By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 16, 2012 at 12:33PM
Tomorrow, November 17th, one Martin Charles Scorsese turns 70. One of the most celebrated American filmmakers in the history of the medium, Scorsese first broke out in the 1970s, coming out of the mentorship of Roger Corman (for whom he made "Boxcar Bertha") to direct the astonishingly confident "Mean Streets." And over the years, the director has made multiple classics, from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to recent awards-laden triumphs like "The Departed" and "Hugo."
The director's currently hard at work on his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, the financial world drama "The Wolf of Wall Street," but as he enters his eighth decade, we wanted to pay tribute to the master by picking out five of his most underrated movies from across his career. While the aforementioned movies, along with others including "The King of Comedy," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas" and "Casino" have been rightly lauded, there are a few movies that aren't quite held up by cinephiles in the same way, and we wanted to shine a light on them for a moment. You can read our picks below, and let us know if there's a Scorsese picture you think is undervalued in the comments section.
And a very happy birthday, Mr. Scorsese...
Coming off the success of "Taxi Driver," Scorsese was starting to feel pigeonholed by his trademark "gritty realism," so to test his creative boundaries he made a 2-hour-plus musical with Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophone player. The shoot was not a great time for Scorsese personally; he was splitting with his second, and very pregnant, wife and had begun an affair with his lead actress, Liza Minnelli. As such, it's not entirely surprising that Scorsese’s first big-budget picture was a resounding flop, financially and critically, but its reputation has been somewhat restored over the years, even if it's still overshadowed by Frank Sinatra's recording of the theme tune that became a huge hit three years after the movie was released. Set in the title city in the aftermath of World War II, it's a "Star Is Born"-ish tale of the tumultuous romance between saxophonist Jimmy (De Niro) and a singer (Minnelli) over a course of many years as they find success, even as their own relationship falls apart. Few would argue that the film is an unqualified success; it's overlong, uneven and De Niro's character is so unlikeable that it's hard to really latch onto the film (given his personal issues, one can certainly see the film as a self-portrait, and it's undoubtedly a film produced at the height of the director's drug use). But in moments -- the stunning opening scenes, the glorious "Happy Endings" film-within-a-film sequence, a tribute to Liza's father Vincente -- the film absolutely soars, with sections that number among the best things the director has ever made. Scorsese introduces the DVD by saying he was looking for a fusion of "truth and artifice," and it's perhaps this that proves most fascinating about the film -- a mix of kitchen-sink drama and stage-bound sets is an uneasy dichotomy, but one that genuinely turns the genre on his head. It's arguably the most imperfect film on this list, but one that no Scorsese fan should go without seeing.
With passion project "The Last Temptation of Christ" struggling to come together, Scorsese headed in a new direction, taking over a former Tim Burton movie for his first (and really, at this point, only) out-and-out comedy ("The King of Comedy" doesn't quite count). And if "After Hours," which disappeared on release, but has found a cult audience over the years, is anything to go by, we wish the director would tackle the genre more often. Set over the course of a single night, the film follows ordinary twentysomething Paul (Griffin Dunne), who meets a girl (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. That night, he heads to her apartment hoping for a romantic liaison, but loses his money en route, setting off a string of cosmic disasters that suggests that the universe is out to get him. The same drug-fuelled energy of the filmmaker's earlier work is present and correct, but it feels leaner and hungrier -- the director shot with a small crew, and trimmed 45 minutes from the original cut, keeping up a tight and frantic piece. As a result, it's enormously funny. Dunne is hapless and neurotic as seemingly everyone he meets conspires to end him, like a Woody Allen character in the middle of a Marx Brothers movie. Watching it now, there is a faintly unpleasant strain of misogyny in the "women be crazy!" plotting, but it's not like the men, Paul included, are any saner. That aside, it's still one of the great depictions of Scorsese's favorite cities, and numbers among the director's most entertaining movies. One can't help but feel that, after the excess of his recent efforts, taking a film along these lines couldn't be the worst thing in the world for the director.