Martin Scorsese Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Scorsese 1942–

American director, screenwriter, and actor.

Scorsese's work is considered among the most impressive of the young filmmakers who emerged in the seventies. His bleak, unrelenting vision of life, death, and the struggle for redemption has gained for him a large following. Scorsese's films are personal pieces through which the audience sees the importance on the filmmaker of his Catholic upbringing and his young life in the "Little Italy" area of Manhattan.

At one time, Scorsese considered preparing for the priesthood. Instead, he enrolled at New York University and began making short films. Among these films is The Big Shave, which attracted the attention of a sponsor in Europe. Scorsese then directed commercials for English television, and in 1969 returned to the United States to work as an editor on Woodstock. During this period Scorsese also completed his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which contains many elements found in his recent work, including Catholic iconography, conflicts between male protagonists, and the determined, self-destructive young hero.

Scorsese's first critical success was Mean Streets, which sets the tone for much of his future work. Perhaps Scorsese's most personal endeavor, the film is full of manic energy, conflict, tension, and street life, and the sympathetic, misguided characters seek redemption in a world in which they are already doomed. These same themes are handled with even less optimism in Taxi Driver, Scorsese's most highly regarded film. Taxi Driver advances the notion that purgation is possible only through death, and the violence of the street-wise hero, Travis Bickle, is felt to be among the most obsessional and disturbing depictions ever put on film.

Scorsese has complemented his true-to-life fiction by filming documentaries. Italianamerican is a thoughtful, loving portrait of Scorsese's parents, who discuss how they have been influenced by their Italian immigrant parents. Similarly, in The Last Waltz, Scorsese intercuts footage of The Band's last concert with interviews concerning the group's sixteen years on the road. In both of these films, while Scorsese recreates a time that seems more innocent, more romantic, he dulls the mythical gloss and shows the difficulties encountered by each group of people.

New York, New York is an attempt to recreate the musicals of the 1940s. It is soft, romantic, and encompasses a vast stage. In comparison, Raging Bull is a biography of boxer Jake La Motta which portrays the violent world of boxing as being indistinct from La Motta's view of society. Raging Bull is hard and constricted, and the camerawork is similar to that in Mean Streets—jarring and bouncy, with the camera seemingly becoming one of the fighters in the ring. The violence, language, and La Motta's attempts to redeem himself also echo Scorsese's earlier work. Although some critics have complained that Scorsese has dealt with these themes too often in his films, most agree that the unexorcised demon within Scorsese has allowed him to create films which are engrossing and meaningful to filmmaker and audience alike.

Vincent Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 raped, and the next minute accuse her of being a whore. Puritan Roman Catholicism, the kind that bedeviled Stephen Dedalus and Studs Lonigan, is alive and ill and in the movies….

[Scorsese] has composed a fluid, technically proficient movie, more intense and sincere than most commercial releases.

It is apparent that the Italian-American milieu is a first-hand experience, but the vision Scorsese has made from it is detailed in the kind of...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

George Lellis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Who's That Knocking at My Door? explores] the hermetic environments of working-class post-immigrant American society…. Knocking's Italian-America [is a social structure] in which the isolation of imported nationalism and Roman Catholicism collides with dreary urban or industrial town living to produce characters somewhat dislocated in time and place. [The film doesn't seem] quite up to date…. A world where guys still wear white shirts and grey suits to a party … becomes a world stable enough so that plot premises like … Knocking's Italo-Catholic obsessions with virgin brides become acceptable because no alternative forms of behavior are even suggested. If the results are somewhat...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Howard Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Watching "Street Scenes 1970" was a tingling, often riveting experience. This documentary was put together from footage taken during the turbulent demonstrations on Wall Street last May and in other parts of town and finally in Washington at the antiwar rally….

As a fast-flying, naturally piecemeal assemblage of tense events, often exploding violently and shot through with marvelously revealing human vignettes and testimonies, the final picture, supervised by Martin Scorsese, is admirable on two counts, especially.

One is the frightening vitality of actuality as recorded on raw film, especially in the churning chaos of the earlier Wall Street portion. The other is the balanced,...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Jon Landau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mean Streets, the most original American movie of the year, doesn't just explode—it erupts with volcanic force. It is a shocking, jolting, even pulverizing view of "Desolation Row," the claustrophobic, small-time petty Mafia world that is Martin Scorsese's vision of New York's Little Italy. In this semi-feudal empire, the random and the ritual, sacred and profane, and sane and insane are in perpetual conflict—and Scorsese shows us the turmoil bubbling beneath the society's surfaces just as he knows it, without a trace of Hollywood glamorizing, demystifying Italian criminal life even as he personalizes it….

Scorsese integrates realism, stylized elements, symbolism, surrealism and other...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Scorsese grew up in New York's Little Italy and has made a film about his home neighborhood. This personal impulse, which would not exactly be hot news in any other art, is so unusual in American film that it has already knocked some people sideways…. [Scorsese] has made a previous feature set in lower Manhattan, Who's That Knocking at My Door? His new picture Mean Streets is very much better—more intense, better integrated. Nevertheless its intensity is often theatrical in the wrong way, it's both lumpy and discursive, and it ends up as only a fairly bright promissory note. (p. 229)

I think we're supposed to feel that the plot is not the point, that the film exists for its...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

David Denby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mean Streets is certainly] a 'little' New York film …, with no stars and not much variety or glamour in the settings—in some respects the movie is the culmination of the lonely-streets-and-sullen-bedrooms style of student films produced in the last decade…. But emotionally, Mean Streets is grandiose and amazingly intense—'operatic' … in the manner of mid-Visconti, yet peculiarly American in its speed, energy, obscenity and humour. And Scorsese is no sweet little talent, but a large, dangerous and deeply flawed talent….

As Scorsese introduces his people in short, character-revealing vignettes, for one dismaying moment you might think he was making a conventional 'wacky'...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

William Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My expectations of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More] were based mainly on Scorsese's previous feature, Mean Streets. Though "widely acclaimed," as the ads say, this left me cold. Oh yes, I admired the efficiency of its making. Dark, glinting interiors, edgy dialogue, strategic bursts of action, long takes with the camera immobile or slowly prowling like a hit man waiting to strike—sure, Scorsese knew what he wanted to put on the screen and how to get it there. You can see this ability taking shape in his short student films: the satirical It's Not Just You, Murray skips nimbly through space and time while the simple joke of The Big Shave comes out in a linear crescendo. Scorsese is not...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Stephen Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More is a [slick] Hollywood comedy, taken from [an] artificial, highly structured script by Robert Getchell. However, since it was directed by Martin Scorsese, the talented dynamo who made Mean Streets, the film has a raw energy that shatters some of the script's contrivances…. Alice Graham is a survivor, a woman with an enterprising spirit and a resilient sense of humor. (p. 415)

[But] Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More cannot be taken very seriously as a study of a contemporary woman…. [The] heroine's limited potential radically limits the scope of the film. At first Alice seems determined to make it on her own, but in the end, after a few crummy...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Julian C. Rice

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Taxi Driver] is, in part, a film about films. But it is unusual in being expressive of, and simultaneously about, a particular kind of film, which might be called "the pornography of violence." Through the windshield of Travis Bickle's cab, the audience sees the repeated image of movie marquees. Through most of the film, these marquees advertise erotic films, displaying titles like "Swedish Marriage Manual" or "Anita Nymphet." But after the film's bloody catharsis, and subsequent apotheosis of Travis, as a vigilante hero, the surrealistic street scene behind the closing credits reveals marquees, which contain the following camera-selected fragments, "Charles Bronson," "Mafia," "Blood," and "Killer." Although...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

Robert E. Lauder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver has to be one of the most disturbing films ever made. Working with the metaphor of the city as sewer, Scorsese catches the sin-stained sensations of New York's teeming streets, where prostitutes, pimps and pushers parade under the scrutiny of Travis Bickle, the cruising cab driver who is a kind of contemporary Quixote. For Travis …, the city is a pile of filth that someone ought to clean up….

Make no mistake about it: … the extraordinary talent of Scorsese is evident again and again. In the past critics have wondered if the young director's gifts were limited; even though his Mean Streets (1973) was widely acclaimed, this depiction of young hoodlums...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

George Morris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Taxi Driver is a remarkable achievement, a crazy, excessive, erratic masterpiece, but a masterpiece just the same. Scorsese has always interested me as a director, but he has also always annoyed me with his seeming inability to impose a cohesive structure upon his films. One of his chief weaknesses has been his tendency to play too many scenes at fever pitch. The absence of variation in the tone of Mean Streets and particularly Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore irrevocably undercut the genuine climaxes of both films. In Taxi Driver, confronted with volatile material which would readily lend itself to a similar treatment, Scorsese has wisely chosen the opposite tactic. He builds the film...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Calculated] evasion is typical not only of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More], but of a disconcerting number of American items in which an alleged social inquest is taking place with sub-social witnesses whom we're supposed to take on trust as reliable emblems of the human lot. Alice is a boring nobody trying to become a boring somebody, with a minimum of qualifications for being anybody, a peculiar addiction to putrid language and, as extra baggage, [a] monstrous little hostage….

What in the name of God constitutes a viable problem in this bogus history? A suburban housewife, unexpectedly widowed at a ripe age, discovers—or in fact does not discover—that she's insufficiently equipped...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The opening shot of Taxi Driver plays probably the most seductive of trumps in the recent craze for power totems that has overtaken the American screen…. Out of a cloud of steam gushing over a New York street, a yellow cab floats majestically, mysteriously forward, its foreboding trajectory paced to the growling thunder of [the] score, its surface awash with abstract patterns of neon light. The powerful physicality of the image, and the state of extreme dislocation which it conveys, are the key to a kind of muscle-flexing sense of paradox on many levels: the film is about the soul sickness of urban alienation, played out … as a series of extrovert power plays involving American myths of gunmanship and Ideal...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Scorsese's first feature was premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967 under the title of I Call First. To increase the film's chances of distribution, Scorsese was persuaded to shoot a nude fantasy scene, and with this sequence added, I Call First was released and the title later changed to Who's That Knocking at My Door. Although at first glance this added sequence seems to dovetail quite neatly into the film, it is in fact almost disastrously disruptive for two reasons. First, it suggests that J. R.'s problem is that he wants to screw girls but can't because of his Catholic brainwashing, whereas Scorsese is really making a subtler point about the broads that can be screwed and the virgins...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Vincent Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There are ritualized conceits in] "New York, New York," Martin Scorsese's elaborate, ponderous salute to Hollywood movies of the 1940's and early 50's in the form of a backstage musical of the period. (p. 70)

The big-band sounds are right, as are the sets and costumes and especially the movie conventions. "New York, New York" knowingly embraces a narrative line as formal and strict in its way as the shape of a sonnet. Even the sets are meant to look like back-lot sets, not the real world….

Yet, after one has appreciated the scholarship for about an hour or so … one begins to wonder what Mr. Scorsese and his writers are up to. "New York, New York" is not a "parody," but the...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

New York, New York looks at first glance like a tolerably successful pastiche, full of wayward longueurs that perversely assert themselves as being among its major pleasures. On reflection, one realises that Scorsese has simply inverted the basic premises of the musical, a move that requires a certain adjustment in the spectator. The protracted opening sequence (after a brief evocation of the V-J Day celebrations in Times Square), for instance, is entirely concerned with Jimmy Doyle's tortuously ingenious attempts, after seeing his pick-up routine rejected by two other girls, to deny Francine the privilege of saying no. Linguistically and dramatically speaking, it should outstay its welcome; but the peculiar...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If there is one central paradox to Martin Scorsese's movies, it must be their knack for harnessing a single-minded intensity of purpose to an instinct for charging off in a variety of directions. Such contradictory energy is also what makes his protagonists run; and on his home ground, in a Little Italy suffused with the pain of ruling passions running up blind alleys in Mean Streets, Scorsese is the peerless spokesman for a world where hell-raising is the only escape from some hell-bent obsession of temperament or ambition.

But, as indicated by the hesitant sketch of Who's That Knocking at My Door and the sterile steel trap of Taxi Driver—the before and after of Mean...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Given The Last Waltz's] title and subject, and Scorsese's tendency to work in an apocalyptic register, an air of Götterdämmerung hangs over The Last Waltz. This is the end of an era in popular music, one apostrophised finally by [Robbie] Robertson when he marvels that he and The Band have spent sixteen years on the road, quails before the prospect of pushing their luck any further, and then enumerates the performers, from Hank Williams through Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley, who have given their lives to the tradition. But more than this, the film is a collage of two decades of beginnings and endings, a two-hour whistle stop tour across the map of pop music, its sense of the history of its...

(The entire section is 973 words.)

J. Hoberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Italianamerican] is funny and touching. It's richer than a less personal documentary would have been, supplementing well [Scorsese's] hallucinated depiction of the mean streets outside.

In a sense, Italianamerican … is a home movie in reverse, with the grown child turning the camera on parents or parental figures. But Scorsese is fortunate: his progenitors are a delight. Prompted by his jumpy, occasionally bemused, presence at the edge of the frame, they recount their own parents' tales of the old country, show Instamatics … made during a trip back there, and detail their childhoods on the mythic Lower East Side….

The film is interspersed with family photographs...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Last Waltz was not just work; it was a special kind of anchor. [Marty Scorsese's] love affair with rock and roll, his commitment to music as a form, is at least as deep and abiding as his love and commitment to film. He has always used music in his films, knowing just what the kid would listen to in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, manipulating the track of Taxi Driver with disc-jockey ease. The cultural conflict in Mean Streets is most directly expressed as a war between two styles of music, Italian and rock….

The Last Waltz was conceived as "an opera."… If Scorsese's fiction films have musical structure, then The Last Waltz, with its...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

James Monaco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

None of the new filmmakers has created as strong a public persona as Martin Scorsese. Hunted, haunted, asthmatic, diminutive, darkly bearded, a victim of religious nightmares, a mass of raging anxieties, Scorsese as we know him from interviews and photographs makes Paul Schrader, his only rival in film-noir paranoia, look by comparison like a happily adjusted Midwestern businessman. In fact, Scorsese's real success is to have made films at all. Each new project brings with it a baggage of stories about the director's agonies. The movies—even the ones with relatively pleasant atmospheres—seem rooted in this pain.

Perhaps this suffering need not be in vain: within Scorsese there may lie an...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Frank Deford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The violence in Raging Bull is ghastly and overdone. A nose crunches, broken for us to hear close up; copious amounts of blood gush out of orifices and gashes, drenching the ringside swells. To what purpose? There are, it seems to me, three possible motives for such displays of brutality. First, the obvious one: to exploit the worst in boxing and in us. Second, the reverse: to expose this barbaric exercise, drum up the reformers and hasten its abolition from the 20th century. Or third: as a dramatic device to inform us about the characters.

Alas, in Raging Bull, the spectacle of exaggerated violence is put to no use whatsoever. It is introduced in the same way the director of a skin...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seeing Martin Scorsese's [Raging Bull] is like visiting a human zoo. That's certainly not to say that it's dull: good zoos are not dull. But the life we watch is stripped to elemental drives, with just enough décor of complexity—especially the heraldry of Catholicism—to underscore how elemental it basically is.

Scorsese specializes in the primitive aspects of urban life, with an emphasis on the colors and conflicts of Italian-Americans. American films have developed a latter-day line in this vein…. Most Italian-Americans may very understandably be tired of this canted concentration on gutter and crime, but they had better brace themselves: because here it is again and—which may...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At first, we may think that we're going to find out what makes Jake La Motta's life special and why ["Raging Bull" has been] made about him. But as the picture dives in and out of La Motta's life, with a few minutes of each of his big fights …, it becomes clear that Scorsese isn't concerned with how La Motta got where he did, or what, specifically, happened to him. Scorsese gives us exact details of the Bronx Italian neighborhoods of the forties—everything is sharp, realistic, lived-in. But he doesn't give us specific insights into La Motta….

"Raging Bull" isn't a biographical film about a fighter's rise and fall; it's a biography of the genre of prizefight films. Scorsese loves the visual...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Robert Phillip Kolker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Scorsese] does not create narratives that are easily assimilable. The formal structure of his work is never completely at the service of the viewer or of the story it is creating. There is an unashamed self-consciousness in his work and a sense of kinetic energy that sometimes threatens to overtake both viewer and story, but always provides a commentary upon the viewer's experience and prevents him or her from easily slipping into a series of narrative events. (pp. 207-08)

Scorsese is interested in the psychological manifestations of individuals who are representative either of a class or of a certain ideological grouping; he is concerned with their relationships to each other or to an antagonistic...

(The entire section is 4173 words.)

Michael Powell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not since the beginnings of [Akira] Kurosawa have we seen such nervous authority. From [Martin Scorsese's] earliest films he started a dialogue with the audience compelling them to take part. Together with Robert De Niro he has invented a new film language. (p. 1)

[Scorsese and De Niro] are using a film language that dares the audience to stay ahead of them. It's the greatest compliment a filmmaker can pay to his audience; and we appreciate it. Half the time we yawn our heads off, as the film director underlines some point we found out for ourselves ten minutes ago. Scorsese-De Niro is a different ball game. Visual and verbal points are made with rapier-like touches. A word creates an image, an image...

(The entire section is 333 words.)