Scorsese: Early Movies

A Warner release of:

“Who’s That Knocking at My Door” 1968 B
“Mean Streets” 1973 A
“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” 1974 A-
“After Hours” 1985 A-
“GoodFellas” 1990 A

Some of Scorsese’s best and most important films were made at Warner. This five-film collection, covering the years of 1973 to 1990, includes the film that put Scorsese on the map, “Mean Streets,” as well as one of his most acclaimed, “GoodFellas.” The impressive set is a must-have for viewers interested in the evolution of the New American Cinema and in the career of the most brilliant director working in Hollywood today.

“Who’s That Knocking”

Originally titled “I Called First,” Scorsese’s debut feature was made while he was an instructor at NYU’s film school. Like all of Scorsese’s films, this small-scale drama, about an Italian-American youth, has strong autobiographical elements. It also shows what would become the director’s forte: Strong, complex characters rather than conventional plot.

In his first screen role, Harvey Keitel plays J.R., a street rough caught between an affair with an upper-crust blonde and the lure of gang life. The film’s milieu and characters would reappear in “Mean Street” and other future works. Several of Scorsese’s signature thematic and stylistic elements are evident: the Catholic themes of guilt, salvation, and redemption; the critique of masculinity; the use of dynamic, restless camera; the depiction of sudden, brutal violence in slow-motion; meticulous tracking shots.

On the commentary track, Scorsese revisits his childhood as a son of immigrant working-class parents, and his early passion for film. “I had no direction in my life,” Scorsese recalls, “but I was obsessed with movies, which I saw at the Thalia and other theaters.” He also tells how, to please his potential distributor, Joseph Brenner, he agreed to film a nude, though by that time the film had already finished shooting.

“Mean Streets”

Hailed by most critics as a dazzling work at its world premiere in the 1973 New York Film Festival, “Mean Streets” is the film that established Scorsese as the foremost director of the New American Cinema. The film chronicles the friendship of two small-time hoods, Johnny Boy and Charlie (Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel) in Little Italy. “Mean Streets” provides a perceptive, sympathetic, and tragic view of daily survival in a gangster environment. Scorsese places his anti-heroes in a context of sudden violent bursts, death threats, boredom, and the fear of mediocrity.

Charlie is torn between his desire to be a saint and to save the two people he’s close to–his epileptic girlfriend and crazy cousin Johnny Boy–and his desire to please his wiseguy uncle and find a place for himself in the mob hierarchy. Charlie’s inner conflict is indicative of the schizophrenic culture in which he’s trapped, a reflection of the incompatible values of the Catholic Church and the mob.

“Mean Streets” is indebted to gangster movies, the work of Sam Fuller, and especially John Cassavetes. Scorsese credits Cassavetes’ fluid, handheld camera in “Shadows” as revelatory and inspirational for his own work. “We could shoot anywhere!” he says, “It gave us the ability to be insane.” The film depicts an urban subculture seldom seen in such depth on the American screen. In one of his less aesthetically distanced films, Scorsese implicates himself in the guilt and paranoia, racism and sexism that prevailed in the milieu in which he lived.

It’s a highly personal film, as Scorsese notes: “It was a declaration, a statement of who I was, with dilemmas and conflicts that couldn’t be expressed in any other way.” Indeed, Charlie serves as Scorsese’s alter-ego, and Scorsese himself dubs one of the voices inside Charlie’s head. The casting of De Niro as Johnny Boy began a fruitfully professional association between actor and director that would continue throughout Scorsese’s subsequent career.

Produced for $300,000, “Mean Streets” benefited from the exploitation methods Scorsese had learned from directing “Boxcar Bertha” (his second and weakest film) for Roger Corman. Because of the tight budget, most of the film was shot place in Los Angeles, but despite these restrictions, Scorsese was able to convey vividly the unique ambience of Little Italy. “Mean Streets” boasts dazzling set pieces. The film’s raw energy is most impressive: The breathtaking opening sequence has been imitated by many directors. The verbal exchanges between Keitel and De Niro sound spontaneous, as if they were made up on the spot; some of the dialogue was improvised.

Though a commercial flop in 1973, “Mean Streets” is one of the most influential films of the past generation, inspiring numerous directors to make more personal and edgy films.

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

In 1974, “Alice Doesn’t” offered a new American screen heroine, a feisty, sarcastic, self-mocking woman who’s struggling to launch a new life for her and her young son. Reflecting the zeitgeist, it was a quasi-feminist that questioned conventions of female behavior on screen and off. In the commentary track, Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn (who won Best Actress Oscar) and Diane Ladd talk about the origins of the film, how a director like Scorsese was assigned to what was perceived as a quintessentially woman’s picture, and the casting of the leads.

Victimized by her brutish husband-truck driver, Alice (Burstyn) is shocked but also relieved when he gets killed in an accident. She then meets two men who represent opposite types: Ben (Harvey Keitel), a married brute who assaults her physically, and David (Kris Kristofferson), a handsome farmer who’s like prince charming in a fairy tale. A road comedy, “Alice Doesn’t” begins in New Mexico, then moves to Arizona, and ends in California. Along the way, it records a uniquely American landscape of cheap motels, drive-in diners, gas stations, and rest areas.

One of Scorsese’s few straightforward narratives, the film boasts formal stylistic energy, but is even more impressive in its realistic yet comic portrait of Alice’s relationships with her precautious son and with a tough-talking waitress (Ladd) with whom she develops intimate camaraderie; their scenes together are wonderful.

When “Alice Doesn’t was released, feminists were dissatisfied with the film’s sexual politics. They raised the question of whether the ending suggested a compromised equality or real liberation. Alice is in a relationship with a sensitive man who will treat her better, permit discussion, and perhaps even allow her to pursue a career. But the resolution also implies the restoration of patriarchy: Alice becomes dependent again, settling into another complacent relationship.

The critical and commercial success of “Alice Doesn’t” showed that there was interest in women’s stories and that they were viable at the box-office, leading to the making of other femme-themed pictures.

“After Hours”

“After Hours” is sort of Scorsese’s take on Joyce’s “Ulysses”—SoHo style. In this black comedy an Everyman (Griffin Dunne), an uptight computer programmer, goes through an endless cycle of bizarre experiences during one incredibly long night in Downtown New York.

As in every Scorsese film, behind every comic turn, there’s a sense of menace. Here, the orderliness of the music in the opening credits–Mozart’s Symphony in D major–provides a sharp contrast to everything that will follow. The original script, dealing with the disorientation of a yuppie who’s as bewildered as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” was written by Joseph Minion.

Paul’s misfortunes begin as his last $20 bill leaps out the cab window, during a wild ride downtown that depict images of New York as a carnival city. Throughout, Michael Ballhaus’s exquisite camera takes on a willful personality of its own, producing expressive and expressionist imagery of SoHo.

Paul, the quintessential Uptowner becomes a tourist in his own city, trying to adopt a temporary home and gain peace of mind after a chance encounter with a strange woman (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. He begins as a man who lives comfortably in a programmed, boring life and ends up in a world that shatters his values and desires. Paul is an Everyman trapped in a Kafkaesque fantasy/nightmare, populated by sexually and emotionally hungry women (Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Verna Bloom) who represent all of his sexual anxieties to the surface.

“GoodFellas”

Mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Lorraine Bracco) are put in the federal witness protection program after Hill decides that it’s the only way to save his life. The film flashes back to his boyhood in Brooklyn and his fascination with the Mafioso around him. Pesci plays one of cinema’s meanest characters, a sociopath who can snap from the jocular to the deadly in the blink of an eye. For his hair-triggering performance, Pesci won a well-deserved Supporting Oscar.

Using for the most part footage from a 1990 press junket, Scorsese, De Niro, and Joe Pesci comment on several scenes. Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book “Wiseguys” and adapted it to the screen with Scorsese, offers some fresh observations. He says that his discovery of Hills as a journalist was, “like getting hold of a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Detail, everything was detail.” Scorsese observes, “You could have made an endless number of films from that book.” The disc contains twin commentary tracks, one by the cast and crew, the other by Henry Hill and a former FBI agent.

This superbly canny and assured work, splendidly shot by Michael Ballhaus, is replete with clever touches: Asides to the camera, Brechtian alienation devises, astonishingly staged violence, done in a cool, controlled, and satirical mode. The critics raved, but the audience and the Academy preferred Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” which swept most of the Oscars. The Oscar has eluded Scorsese so far, because the Academy voters seem to prefer predictable competence over individual genius, proficiency over brilliance, middlebrow over highbrow fare, soothingly reassuring over violent and disturbing pictures.