Scorsese, Martin (Vol. 89)
Martin Scorsese 1942–
American filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor.
The following entry provides an overview of Scorsese's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Of the American filmmakers who gained prominence in the early 1970s—notably Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—Scorsese is widely considered the most consistently successful on artistic grounds. Many critics argue that such films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1981), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990) examine American culture and the nature of masculinity by reworking the conventions of classic film genres. Scorsese's films also reveal an autobiographical concern with religious issues and with his Italian-American ethnic heritage.
Scorsese was born and raised in predominantly Italian neighborhoods in New York City. The early onset of asthma limited the time he could spend with his friends, and the resulting isolation encouraged his introspective temperament and the indulgence of his love for movies. Brought up with strong religious convictions, Scorsese believed for most of his childhood that he would become a priest. He was expelled from a junior seminary, however, and later failed the entrance examination to the divinity school at Fordham College. In 1960 he enrolled at New York University and began his formal study of film. Under the guidance of professor Haig Manoogian, his mentor and the man to whom Raging Bull is dedicated, Scorsese made two award-winning short films, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) and It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964). After graduating with a Master's degree in 1966, Scorsese worked for several years as an editor and director in British and American television. In 1968 he returned to NYU to teach classes in American film history. During this time he extensively reworked one of his undergraduate films, variously known as "Bring On the Dancing Girls" and "I Call First." With the addition of newly filmed scenes, including a nude sex scene demanded by the film's distributor, the new version was commercially released in 1969 as Who's That Knocking at My Door? The film features Harvey Keitel in the lead role and was photographed by Michael Wadleigh, director of the documentary Woodstock (1970), which Scorsese helped to record and edit. After Woodstock he made his own documentary, Street Scenes (1970), and then directed Boxcar Bertha (1972) for independent producer Roger Corman. This quickly-made film about Depression-era bank robbers, based as much on the exploits of actual persons as on Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was a modest commercial and critical success, and it allowed Scorsese to make Mean Streets (1973), a film with themes of greater personal significance to him. Mean Streets is noteworthy both as Scorsese's first major work and as his first featuring Robert De Niro, who has appeared in nearly all of Scorsese's major films. After making a documentary called Italian-American (1974), in which he interviews his parents about their lives as immigrants in New York City, Scorsese was asked by actress Ellen Burstyn to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975); the film was very popular with audiences—Burstyn won an Academy Award for her performance—and Scorsese became known to Hollywood producers as a dependable, "bankable" director. His subsequent career—including the financial failure of his downbeat homage to the musicals of the 1940s entitled New York, New York (1977), the controversy stirred by The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Age of Innocence (1993), his adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel—has been marked by increased critical esteem and much commercial success. Additionally, Scorsese has been an active supporter of efforts to safeguard classic American films, promoting the preservation of old or otherwise deteriorating films by transferring them to stable film stock, and preventing, by official government recognition, the alteration of classic films through colorization, frame-size reduction, and time compression—processes usually associated with the commercial interests of television.
Mean Streets was originally conceived as the third installment in a trilogy of films. The first film, tentatively titled "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," was never made, but elements from it were incorporated into Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. Mean Streets concerns a young Little Italy hoodlum named Charley, played by Harvey Keitel, who has delusions of saintliness. The fragmentary, digressive narrative presents scenes that convey the essence and rhythm of Charley's life—hanging out with street-corner toughs and small-time mobsters, getting into fights, drinking, picking up "broads," sleeping with his girlfriend Teresa, and confessing his sins in church. The emerging plot involves Charley's attempt to establish a career in the Mafia through his mobster uncle, Giovanni, while he also tries to educate and protect Teresa's cousin Johnny Boy, played by De Niro as a dimwitted, free-spirited, and possibly psychotic loner who repeatedly antagonizes the local loan shark, Michael. The film reflects Scorsese's affection for and sociological fascination with New York—specifically its underworld and the Italian-Americans who live on its periphery—and inaugurates, in his major films, the exploration of his contradictory feelings toward the Catholic Church and his thematic interest in the notion of redemption. Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader expand on this latter theme in Taxi Driver, in which a psychotic cabbie named Travis Bickle, disgusted by all the varieties of crime and pollution he sees, becomes fixated on the redemptive potential of violence. With a hallucinatory, hyper-realistic style—produced by such techniques as the expressionistic use of shadowy low-key lighting saturated with primary colors, unmotivated camera movement, and an eerie musical score—the film follows Travis on his nocturnal journeys through the roughest areas of the city and chronicles the mental disintegration that occurs as he focuses and tries to express his rage. Travis befriends a child prostitute named Iris, and, after an aborted, halfhearted attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate, rescues her—in the film's climactic bloodbath—from her sordid life. Scorsese's next film, New York, New York, features De Niro as an egotistical saxophone player and Liza Minelli as a talented band singer and actress, a character bearing many similarities to Minelli's actual mother, Judy Garland. Portraying the rise and fall of their relationship in the style of a 1940s backstage Hollywood musical, the film, consistent with the genre, includes several elaborate production numbers and many Big Band-era songs. Unlike the films that inspired it, however, New York, New York offers a penetrating study of repressed male violence and a decidedly downbeat ending. Raging Bull elaborates on the theme of male violence and repressed sexuality and, like New York, New York, plays against the expectations of its putative genre. Although it is based on the autobiography of boxer Jake La Motta, the film does not attempt to explain its main character, again played by De Niro. Rather, the film focuses on La Motta's relationship with his wife Vickie, whom he loves but abuses and suspects of infidelity, and with his brother Joey, whom he loves but for whom he also possesses intense feelings he can express only as rage. The film is a portrait of La Motta's primitive emotional life and his need for the violence of the ring, both as an outlet for his inchoate, barely controlled desires and as a means to redeem himself through extreme physical punishment. The King of Comedy has been described as both an essay on the emptiness of pop culture and a Freudian critique of patriarchal society. Rupert Pupkin, an untalented, nebbishy autograph-seeker who dreams of fame as a comedian on late night talk shows, kidnaps Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like host, and blackmails his producers into letting him perform a monologue on the show. Played by De Niro, Pupkin is portrayed as a desperate, delusional, potentially violent character whose only talent is for ignoring those who would dissuade him; Scorsese's critique of pop culture fame lies in the fact that Pupkin ultimately succeeds. Seeing Langford as a symbolic father—with Pupkin and his friend and accomplice Masha as "children" in an oedipal triangle—film scholar Robin Wood has described The King of Comedy as "one of the most rigorous assaults we have on the structures of the patriarchal nuclear family and the impossible desires, fantasies, frustrations, and violence those structures generate." The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, tells the story of Jesus in straight-forward, realistic detail. The film's main variation on the Biblical story is to suggest that, as he died on the cross, Jesus imagined what his life would have been like if he rejected his role as savior; the film presents a dream sequence in which Jesus lives and raises a family with Mary Magdalene. That he is shown to reject this imagined retreat into humanity and to embrace his fate as the son of God did not, in the eyes of many Christian fundamentalists, compensate for the film's presumed irreverence. Goodfellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy (1985), which presents the life story of Henry Hill, an Irish-Italian thief and loan shark with close ties to the New York Mafia. The film dramatizes many events from the book, including the notorious "Lufthansa heist" of the late 1970s, during which millions of dollars were stolen from a New York airport. Similar to Mean Streets in its evocation of time, place, and character, Goodfellas has been noted for its innovative use of such techniques as voice-over narration by more than one character, freeze-frames, slow motion, and the use of popular songs.
Scorsese is widely considered one of the most important filmmakers in the United States. Critics argue that in his best films—incisive portraits of modern life that examine the dynamics of intimate, destructive relationships—Scorsese challenges audience expectations by manipulating genre conventions. For example, commentators have noted that while Taxi Driver is realistic in many details, it employs a number of highly stylized elements from familiar Hollywood genres; notably, the film's expressionistic lighting and music, as well as its attempt—through camera movement, set design, and other aspects of the mise-en-scène—to visually manifest the central character's madness, can be seen as influences from 1930s horror movies; similarly, critics have argued that Taxi Driver reworks, somewhat grotesquely, the Western's trademark theme of the loner-hero, adrift in hostile territory, who must save the innocent woman from the clutches of "savages." Robin Wood has written that Scorsese's work involves a "drastic re-thinking of the Hollywood genres, either combining them in such a way as to foreground their contradictions … or disconcertingly reversing the expectations they traditionally arouse." This latter strategy, it is argued, accounts for the uniqueness of such films as New York, New York and Raging Bull, where the former subverts the happy, rags-to-riches formula of the 1940s backstage musical by charting the personal and professional misfortunes of two musicians; and the latter, with its circumspect time frame and lack of biographical information and analysis of motivation, offers a depiction of paranoid physical and emotional violence in place of the standard biopic overview of a life and career. Ironically, these aspects of Scorsese's films have also been used in arguments against the value of his work, with critics suggesting that the clash of genres, or their "incomplete" rendering, is a manifestation of his confusion and misunderstanding of his subject matter. Scorsese has also been accused of lacking a sense of narrative structure; some critics fault such films as Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas for being confusing and blame their digressive, nonlinear, vignette-laden narratives for inhibiting viewer identification. Perhaps the most stinging criticism leveled against Scorsese and his films has to do with a presumed relationship between the views of his characters and his own beliefs. While some critics have faulted Scorsese for glorifying the macho ethos and racist attitudes of many of his characters, most argue that it would be disingenuous to portray such individuals in anything but their full ugliness. Wood concludes that "Scorsese is perhaps the only Hollywood director of consequence who has succeeded in sustaining the radical critique of American culture that developed in the 1970s through the Reagan era of retrenchment and recuperation. Scorsese probes the tensions within and between individuals until they reveal their fundamental, cultural nature."
What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (film) (1963)
It's Not Just You, Murray! [with Mardik Martin] (film) (1964)
The Big Shave (film) (1967)
†Who's That Knocking at My Door? (film) (1969)
Street Scenes (documentary film) (1970)
Boxcar Bertha [with Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington; based on the autobiography Sister of the Road by Bertha Thompson and Ben L. Reitman] (film) (1972)
Mean Streets [with Martin] (film) (1973)
Italian-American (documentary film) (1974)
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [with Robert Getchell] (film) (1975)
Taxi Driver [with Paul Schrader] (film) (1976)
New York, New York [with Earl Mac Rauch and Martin] (film) (1977)
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (documentary film) (1978)
The Last Waltz (documentary film) (1978)
Raging Bull [with Schrader and Martin; based on the autobiography by Jake La Motta] (film) (1981)
The King of Comedy [with Paul Zimmerman] (film) (1983)
After Hours [with Joseph Minion] (film) (1985)
The Color of Money [with Richard Price; based on the novel by Walter Tevis] (film) (1986)
The Last Temptation of Christ [with Schrader; based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis] (film) (1988)
‡Life Lessons [with Price] (film) (1989)
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SOURCE: A review of Who's That Knocking at My Door?, in The New York Times, September 9, 1969, p. 39.
[Canby, long associated with The New York Times, is one of the most distinguished American film and theater critics. In the following review, a portion of which appeared in CLC-20, he praises Scorsese's eye for realistic detail, but faults him for not displaying a more sophisticated understanding of the world than that possessed by his characters.]
J. R. (Harvey Keitel), a young, essentially decent Italian-American, has grown up in a comfortable New York City apartment that is protected by his mother, lit by holy candles and sanctified by china figurines of Virgin Marys who wear the wan, distant smiles of tired airline hostesses. J. R. goes to the movies—he cherishes the memory of Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and he walks under marquees announcing Ulysses. Although out of a job, he doesn't lack funds. He drinks beer with the boys at the neighborhood friendship club and occasionally he sleeps with "broads," as distinguished from "girls," who are the virgins one is supposed to marry.
J. R., the troubled hero of Martin Scorsese's first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, is the sort of young man who, in a total confusion of values, can one minute offer to "forgive" the girl he loves for having been forcibly...
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SOURCE: A review of Boxcar Bertha, in The New York Times, August 18, 1972, p. 19.
[In the following excerpt, Thompson suggests that Boxcar Bertha—though a B-movie rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—is a surprisingly good film.]
Of the new circuit doublebill, the one to catch is Boxcar Bertha, emphatically not 1,000 Convicts and a Woman. Yes, Boxcar Bertha, believe it or not. Here is an interesting surprise.
Set in the South and Southwest of the Depression years, with old-time clothes and cars, this is the drama of two derelict criminals and sweet-hearts who finally meet a horrible doom. Does that sound familiar? Well, Bonnie and Clyde still leads the parade.
However, while there is a striking similarity in general content, background, fine color photography and even the use of hillbilly music, the new, more modest film stands curiously on its own.
The main reason is the character of the hero, a kind of stumblebum union organizer, whose battered altruism sharply reflects the labor despair of the era, even as he detours into crime and wars on the railroad bosses. David Carradine is excellent in this role. Matching him, as the childlike boxcar itinerant, is Barbara Hershey. Fine, too, as their confederates, are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey.
The thoughtful, ironic script by Joyce H....
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SOURCE: "Season's End," in Commentary, Vol. 57, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 54-8.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter qualifies his praise for Mean Streets by stressing what he considers the limitations of improvisational acting and Scorsese's consequent failure to establish a narrative structure.]
[Mean Streets] begins so beautifully and with such confident control (via a series of vignettes introducing the principal characters) that it establishes a level it cannot itself live up to, and barely ten minutes after it has begun one is aware (during a protracted and at least partly improvised dialogue about some borrowed money which takes place between two of the characters in the back room of a bar) of a frittering away of some of its power. And lively and vital as the film continues to be thereafter, one remains from then on aware of the slow but steady leakage of its power, even, one might say, the ceding of its power by the director, in the name of a quest for that air of spontaneity which the film achieves in abundance, but only at a cost.
Basically, the approaches to improvision in films have been drawn between those of early Godard, giving his actors their lines but only at the last minute to prevent them sounding worked over, and John Cassavetes (taken up by Mailer), allowing the actors to invent their lines guided by their psychological interpretatin of the character,...
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SOURCE: "Heroines and Their Hairdresser," in Commentary, Vol. 59, No. 5, May, 1975, pp. 67-70.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter lauds Scorsese's manipulation of film genre conventions in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.]
I spoke of the Cassavetes influence on Martin Scorsese when I reviewed the latter's Mean Streets [in Commentary, January 1974]. Scorsese's new film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, still shows signs of the influence, chiefly in its excessively lunging, thrusting visual style, and in its use in a supporting role of the actress (Lelia Goldoni) who played the female lead in Cassavetes's first film, Shadows, and who's been seen in sufficiently few films since for her appearance here to constitute an act of homage.
Alice gets off to a none-too-promising start with its heroine, Alice Hyatt, as a little girl in Monterey, California, vowing to make it to the top and be better singer than Alice Faye, in a scene redolent of movie-bred fantasy and shot in a facetious recreation of the style of 40's movies, complete with artificial sunset. The film then jumps to the present, with Alice living as a housewife in New Mexico, tyrannized along with her young son by a brutish truck-driver husband, whom she married, we gather, because he promised to take her places and was (as she tells her son) a "good kisser." The husband is killed in a crash, and...
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SOURCE: "The Power and the Gory," in Film Comment, Vol. 12, No. 3, May-June, 1976, pp. 26-30.
[Farber is an American critic and educator widely esteemed for the unique style and original insights of his film criticism. He is noted for having championed such diverse genres as the American action films of the 1950s, particularly those directed by Sam Fuller; existential, European art films, specifically those of Robert Bresson: and the American avant-garde cinema, as exemplified by the works of Michael Snow. In the following essay, he and Patterson examine Taxi Driver, noting that the film's considerable visual power conceals rather repugnant views of race relations, women, and male potency.]
Taxi Driver has a lot of negative aspects, but it would be silly to shrug off its baroque visuals and its high-class actor, Robert DeNiro, whose acting range is always underscored by a personal dignity. He's very good at wild manic scenes and better at poignant introversion: a man watching TV in a trance and eating while not looking at his food, or giving the sense of tense repression. Every scene combines the frantic and the still, almost simultaneously. The film has a good sense of modern paralysis, people flailing about energetically but not moving an inch ("twelve hours of driving a taxi and I still can't sleep"). The visuals are almost constantly bold, covering a scene from all angles; a scene like...
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SOURCE: "Beauties and the Beast," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 134-39.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses Taxi Driver and Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976), Westerbeck examines the dreamlike qualities and allusions to genre in Scorsese's film.]
There are some movies that are clearly not just movies. They are phenomena. I do not necessarily mean that they are what Variety calls 'Big Boffo', films whose grosses are up in the top fifty of all time. Some of the movies I am talking about—The Exorcist, for instance, or 2001—are 'Big Boffo'; but others, such as Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, are by their nature successful only with a limited audience. It is not the size of the audience that matters here, but the intensity of its reaction. Beyond entertainment, what the three films just mentioned offered their audiences was provocation. They tapped into people's emotions at a deeper level than movies are usually able to reach, and inspired passionate, sometimes even crazed responses. Aside from whether they are good art or bad, movies like these have an effect something like that which jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow once attributed to heroin: they 'turn you every which-a-way but loose.' Not every season produces such movies, but recently two have appeared in New York that seem to qualify, Lina Wertmuller's...
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SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 20, July 4, 1977, pp. 82-3.
[In addition to being a highly regarded film critic, Gilliatt was an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and screen-writer, best known perhaps for the Academy Award-nominated screenplay Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971). In the following excerpt from a review of New York, New York, she criticizes Scorsese for unsuccessfully remaking a style—the Hollywood musical of the 1940s—which was not amenable to the kind of serious story he wished to tell.]
"New York, New York." Of course, of course. But no, not the famous Bernstein-Comden-Green number from On the Town but another song, from a Martin Scorsese musical film that has the cheek to pilfer the name. To make a movie called New York, New York with a "New York" number that isn't the one you go into the cinema humming is rather like writing a children's book called Alice in Wonderland which is about another Alice. The producers are Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, one of whom is beloved by me for having said on the phone from Hollywood that So-and-So's choreography was just a pistache of everything he had ever done before. This musical is a pistache if ever there was one. I suppose it could courteously be said to be an hommage to all those musical films of the forties and fifties in which a boy and a girl...
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SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in Cineaste, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 44-5.
[In the following review of New York, New York, the critics praise Scorsese for imbuing a skillful re-creation of 1940s musicals with a fascinating undercurrent of rage and darkness but conclude that the director has failed to fully examine these characteristic themes.]
In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese's New York is filled with psychopaths and a sense of damnation. In Scorsese's latest film, New York, New York, he has attempted to change direction and nostalgically invoke the New York of 1940's musicals. His characteristic strain of violence, however, has not been expunged. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the film is the tension between the mixed loving and parodistic treatment of the old musicals, and the edge of rage and darkness which permeates the film but is barely explicit and is left undeveloped.
In New York, New York Scorsese reproduces the surfaces of the old musicals. There are big bands, glittery night spots, tense auditions, slimy show biz entrepreneurs, goof-ball comedy, boy meets girl, and the traditional Hollywood success story (self-consciously conjuring up shades of Garland and Mason in A Star Is Born). The film opens with a campy long shot of a V-J Day celebration on Times Square; and then the camera gracefully...
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SOURCE: A review of Raging Bull, in Cineaste, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1980–1981, pp. 28-30.
[In the following mainly negative review, Georgakas delineates what he sees as the "dichotomy between technical sophistication and thematic poverty" in Raging Bull.]
Anyone going to see Raging Bull with the expectation of seeing a film about boxing or the career of Jake La Motta will be disappointed. Although the film is in black and white, like the classic fight films of the studio era, and has about ten minutes of boxing action, its relationship to films like Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Requiem for a Heavyweight is tenuous. The major theme of Raging Bull is sexual jealousy, and the film's major attraction, for better and for worse, is the virtuoso performances of Martin Scorsese, the film's director, and Robert De Niro, its male lead.
Raging Bull opens with a shot of a middle-aged and overweight Jake La Motta sitting in a hotel room rehearsing lines for a public reading which is not explained here or at the film's conclusion when we return to the same moment. A cut takes us back two decades to one of La Motta's earliest fights. This maneuver provides back-to-back shots, not possible elsewhere in the film, of Robert De Niro after he has gained fifty pounds to portray the aging La Motta and De Niro as he looked after having trained for a year with...
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SOURCE: "Hell Up in the Bronx," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 128-32.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he also discusses the work of John Cassavetes, Combs analyzes Raging Bull, attempting to reconcile the film's power with its marked avoidance of standard narrative techniques.]
To begin with, Raging Bull seems to have been made out of an impatience with all the usual trappings of cinema, with plot, psychology and an explanatory approach to character. A number of early scenes, conversations between Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) about Jake's career, his intransigence, his violent behaviour outside the ring, even about a neighbourhood girl, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), sitting beside a pool, have an intensity but a woolliness, an emotional fervour but a roundabout, elliptical, barely heard inconsequentiality that seem to frustrate any narrative function. They are also the first indication, in the linking of intimacy with casual obscenity, that the language of violence and the violence of language is itself going to be the binding element of the film.
In place of the narrative traps being sprung within the first few minutes of Taxi Driver, characters here appear to be finding themselves in their own time, or in real time, à la Cassavetes. It's an impression which Scorsese has strengthened by...
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SOURCE: "Grating Comedy," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXV, No. 9, May 13, 1983, pp. 574-76.
[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following review of The King of Comedy, he praises Scorsese's insights into pop culture fame and star worship, but suggests that ultimately the film's major themes are muddled by Scorsese's ambiguous attitude toward the protagonists.]
Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is on to something important, if only its aim were clearer and its movement more sure-footed. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a 34-year-old messenger boy who desperately wants to be a comedian. Downstairs in his mother's apartment, where he lives, he has created a mockup of the Jerry Langford (read: Johnny Carson) Show, where, between life-size cutouts of Liza Minnelli and his hero and model, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he practices his comic routines and talk-show blather. By helping Jerry out of the mauling clutches of rabid fans one night, then insinuating himself into the star's limousine, Rupert starts what he takes for a professional and personal relationship, and Langford for a mere mauvais quart d'heure. Not meaning it, Jerry asks for samples of Rupert's work; presently Pupkin is hanging around the Langford office's waiting room, sending in tapes, sticking around some more for results, and getting ever firmer, less polite,...
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SOURCE: "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 17-28.
[Braudy is an American critic and educator who specializes in film history and film theory. In the following excerpt from an essay in which he compares the works of Italian-American directors Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese with those of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio DeSica, and other Italian neorealists, he examines the ways in which Scorsese reworks genre conventions in order to examine the nature of success and to question his own authority as director.]
"An aesthetic of reality," André Bazin called the Italian neorealist films of the immediate postwar period, and the description has stuck. Whatever the changes in style and approach that directors like Rossellini, DeSica, Antonioni, and Fellini made later in their careers, there is still a critical tendency to root them in a film-making that stayed close to the stuff of everyday life. By respecting the integrity of the actors and objects within its gaze, it sought not to turn them into something thematic or symbolic, but to maintain their separateness and their unalloyed reality—if we take "reality" to mean that which is constantly evading our final interpretation and our subordination of it to our interpretive systems.
The now-aging younger generation of Italian-American...
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SOURCE: "Where Angels Fear to Tread," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 208-09.
[In the following positive review of After Hours, Combs discusses some of the film's primary motifs and asserts that this film signals a change in Scorsese's outlook, from a belief or fascination with redemption to an emphasis on purgatorial limbo and predestination.]
There have been signs recently of something of a religious transformation in Martin Scorsese's work. Not a conversion, exactly; more a change of temper. It may be that some component of his ethnic temper has gone, the Italian Catholic connection (which was still very evident in the WASP Middle America of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore or the echt movie fantasy of New York, New York). It may be that his theology—and his sense of life in Manhattan—has shifted from its first scorching premise (go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not receive redemption) to include some cooler, more indeterminate state: instead of burning in hell, the protagonists of his two most recent films look as if they are stalled in purgatory. Or it may be the influence of his sometime screenwriter Paul Schrader: since their last collaboration, on Raging Bull, the Catholic Scorsese seems to have partly become the Calvinist Schrader, with despairingly comic storylines locked in predestined patterns. Or it may be that the collapse...
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SOURCE: "Once a Contender," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1986–1987, pp. 68-9.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the major themes of The Color of Money—a sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler, written and directed by Robert Rossen—and lauds its frequent cinematic brilliance.]
The Color of Money is about halfway through before the Hustler, 'Fast' Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), does anything serious with a pool cue. Martin Scorsese, directing the sequel to a movie that was made when he was still a teenager, signals the moment with a kind of twenty-one-gun salute. Eddie, en route to a tournament in Atlantic City with a young protégé, Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), stops off at a seedy Midwest pool hall of his past acquaintance to show Vince how to set up a little hustle with the local talent. Starting a game to catch the other players' eye, Eddie approaches the pool table for the first time in the movie as something other than an observer, a 'stakehorse', a wheeler dealer, and as he breaks the rack, Scorsese makes the shot resound like a thunderclap, a fusillade. It signals Eddie's return to the arena, but it also sounds like a declaration of war—against his opponents and against the enemy within himself, who ruled himself out of the game twenty-five years ago when he refused to allow his gangster-connected manager (George C. Scott in The Hustler) to take...
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SOURCE: Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, 178 p.
[In the following excerpt, which is drawn from lectures Scorsese delivered in London in 1987, he discusses Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, addressing his intentions and influences in each film as well as the details of their production.]
Brian De Palma introduced me to Paul Schrader. We made a pilgrimage out to see Manny Farber, the critic, in San Diego. [In an endnote Thompson and Christie add: 'Manny Farber coined the phrase "termite art" to cover the unselfconscious action cinema that he valued highly, alongside avant-garde work, as a critic working against the grain of respectability. One of the first to celebrate Fuller among other genre- and B-movie-specialists, he is also a painter and teacher and has latterly given up writing criticism in favour of allusive "movie paintings".'] I wanted Paul to do a script of The Gambler by Dostoevsky for me. But Brian took Paul out for dinner, and they contrived it so that I couldn't find them. By the time I tracked them down, three hours later, they'd cooked up the idea of Obsession. But Brian told me that Paul had this script, Taxi Driver, that he didn't want to do or couldn't do at that time, and wondered if I'd be interested in reading it. So I read it and my friend read it and she said it was fantastic: we agreed that this...
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SOURCE: "Living Cinema—The Passion of Martin Scorsese," in Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. xix-xxviii.
[In the following essay—their introduction to Scorsese on Scorsese—Thompson and Christie examine Scorsese's career in relation to the themes, style, and controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ.]
Two snapshots, separated by twenty years. A round-up of the New York 'Independent Cinema' by Andrew Sarris in late 1966 mentions Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, Warhol's Life of Juanita Castro and, amid such 'underground' company, notes prophetically: 'Martin Scorsese's short films reveal a wit capable of talking features.' Flash forward to Edinburgh, January 1987: Scorsese is touring, ostensibly to promote The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, but also to discuss his whole career. 'Has the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull sold out to Hollywood?' ask true believers.
On the contrary, argues Scorsese, The Color of Money rehabilitated him with the men who controlled film-making in America. Like 'Fast' Eddie in the film, he has come back from exile—from the attempt to crush his spirit that the débâcle of The Last Temptation of Christ represented—and has yet again proved himself a player, if not exactly a winner. But is he...
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SOURCE: "Spirit and Flesh," in Jump Cut, No. 35, April, 1990, pp. 108-09.
[In the following positive review of The Last Temptation of Christ, DiCaprio discusses the film's theological aspects as well as the controversy surrounding it.]
Despite its religious detractors, The Last Temptation celebrates Christ's life. It affirms his teachings and sacrifice. In rather traditional terms, director Martin Scorcese depicts Christ's departure from basic tenets of Old Testament Judaism: Jesus' transformation of the angry and even wrathful God of the Israelites into a compassionate and merciful one embracing the entire human race, his condemnation of animal sacrifice and the money changers in the temple, and his opposition to open revolt as the only solution to the Roman domination of Israel. Instead, Jesus argues with Judas (Harvey Keitel) that love must replace hatred: "The circle of sin must be broken or else it will only be repeated." The soul, argues Jesus, is the foundation of the body—not the reverse, as Judas maintains.
For Scorsese, a Catholic, this film derives from his preoccupation with exploring the issues of sin and redemption in modern life, first exemplified in Mean Streets. So why all the furor? The Last Temptation has received official condemnation from the Catholic Church, full-page ads in the New York Times by fundamentalist groups detailing...
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SOURCE: A review of Goodfellas, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 43-50.
[Viano is an Italian-American educator and critic. In the following review, he examines Scorsese's principal stylistic and thematic concerns, situates Goodfellas in the director's body of work, and argues that Nicholas Pileggi's book Wise Guy (1985)—upon which the film is based—contains the primary elements of "Scorsese's personal mythology."]
GoodFellas is arguably the apex of Scorsese's most openly ethnic production. Wishing to make a "good commercial picture," Scorsese returned to the Italian/American setting which had already inspired his best films (except Taxi Driver). [In an endnote, Viano adds: "After the stress of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Scorsese declared (American Film, March 1989, pp. 46-51) that he wanted 'to make some good commercial pictures' before getting involved in anything serious. In the same interview, however, talking about GoodFellas, he said: 'I hope it will infuriate the audience.' This apparent contradiction between being 'commercial' and 'infuriating' explains much of his cinema, his talent for working in the mainstream and yet maintaining a certain edge." Viano also points out: "I am using Italian/American instead of Italian-American as a sign of support of Tamburri's suggestion that the hyphen 'initially...
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SOURCE: "Southern Discomfort," in The New Republic, Vol. 205, No. 24, December 9, 1991, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review of Cape Fear, Kauffmann notes the film's strengths and weaknesses and questions why Scorsese chose to lend his talents to such slight, formulaic material.]
It's not quite right to say that Martin Scorsese has remade Cape Fear. This is no more a mere remake of the 1962 film than John Huston's The Maltese Falcon was a remake of two earlier versions. Scorsese's film is as original as it could be in the circumstances. (Admittedly, I'm comparing out of memory: I don't think I could sit through the J. Lee Thompson version again, especially after this new one.)
Scorsese hasn't been notable for his radical subject matter, but his career certainly isn't a series of pigeonholes. Then why, just as he is arching out in reputation and power, did he choose to make a genre thriller? The buzz in the film world is that he was paying a debt to Universal. He was planning, and will now do, a film of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, an especially tantalizing idea since the book is so far from the usual haunts of this vivid and (in two senses) vulgar director. But Universal had backed a project that was dear to him, The Last Temptation of Christ, so when the studio proposed this remake, he felt obliged. Well, at least this thriller gives us some...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, pp. 3-14.
[In the following excerpt, Kelly considers the influence of Scorsese's religious upbringing on his films.]
Every Catholic school child learns the difference between a sign and a symbol. A sacrament is a sign that effects what it signifies. It is not like something else, it is something else. The language which defined the sacraments and mysteries of the faith came from St. Thomas Aquinas, who based his theology, as well as his theories of art, on Aristotelian philosophy. As James Joyce said, the "sensualist" Aquinas won out over more Platonic theologians. Christ's presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist was not symbolic; it was real. The Church held onto this doctrine against attacks from every direction. The bread and wine were not props in some reenactment of the Last Supper meant to remind the congregation of Jesus. Jesus was not thought into being. He was there. Nor did his presence depend on the worthiness of the priest. If the priest was ordained and the words, actions, and elements were there licitly, Christ really became present and offered himself as food. At his first communion, Scorsese received the host and Jesus became part of him. A sense of wonder and mystery marked the child who took religion seriously.
At a very early age, he imbibed a sacramental view...
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SOURCE: "Martin Scorsese's America," in USA Today, Vol. 120, No. 2562, March, 1992, p. 69.
[Sharrett is an American critic and educator specializing in film studies. In the following essay, he defends Cape Fear against charges that it is a minor work, arguing that the film's depiction of "moral turbulence" extends Scorsese's examination of "what drives this nation in the post-Vietnam/Watergate epoch."]
Director Martin Scorsese's controversial remake of the 1962 shocker Cape Fear is not, as a few critics have suggested, merely a potboiler to pay back Universal Studios for its support of his beleaguered The Last Temptation of Christ. Cape Fear is a logical extension of an explanation of the American soul and national identity taken on by the country's finest filmmaker of the last quarter-century. By placing it in the context of his earlier work, we can see a sustained attempt at understanding what drives this nation in the post-Vietnam/Watergate epoch.
Scorsese's breakthrough effort, Mean Streets (1973), established the death-and-redemption theme that would appear in all of his work. The film presented his credentials as a lapsed Catholic, an Italian-American, and a street-wise New Yorker, elements absolutely central to the director's ethos. However, it was Taxi Driver (1976), an American masterpiece and one of the genuine classics of the postwar period,...
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SOURCE: The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, Birch Lane Press, 1992, 254 p.
[In the following excerpt, Ehrenstein examines Scorsese's career and filmmaking techniques.]
Halfway through Taxi Driver, director Martin Scorsese turns up in an acting role, playing a fare picked up by the film's cabbie hero, Travis Bickle. As the cab comes to a stop at a street corner, Scorsese is seen in the passenger seat—neatly dressed in a dark suit, with carefully groomed beard and mustache. It is very late at night.
"Put the meter back," he orders Travis sharply. "Let the numbers go on. I don't care what I have to pay. I'm not getting out. Pull over to the curb. We're gonna sit here." Closing his eyes, he sits calmly for a moment, then continues his speech: "You see that light up there? The woman on the second floor? See the woman in the window? That's my wife. But that's not my apartment."
He smiles broadly and chuckles to himself, almost gloating.
He continues, "You know who lives there? A nigger lives there. Now what d'you think of that? Don't answer. You don't have to answer everything. I'm gonna kill her with a .44 Magnum pistol. Did you ever see what a .44 Magnum could do to a woman's face? Just fuckin' destroy it. Blow it right apart."
Leaning forward in a slightly conspiratorial manner, he says, "Now, did you...
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SOURCE: A review of The Age of Innocence, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 10, October 4, 1993, pp. 364-65.
[In the following excerpt, Klawans complains that after an artful and exciting opening sequence, The Age of Innocence becomes a flat costume drama, directed with none of Scorsese's characteristic flair.]
I wish Martin Scorsese [in his The Age of Innocence] had understood that the characters in Edith Wharton's books are just a bunch of Italians, like the rest of us. Maybe they eat turtle soup at dinner and have their gowns shipped transatlantic from Worth; but hypocrisy is still hypocrisy and illicit passion still elevates the pulse, even for those living in The Age of Innocence. Wharton, who knew from experience about hypocrisy and its effect on the adrenal gland, wrote that book at least partly as revenge, mocking those upright old New Yorkers who once had kept her trapped in the padded cells of their drawing rooms. If you go to see the film version—and of course you will, if you care at all about the state of American culture—you will get the full effect only when Joanne Woodward reads excerpts of Wharton's prose on the soundtrack. She doesn't adopt the plummy tones and English stage manner that usually go with such recitations; her vowels are flat and twangy and emphatically American, her timbre dry. She guides you expertly through all the twists and turns...
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SOURCE: "Entrapment: Scorsese Meets Wharton," in Commonweal, Vol. CXX, No. 19, November 5, 1993, pp. 14-17.
[In the following positive review of The Age of Innocence, Alleva praises Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel and his ability to convey the tumultuous emotions that roil beneath his characters' refined, rigidly proper appearances.]
There it is, in the same suburban multiplex that is showing Warlock II: The Armageddon, the John Woo-Jean-Claude Van Damme killfest, Hard Target, and that leftover summer fluff, Sleepless in Seattle. There it is, using its two-hour-plus running time to explore the refined sensibilities of lovers stifled by the rigorous social code of upper-class New York in the 1870s, while in the adjoining theaters, behind walls so thin you can hear the gunfire and the shrieks and the thuds, Stallone and Van Damme and Bruce Willis pound their enemies to pulp.
"It," of course, is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, as brought to the screen by Martin Scorsese and (in an excess of courage or insanity) given mass release by Columbia. My fear was that Scorsese would justify the wide distribution all too handily. He is the greatest living American film director, but it's only the quality of his work that sets it apart from that of most of his peers, not its essential nature. For, like his peers, Scorsese is a filmmaker of...
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Weiss, Marion. Martin Scorsese: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 137 p.
Listing of secondary sources written between 1968 and 1985. This book also includes an annotated filmography and two essays on Scorsese's life and works.
Arkush, Allan. "I Remember Film School." Film Comment 19, No. 6 (November-December 1983): 57-9.
Reminiscence on studying film at New York University in the late 1960s. Arkush, the director of such films as Deathsport (1978) and Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979), says of Scorsese, "I have never seen his equal" as a film teacher.
Bell, Arthur. "Ready When You Are, Paisan." The Village Voice 20, No. 33 (18 August 1975): 104, 69-70.
Reports on the filming of Taxi Driver and discusses the film's main themes.
Bliss, Michael. Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985, 301 p.
Comparative study of the two fimmakers' careers and films.
Boyd, David. "Prisoner of the Night." Film Heritage 12, No. 2 (Winter 1976–1977): 24-30.
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