Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968): Scorsese’s Feature Directing Debut, Starring Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Catherine Scorsese (his Mother), and Scorsese Himself in Cameo

Originally titled I Called First, Martin Scorsese’s crude debut feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, was made while he was an instructor at the NYU’s film school.

Grade: C+ (** out f *****)


Who’s That Knocking
at My Door

Theatrical release poster

Like all of Scorsese’s films, this small-scale drama, about an Italian-American youth, has strong autobiographical elements. This movie already shows what would become the directors forte: complex characterization rather than conventional plot.

In his first screen role, Harvey Keitel plays J.R., a Catholic Italian-American and a street rough caught between an affair with an upper-crust blonde and the lure of gang life.

Even as an adult, J.R. remains immature, and stays close to his home and a coterie of friends with whom he drinks and carouses around.

J.R. gets involved with a femme (called Girl, she is nameless) he meets on the Staten Island Ferry, and immediately express his wish to get married and settle down.

A victim of society’s macho code of ethics (and double standards), he declines Girl’s offer to have sex because he prefers to believe that she is a virgin and wants to wait for the right time (wedding night?) rather than “spoil” her.

When Gurl tells him that she was raped by a former boyfriend, J.R. rejects her and attempts to return to his old life of drinking with his friends.

However, after a particularly wild party with his no-good buddies, J.R. realizes that he still loves her and returns to her apartment. He awkwardly tells her that he “forgives” her and says that he will “marry her anyway.”

She, however, counters his idea, noting that marriage would never work if her past weighs so heavy on him.  As a result, J.R. becomes enraged and calls her a whore, but then quickly recants.

After sending him home, J.R. goes back to the church, the only familiar lace, hoping but failing to find any solace or peace of mind.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door was shot in New York City over the course of two years, undergoing in the process changes and different names along the way. The film began in 1965 as a student short film about J.R. and his do-nothing friends called “Bring on the Dancing Girls.”

In 1967, the romance plot with Zina Bethune was introduced and spliced together with the earlier film, and the title was changed to “I Call First.”

Haig Manoogian, Scorsese’s professor at NYU, provided $5,000 in seed money, then raised additional $65,000 from independent investors.

The film received its world premiere at the Chicago Film Fest, in November 1967. A year later, in 1968, exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner offered to distribute it on the condition that a sex scene be added so they can market the film as sex exploitation.  Scorsese then nshot in Amsterdam a gratuitous montage of J.R. fantasizing about bedding a series of prostitutes.

The film was re-titled Who’s That Knocking at My Door, named after the 1959 song by The Genies which closes the film.

The film was re-issued in February 1970 by Medford Film Distribution under the title J.R. However, all subsequent releases have been published under the 1968 title.

Suffering from narrative and structural flaws, the film is too simple, and too obvious, with the slightest of plot line, and nit much of a character study.

Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, appears briefly as J.R.’s mother, who is cooking at the beginning of the movie, and serving food near the end.  She would continue to appear in her son’s films until her death in 1997.

Scorsese’s Cameo

Scorsese himself appears (uncredited) in the film as one of the gangsters.

The milieu and some of the characters would reappear in Mean Streets, a better film, and in other future works. Thus, the historical significance of Who’s That Knocking at My Door is serving as a preview, or blueprint for the 1973 picture.

Several of Scorsese’s signature thematic and stylistic elements are already evident in this early effort: the Catholic themes of guilt, salvation, and redemption; the critique of excessive masculinity as toxic; the use of dynamic, restless camera to reflect a chaotic social order; the depiction of sudden, brutal violence in slow motion; the use of meticulous tracking shots.

On the commentary track of the DVD 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 reveals how, to please his potential distributor, Joseph Brenner, he agreed to shoot a nude scene, though by that time the film had already finished shooting.

Warner DVD Collection

Some of Scorsese’s best and most important films were made at Warner. Who’s That Knocking at My Door is part of Warner DVD Scorsese Collection that includes: Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore (1974), After Hours (1985), and GoodFellas (1990).

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 works, GoodFellas.

The DVD set is a must-see for viewers interested in the evolution of the New American Cinema and in the career of the most brilliant director working in Hollywood today.


Zina Bethune as Girl
Harvey Keitel as J.R.
Ann Collette as Girl in Dream
Lennard Kuras as Joey
Michael Scala as Sally Gaga
Harry Northup as Harry
Tuai Yu-Lan as Girl In Dream
Saskia Holleman as Girl In Dream
Bill Minkin as Iggy At Party
Philip Carlson as Boy In Copake
Wendy Russell as Gaga’s Girl
Robert Uricola as Boy With Gun
Susan Wood as Girl At Party
Marisa Joffrey as Girl At Party
Catherine Scorsese as Mother
Paul DeBonde as Boy In Fight
Victor Mangotta as Boy In Fight
Scorsese uncredited role as a gangster


Directed, written by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Joseph Weillm, Betzi Manoogian, Haig Manoogian

Cinematography: Michael Wadley, Richard Coll

Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Production company: Trimod Films

Distributed by Joseph Brenner Associates

Release dates: Nov 15, 1967 (Chicago Fest) Sept 13, 1968 (US)

Running time: 90 minutes
Budget $70,000
Box office $16,085


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