Retrospective: Martin Scorsese

As a director Martin Scorsese ranks at the forefront of the all-time top tier of American filmmakers, but even as a presence in the film world in general he is pre-eminent. It is merely the just desserts of a life which, more than any we can think of, has been entirely dedicated, saturated and invigorated by cinema. For any of us who spend any portion of our days thinking about movies, Scorsese is, as much as we have one, a patron saint, perhaps the figure to whom the less Godly among us might whisper our evening prayers. Yet Scorsese also belies the directorial cliché of egotism, a Welles or a De Mille striding around with a bullhorn booming out orders to scuttling minions, because he has always been dinstictively softly if rapidly spoken, and thoughtful, especially when talking about cinema. Just to hear him talk about cinema is one of the great joys of the man. He is erudite, passionate and opinionated, with a film knowledge so vast that it’s hard to imagine where he ever found the time to make a single movie himself.

But make movies he has, and you may have heard of some of them. From his childhood as a second-generation Sicilian immigrant growing up on Elizabeth Street in New York City (his grandparents spoke hardly any English their whole lives); through his productive collaborations with neighbor Robert De Niro which gave rise to his early masterworks; through seven Best Director Oscar nominations (winning once for “The Departed”) right up to his establishment of various film preservation and protection organisations; Scorsese has knitted himself so indelibly into the filmmaking landscape that it’s possible if you (or more likely Thelma Schoonmaker) were to cut him, he’d bleed celluloid.

With Scorsese himself recently suggesting that he may only have a few more films left in him (though his restoration and preservation work seems to be gaining momentum), we felt it was (well beyond) high time to attempt a career retrospective of a director whose love of cinema inspired our own. So with his latest, the snarlingly batshit lunaticThe Wolf of Wall Street” opening on Christmas Day, let’s take a look back at the films that make up the remarkably consistent career of Martin Scorsese.

Who's That Knocking on My Door

"Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1967)
Having caught Scorsese's first feature at the Chicago International Film Festival, a young Roger Ebert called it “a great moment in American movies.” Looking back, it’s not hard to imagine how this film, an affecting and invigorating laundry list of Scorsese’s usual themes—faith, guilt, male bonding that oscillates between tender fraternity and runaway machismo, a female love interest subjected to the Madonna-whore complex and choice musical cuts that meld impeccably with the imagery—must have toppled Ebert’s expectations. Today, the film remains fresh, acted with aplomb by a young Harvey Keitel (he would effectively reprise this role in the masterful “Mean Streets”) and Zina Bethune. It’s occasionally unwieldy (a montage of Keitel’s sexual encounters feels unnecessary and was forced on Scorsese in order to better sell the film), but the directorial touch is deft and a scene involving a party and a gun is one of the most memorable in his filmography. It’s a necessary and largely assured first foray into the world of features, a picture positively pulsating with something “real,” an intangible quality bestowed on films that feel plucked from real life. [B]

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha” (1972)
This film is Martin Scorsese’s “foot in the door” if you will, an opportunity to direct given to him by benefactor and mentor to many, Roger Corman. “Boxcar Bertha” is 70s exploitation at its finest, helmed with gusto by Scorsese, the film is a “Bonnie and Clyde” takeoff that borrows the 1930s setting and criminal lovers-on-the-run themes from its popular and game-changing predecessor. Starring Barbara Hershey as a teenage temptress and David Carradine as her corrupting influence/lover, the pair and their gang head out on a crime spree that is as violent as it is sexy (there’s a lot of nudity). Their trip eventually takes a turn for the bleak, achieving depths of human darkness that Scorsese is all too familiar with. While the film is a decidedly Corman-esque American Independent Picture, it’s shot through with Scorsese’s sensibility and energetic sense of style. While it’s underseen and often overlooked, it’s a fine indicator of what he could do and a fun one to revisit for Scorsese completists. [B]

Mean Streets

Mean Streets” (1973)
This is it, one of the desert-island Scorsese films, displaying the breathtaking, and seemingly instantaneous maturing of a talented filmmaker into a master storyteller. Unwieldy at times, a bit ragged around the edges and still utterly brilliant, “Mean Streets” is the antidote to the operatic grandeur of Coppola’s La Familia. Harvey Keitel returns, playing what’s essentially an expanded portrait of the boy from Scorsese’s touching 1967 debut "Who's That Knocking At My Door." Here, as Charlie, Keitel is all small-time, a bottom-feeder with a connected uncle and a ticking time-bomb friend—an unforgettable Robert De Niro, wiry, careless and absolutely heartbreaking as the damaged Johnny Boy. Scorsese’s style flourishes, shaping a film that allows for absorbing detours while Charlie and Johnny Boy barrel down to their ultimate unraveling. The picture is a kick in the door, a shot across the bow, a living thing powered by sublimely selected pop music. Sure he’s made more poised, controlled pictures since but this is the kind of genuine article few artists have the salt in them to put out—a masterpiece in part due to its imperfections, and a rallying cry for a peerless career thereafter. [A-]