and most definitely not at the three casinos featured in the film (seeing as they had yet to actually be built).
Scorsese brings his signature visual style to the proceedings, collaborating with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto for a high-contrast, glitzy look that crosses CASINO (1995) with BLADE RUNNER (1982) in the worst possible way.
It’s unclear from this particular viewing whether Scorsese acquired the 2.35:1 image photochemically or digitally (I suspect the latter considering the heavy use of CGI backdrops), but other signatures like a dynamic, zooming camera and a rollicking jukebox soundtrack make it clear that his employers hired him for his unique style just as much as his famous name.
Indeed, the concept hinges on the audience’s cognizance of Scorsese’s most high-profile artistic trope– his consistent collaborations with De Niro and DiCaprio. It milks this central joke for every ounce of comedic juice, nevermind the fact that their age difference alone makes the idea that they’d ever compete for the same role a patently absurd and unrealistic one.
It’s a common saying in the gambling industry that “the house” always wins, but in the case of THE AUDITION, it’s clear that the players walked away from the table as the true victors. There’s no doubt that the project is the very definition of selling out, but if some big casino is willing to wastefully spend $70 million on a glorified commercial with limited appeal, then the vendors involved should be commended for taking those suckers for all they’re worth.
Indeed, a huge percentage of that $70 million went to the talent– Scorsese, De Niro, DiCaprio, and Pitt all received $13 million for only a few days of shooting. Odds are they’re still enjoying that cash, while their employers gave the film a lavish world premiere at the Studio City Casino’s grand opening and then screened it only a select few times since.
The film still hasn’t received a proper release in the United States (a mindboggling development considering the talent involved), but those who want to see Scorsese’s latest cheeky foray into the world of branded content can find an awful-quality rip on Youtube. THE AUDITION gives us no new insights into Scorsese’s artistic character, but it does serve as further evidence of the iconic director’s playfulness in his old age as well as his recognizance of his own place in American pop culture.
“VINYL” PILOT (2016)
New York City in the 1970’s was a vastly different metropolis than the one we know today– a gritty, crime-riddled furnace of vice and decay. Forever committed to our collective filmic memory via director Martin Scorsese’s classic noir, TAXI DRIVER (1976), this world also informed the gestation of the venerated filmmaker’s earlier 1973 breakout, MEAN STREETS.
Nearly fifty years on, post-Giuliani Manhattan is an international capitalist’s playground where foreign oligarchs go to store their fortunes in the form of obscenely-expensive high-rise condos. For artists of all stripes, Manhattan has become a place where they commodify their art instead of create it.
In 2016, Scorsese would venture back to MEAN STREET’s seedy New York of 1973 with the pilot for VINYL, an HBO series developed by him in collaboration with his BOARDWALK EMPIRE partner Terence Winter, Rich Cohen, and The Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger.
Envisioned as a rollicking portrait of his beloved city during a watershed moment in the music industry that saw the dawn of both punk rock and hip-hop, VINYL boasted a creative alchemy that must have seemed like a surefire hit at the time. Scorsese, NYC, HBO, the 70’s, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll… how could VINYL not be a monster success?
They didn’t count on their audience’s capability for indifference, however, and interest in the show quickly tapered off after Scorsese’s splashy feature-length premiere. VINYL’s one and only season may be underwhelming, but Scorsese’s inaugural episode kicks off the series in style while leaving his audience with the kind of gleefully-dizzying contact high that only he can deliver.
It’s 1973 and rock ‘n’ roll is at the heights of success– excess and indulgence is everywhere, from the bands to the record executives. Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is the hard-working, and even-harder-partying, owner of American Century Records, currently navigating the sale of his company to a conglomerate of shady German businessmen.
He’s full of the cocky Italian swagger we’ve come to expect from the prototypical Scorsese crime-film protagonist, but he’s also a product of runaway American upbringing– a coke-hoovering capitalist who shamelessly employs tricky accounting to ensure his company’s profits go to him and not to the artists who’ve made him rich in the first place.
He’s also got a sweet side, evidenced in the scenes where he travels back to the home he shares in Connecticut with his children and his loving (but decreasingly patient) wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde). Scorsese’s pilot finds Richie navigating a crisis on multiple fronts: in addition to the sale of his company, he’s also looking for the next big thing.
He’s grown disgusted by the excess and interior decay of the music industry, embodied in figures like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Andrew Dice Clay’s boorish, Caligula-esque pig of a radio gatekeeper, Frank “Buck” Rogers. A chance encounter with an old protege named Lester Grimes (Eto Essandoh) leaves him haunted by an earlier failure within the crushing jaws of the music industry machine— a personal, moral failure that quite literally ruined Lester’s life.
The pilot juxtaposes the sleazy decadence of 70’s rock ‘n’ roll with the ideological purity and raw, unleashed energy of the nascent punk movement. The climax of the episode finds Richie reborn in the glow of a raucous underground concert that quite literally brings the house down.
His earlier mandate to employees to find The Next Big Thing helps open up the world of VINYL via its supporting characters, most notably with Juno Temple’s Jamie Vine, an assistant in the A&R department derided by her male colleagues as “the sandwich girl”. She’s isn’t afraid to let her ethics get in the way of her ambition, evidenced by the veritable candy drawer of drugs she keeps at her desk so as to curry favor with her bosses.
With Richie’s blessing, she leads ACR’s charge into the world of punk by going after Kip Stevens, the rough-edged frontman of The Nasty Bitz (and played, interestingly enough, by Mick Jagger’s own son, James). Scorsese’s two-hour pilot ducks and weaves through its various subplots at characteristically-breakneck speed, delivering all the satisfaction of a feature film with none of the resolution.
Obviously, that’s not a flaw in this situation– such a wild, indulgent and sprawling world deserves the same from its maiden episode. Indeed, Scorsese succeeds in setting the table for the main course to come, filling the seats with compelling, out-of-the-box casting choices like Ray Romano as ACR’s neurotic head of promotion and Paul Ben-Victor as a brusque, unsentimental vestige of the music industry’s Old World.
Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto returns to shoot VINYL, bucking the recent trend towards pristine digital photography in favor of 1.85:1 35mm film. The high contrast, gritty texture of celluloid and saturated colors ably capture the griminess of NYC circa 1973, becoming a quite literal return to the “mean streets” of Scorsese’s formative years.
Indeed, a sequence in which Richie and his driver sail through Times Square and the rainy, nocturnal Manhattan landscape almost plays like a shot-for-shot recreation of TAXI DRIVER’s most atmospheric sequences. Scorsese’s dynamic, high-energy style is immediately identifiable here, using a mix of kinetic steadicam, dolly, and crane shots in addition to rack zooms and whip pans.
When combined with Richie’s braggadocious, cocksure voiceover and a rollicking jukebox soundtrack that ducks and weaves through the pilot’s duration, this results in an exhilarating and unique fusion of sound and image that recalls the very best of the director’s crime epics.
Still more of Scorsese’s stylistic signatures make their routine appearance in VINYL: jump-cuts, punch-ins, split-focus diopter compositions, and even the usage of extreme slow-motion during the book ending warehouse concert sequence. All told, VINYL’s technical presentation slips quite effortlessly into Scorsese’s larger filmography, reinforcing the consistency of his particular visual grammar.
From a thematic standpoint, VINYL is also vintage Scorsese– from its NY setting, to the rampant substance abuse, and even to the wise-guy businessmen who employ blunt force and gangster intimidation in their dealings. Like most of the director’s previous work, VINYL possesses a strain of unpredictable tension that usually erupts into chaotic and messy violence (seen best in the sequence where Richie visits “Buck” Rogers’ opulent Long Island home at the end of a two-day bender).
Cultural history, particularly of the musical and cinematic variety, continues to play a substantial role in Scorsese’s artistic identity. The aforementioned “Buck” Rogers home-visit sequence throws a nod towards film history by projecting James Whale’s horror classic FRANKENSTEIN (1931) onto a large screen in Buck’s foyer/living room.
The show as a whole honors the history of twentieth-century American music, narratively tracking how blues became rock ‘n’ roll, and how rock further transmogrified and branched out into punk and hip-hop. Scorsese’s appreciation for the history of rhythm & blues is particularly evident, with VINYL incorporating several interstitial vignettes that artfully showcase various musicians as they perform seminal genre hits.
As exciting and as artfully made as it is, the pilot for VINYL doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in Scorsese’s artistic development. Marking his return to television since he shot the pilot for BOARDWALK EMPIRE in 2010, VINYL was a project that Scorsese no doubt felt particularly enthusiastic about; indeed, he hoped to shoot further episodes in future seasons (1).
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Interest in the show dive-bombed after the premiere of Scorsese’s pilot, and the series’ co-creator and showrunner, Terence Winter, left the show over creative differences towards the end of the first season (2)(3). Steven Soderbergh’s frequent writing collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, was hired to take the reigns for Season 2, only for HBO to ultimately cancel the show a few months after making the initial renewal decision (4).
Resting somewhere in the middle ground between success and failure, VINYL nevertheless serves as a visceral portrait of a bygone era, and something of a prologue to the contemporary music industry’s peculiar quirks. Scorsese’s pilot, which garnered generally positive reviews from critics, sets the world of the show up in impeccable fashion. More importantly, it serves as further evidence that, after nearly half a century of filmmaking, Scorsese still serves as a vital force in the contemporary cultural landscape.
The “passion project” is a common trope in the film industry– every director has a story he or she feels innately compelled to make for any variety of artistic reasons. In the context of director Martin Scorsese’s filmography, this idea takes on a higher, reinforced meaning. He is an inherently religious director, but rather than preach to the pews, he brings his Roman Catholic heritage and identity to bear in films that actively explore what it means to be faithful.
Best known for his bloody gangland epics, Scorsese has repeatedly tackled highly-personal projects about the interior conflict of faith and belief, laboring for years to get these films out of the hangar, let alone off the ground. The most famous example of this is 1988’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which dared to examine Jesus Christ’s inherent humanity during his last, agonizing days on Earth.
Scorsese found himself confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles at every step of the way, only for the finished film to be met with widespread controversy and the condemnation of his own people. He would follow that film up with 1997’s KUNDUN, which tackled similar ideas from an Eastern viewpoint as it followed the Dalai Llama’s exile from his homeland.
During this time, Scorsese began developing another project that would serve as the capper to an informal trilogy about faith under fire– a story called SILENCE, about a pair of Jesuit missionaries struggling to keep their faith while contending with the persecutions of a hostile Japanese government.
Adapted from the eponymous novel by Shusaku Endo, which was given to Scorsese in 1988 by the Episcopal priest Reverend Moore (who would later serve as the Bishop of the Diocese of New York (1)), SILENCE would follow the long-gestating template of its spiritual predecessors and take nearly two decades before it would reach the screen in 2016.
The earliest draft, by Scorsese and his longtime colleague, Jay Cocks, dates back to the 1990’s, and initial plans to make SILENCE following their 2002 collaboration GANGS OF NEW YORK fell apart due to their inability to obtain financing (1).
While Scorsese moved onto other projects with more momentum, he continued softly packaging SILENCE, attaching his GANGS OF NEW YORK star Daniel Day-Lewis, Gael-Garcia Bernal and Benicio Del Toro to play the film’s three key roles (1). One by one, all three dropped out in the aftermath of repeated delays.
Even his Oscar win for directing 2006’s THE DEPARTED wasn’t enough for Scorsese to generate the necessary financing for SILENCE. All the while, he was facing legal problems with his production team– producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori filed suit against Scorsese for not making SILENCE in a satisfactorily-timely manner per a previous agreement.
Following THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s widespread success in 2013, Scorsese declared enough was enough: he would not make another narrative feature until he made SILENCE (2). If this weren’t difficult enough, Scorsese had decided to finally make the film during the current Hollywood climate, where mainstream studios only greenlit superhero tentpoles and endless franchise installments and the independent route offered only a complicated maze of shady foreign financiers.
Nevertheless, Scorsese would persevere, aided by his longtime producer partner Barbara De Fina and a deep production bench that included Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Randall Emmett, David Lee, and Gaston Pavlovich. SILENCE would finally go before cameras in 2016 with minimal funds, forcing everyone (including Scorsese himself) to work for scale during a grueling, weather-plagued shoot in Taiwan (3)(1).
Despite its overlong gestation period and the numerous difficulties in getting the film made, the finished product stands as a gripping, profoundly powerful film and the latest beacon of excellence in Scorsese’s celebrated career.
SILENCE is set in 17th century Japan, a time when the country’s Roman Catholic population went into hiding to escape religious persecution following the Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate.
Two young Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), are sent from their native Portugal into this treacherous climate– not to spread the Gospel, however, but to find and recover their fellow missionary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is thought to have “apostasized” (renounced his faith) after his capture and subsequent torture by the Japanese government.
Summoning up all their courage, the two priests venture deep into the heart of Japan in hopes of retrieving him, knowing full well that they too will face a harrowing crucible of faith that will test their beliefs to their very core.
In casting SILENCE, Scorsese places a great emotional burden on the two young leads, demanding performances that require a total investment of mind, body, and soul. Many young actors simply do not possess this depth by virtue of their relative inexperience or still-embryonic artistic development, but fortunately, Garfield and Driver prove far more than capable of the challenge.
As the quietly passionate and conflicted Father Rodrigues, Garfield demonstrates how his natural talents have grown since his breakout performance in David Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). He reportedly prepared for an entire year, and it shows– Garfield reaches deep down into himself, pulling out a heart wrenching performance that ably conveys the magnitude of Rodrigues’ crisis of faith.
Likewise, Driver continues to bolster his reputation as a serious thespian, losing a sum total of seventy pounds over the course of preparation and production to play Rodrigues’ tempestuous counterpart, Father Garupe (1). Neeson, who last worked with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK, completes SILENCE’s trio of compelling performances as Ferreira, the apostatized priest at the center of the story’s drama.
The film begins with the moment of his spiritual breaking, unable to no longer cope with the persecution and torture of his fellow Christians. When he’s finally located in SILENCE’s second half, Ferreira is living in a tenuous peace with the Japanese and is no longer conflicted about his apostasy.
He’s used his intellect to rationalize his abandonment of faith, and subsequently presents to Rodrigues SILENCE’s central moral quandary: is it more Christ-like to hold strong to your faith, or to sacrifice your spiritual being so that others don’t suffer? Indeed, SILENCE posits that, sometimes, the most sacred show of faith is one that’s done in secret.
SILENCE follows KUNDUN’s visual template as a spiritual epic, presenting itself as a prime example of lush production value despite its limited funds. Working with returning cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese captures SILENCE primarily on 35mm film, supplemented by digital Arri Alexa footage for candlelit nighttime shots and other select scenes.
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio provides Scorsese with an appropriate canvas for epic, atmospheric compositions with a sprawling sense of depth. A desaturated color palette renders 17th-century Japan as a cold, wet land with a stark beauty all its own, and hinges on the orange/teal chromatic dichotomy that has become fashionable in regards to contemporary color grading practices.
A heavy blue cast coasts exterior sequences, while interior nighttime scenes lean heavily into the orange glow of their practical candle light sources. Scorsese forgoes his usual “rock n’ roll” style of movement, opting instead for the austere sobriety of classical, formalist camerawork.
That said, SILENCE does bear subdued variations on some of Scorsese’s technical signatures, like whip-pans, expressionistic slow motion, compositions that employ a split-focus diopter, and even his trademark “scream-in” move (which reverses itself here to move away from Garfield at breakneck speed during a climactic moment of despair).
Like much of the director’s work as of late, SILENCE employs a fair amount of CGI to help him recreate the period– while these moments tend to stick out like a sore thumb (perhaps by virtue of a meager special effects budget), Scorsese never sacrifices character or story to the altar of artificial visual grandeur.
Scorsese’s longtime production designer Dante Ferretti returns for their first collaboration since 2011’s HUGO, as does editor Thelma Schoonmaker– arguably the director’s closest technical collaborator. While SILENCE is presented in a relatively straightforward, linear fashion, Scorsese and Schoonmaker pepper the story with moments of Malickian voiceover that convey Rodrigues’ interior monologue.
Much like fellow director Terrence Malick’s signature technique, Garfield’s voiceover takes on a quiet, searching energy– becoming something more like a prayer than a narrative device. There’s even echoes of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, in a climactic scene that finds Rodrigues forced with a devastating choice: condemn himself to horrific religious persecution, or renounce his faith by stepping on a metal plate bearing Christ’s visage.
At this moment, he hears the voice of God in his head, letting him know it’s okay to apostatize– but is it really God? Or, like Jesus’ visions in the desert in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, is it actually the voice of Satan, tempting him with comfort in a moment of crisis?
SILENCE naturally presents itself as a blend of Eastern and Western philosophies and iconography. The influence of master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has always been felt throughout Scorsese’s filmography, but it is particularly palpable here– indeed, Kurosawa was the context in which Scorsese first read the source novel, having traveled to to Japan to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in the director’s 1990 feature, DREAMS (4).
That same spirit extends to SILENCE’s compelling compositions and dramaturgy, while also reflecting the core thematic conceits of Scorsese’s artistic identity. The iconography and dogmas of Catholicism inform many characters throughout his body of work, but none have been called to test their faith as SILENCE does of its two leads (well, with the exception of Jesus himself in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST).
Whereas early films like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), and MEAN STREETS (1973), and even newer works like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED, used Scorsese’s familiarity with Catholicism to shade out their respective characters’ backstories or provide blooms of regional color, SILENCE serves as the rare occasion in which spiritual belief becomes the conflict itself.
In his own words, Scorsese has said SILENCE is about “the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience” (1), and Rodrigues and Garupe cling fast to their beliefs in the face of unthinkable experience in the form of violent religious persecution.
The Christians of 1600s-era Japan are forced to endure horrible torture simply for believing, with their only reward being an unceremonious and unexpected beheading or being strung up on a cross themselves and slowly beaten to death by the ocean’s endless onslaught of vicious tidal waves. Scorsese stages these moments of visceral carnage much like he does in his previous work, depicting the horror of violence by virtue of its chaotic, unpredictable messiness.
In both form and content, Scorsese crafts SILENCE as the third part of his loose trilogy about religious persecution and the spiritual battle for the soul. It’s fitting that SILENCE blends the core thematic conceits of its two predecessors, allowing ideas, imagery and even characters to overlap– one of the film’s chief antagonists, The Inquisitor, is personified in a particular manner so similar to the characterization of Mao Zedong in KUNDUN that I was initially convinced the two parts were played by the same actor (they aren’t).
While these three films are separated by the passing of a decade (two in the case of KUNDUN and SILENCE), they are unified by Scorsese’s thoughtful, passionate approach to his own spirituality– one that doesn’t deal in trite platitudes or preaches to the choir like so many cynically-crafted, cringe-inducing “religious” films, but instead chooses to actively explore and challenge what it means to be faithful, and in the process creates a living, breathing covenant far more relevant to today’s world than the stubborn faux piety that often characterizes modern religion.
The initial rollout of SILENCE proved promising enough– following its world premiere at a venue no less than The Vatican, the film screened at Cannes and then received a wide release by Paramount timed for prime awards season visibility.
Whatever momentum it had was stopped short by that all-powerful arbiter of a film’s “worth” — box office performance — and was summarily dismissed as a financial failure whose worldwide sales could only recoup half of what the filmmakers spent.
As unfortunate as this is, it’s hard to see Scorsese and company envisioning a different outcome– passion projects hardly ever set the box office on fire, especially ones with an overtly religious affectation. That being said, no one makes a passion project so the studios can cut fat holiday bonus checks for its executive.
These kinds of films have a place in our culture, and they shouldn’t be devalued simply because they didn’t meet Viacom or General Electric’s bottom line. Thankfully, the critics immediately recognized the power of Scorsese’s monumental accomplishment– many were quick to praise SILENCE’s complex, nuanced depiction of faith in action, and some went even further to call it an outright masterpiece.
Naturally, the film has its usual share of detractors, but barely a year on from its release, a consensus has already emerged that SILENCE is a truly important film in Scorsese’s body of work, standing confidently amongst his best.
Sure, it doesn’t have the sexiness of his drug-fueled crime capers or the “must-see” controversy surrounding other religious pictures like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, but SILENCE is nonetheless a profound statement on one of the key pillars of Scorsese’s identity.
It provides unimaginably intimate insights into the faith system of its creator, but more importantly, SILENCE serves as a challenge to all of us: no matter our creed, no matter our God/s, we must all strive towards a higher ideal if we are to realize our full potential.
STREET SCENES (1970)
“Not my President!”
This phrase, loaded not just with implicit political bias but with a readiness to reject the opinions of an entire demographic as inherently invalid, has been thrown around with reckless abandon over the past few years. We live in an extreme climate of political polarization, having nuked the common ground between our opposing ideologies.
Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to hear the same phrase barked out during a tense moment in director Martin Scorsese’s 1970 STREET SCENES. If nothing else, Scorsese’s documentary about a pair of anti-Vietnam and anti-war protests makes it clear that there’s always been two Americas, each absolutely convinced of their own superiority and righteousness as they lunge at the other’s throats.
Add to that the image of a downtown bank’s windows boarded up in sheets of plywood in preparation for a riot, and one comes to an undeniable, sobering realization: all of this has happened before, and it will happen again.
To inhabit the world of academia in the late 1960’s was to apparently live in a climate of constant political agitation and radicalization. A new generation of Americans was rising up to assert their opposition to the military-industrial complex, using their God-given right to free speech as well as an unparalleled media literacy to issue forceful calls for peace.
In the chambers and corridors of the constellation of buildings surrounding Washington Square Park that constitute the New York University campus, students were actively learning how to harness the tools and technology of media messaging to affect change. They found the documentary format a particularly effective tool in their efforts, having been turned on to the power of cinema verite by professor Haig Manoogian.
He exposed his students to the groundbreaking work of documentary filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, and Chris Marker, drawing a direct line to the narrative flourishes of the Italian neorealist and French New Wave pictures that inspired them so. Scorsese found himself particularly energized by the format’s truth telling qualities, vowing to always capture its powers no matter the nature of the project (2).
This conviction has led to a flourishing second career in documentaries that stands side by side with his theatrical narrative work. His earliest professional brush with the form occurred as a result of his taking a second job to supplement his teaching work at NYU.
He was moonlighting as an editor alongside Thelma Schoonmaker at Paradigm Pictures, where they would spend business hours cutting the Merv Griffin show, and once everyone else had gone home for the day, they would cut his debut feature WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?
The gig would ultimately lead to his very first professional screen credit, as a first assistant director and co-editor with Schoonmaker on Michael Wadleigh’s WOODSTOCK (1970). Though the film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, Scorsese eventually found himself locked out of the editing room because of his creative differences with Wadleigh (2). Thankfully, Scorsese had another documentary project in which to occupy his time.
As a member of a group of film students who dubbed themselves the New York Cinetracts Collective, Scorsese naturally emerged as a creative figurehead. Though the Collective championed the removal of individual authorship from their work, the production of STREET SCENES required a singular presence in the edit bay to supervise the assembly of disparate protest footage into a coherent story.
In an attempt to capture the roiling anger of the student anti-war movement, STREET SCENES gives an eyewitness, street-level account of two protest rallies: the Hard Hat Riot on Wall Street on May 7th and 8th, followed on May 9th by the Kent State Incursion Protest in Washington DC.
The film combines protest footage with heated symposiums in student dorms as well as dispassionate conferences in a newsroom in a bid to capture the unbridled passions of American youth fighting against the might of the military-industrial complex as well as the well-oiled engines of commerce and mass media.
Featuring appearances by present & future collaborators like Verna Bloom, Jay Cocks, and Harvey Keitel (in addition to Scorsese himself), STREET SCENES is a raw howl for peace, rendered in the handheld, casual vernacular of direct cinema.
Though IMDB lists the film gauge as 35mm, the hardscrabble mix of black & white and color footage suggests itself as the cheaper 16mm format— a far more likely scenario given their expectedly limited resources. Scorsese oversees the collective efforts of friends like Schoonmaker as well as his students, including a young Oliver Stone, who operates one of the cameras.
Despite STREET SCENES’ origins as a collective effort, Scorsese’s burgeoning artistic identity can’t help but assert itself. The inclusion of pre-existing rock tracks from bands like Canned Heat and Blind Faith might be the most conspicuous example, with the film’s general unavailability in the public forum likely owing to the expectation that these tracks were never properly cleared or licensed.
There’s also images that speak to Scorsese’s upbringing in a world caught between crime and faith, with protestors climbing up on a cross, or clashing participants lobbying their fists against their enemy as a kind of impotent substitute for their inability to reconcile the simmering conflicts within their own ranks.
Cinema itself becomes a kind of unspoken theme throughout STREET SCENES, a prelude to larger documentary explorations of the art form like A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES or MY VOYAGE TO ITALY as well as narrative meditations like HUGO.
This starts with the formation of the Cinetracts collective itself, underlining the communal attitude towards filmmaking espoused by Scorsese’s generation as they searched for an alternative to the capitalistic hierarchy of traditional production. The opening finds students discussing the form & theory of cinema, especially as it pertains to conveying their anti-war message.
Their formal education in film makes for a palpable media literacy rivaled only by professional craftsmen; that they grew up immersed in this medium allows them to harness its power to an unparalleled extent.
There’s a reason why the filmmakers of the 1960’s and 1970’s loom so large over the art form, and why so many groundbreaking works were produced in that era. STREET SCENES, like other works from its time, is cinema by those with an over-abundance of passion and a complete lack of things to lose.
Untempered by the cold, compromising realities of the adult world, these young voices endeavor to point out complicated injustices with the clarity of condemnation. They refuse to inherit this broken world; better, then, to simply smash everything up and start over fresh.
The raw power that drove Scorsese’s early successes is clearly behind the wheel here as well— though it may be something of a “lost” work in his larger canon, STREET SCENES is nevertheless an important one. In its forceful rebuke of Vietnam and the events of Kent State, the film sees Scorsese step out from the shadow of his Old World heritage and embrace his destiny as an artist of his own time.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———