1970s, Auteurs, Drama

Taxi Driver (1976)





Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
– The Pilgrim; Chapter 33, by Kris Kristofferson

Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard were brought up in a strictly Calvinist household. Paul tells a story of how his mother once stabbed him with a needle to inform him what hell was like. Creative storytelling was one of the few household luxuries. At age 18, Schrader snuck off to see Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and instantly set himself on the path toward making movies; the deliciously sinful sensuality of cinema and the tradition of creativity lodged in Schrader were an inevitable siren call. Clearly talented in film school, Schrader made his name in publishing studies of the spiritual cinema of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. He worked for a time as a film critic, encountering and later loudly breaking with Pauline Kael. In a period of personal crisis following a move to Los Angeles, he left his wife for another woman, saw both relationships crumble, and wallowed in debt, drink, and a gun fetish until being hospitalized. Schrader also read the published diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Gov. George Wallace. Combining personal emotion and this weird character premise, Schrader furiously composed the first draft of an expression of pure psychological anguish—Taxi Driver.




Schrader hit the big time by selling, with Leonard, a screenplay for The Yakuza, a remarkably grown-up thriller that flopped. Paul bounced back when Taxi Driver was taken on by maverick producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who first tried to interest Al Pacino in starring and Brian De Palma in directing, before deciding on Martin Scorsese, who brought Robert De Niro with him. It was to prove an epochal mesh of talents. Scorsese and Schrader were both religiously and intellectually minded, aggressively sensual, and awkwardly, angrily progressive, cinephiliac by default. Taxi Driver was a very new kind of movie, yet a large part of the film’s energy comes from being a terminus—the most fluent depiction of “Drop Dead!” fin de siècle New York, Columbia Studio’s last film to use to the old Torch Lady logo, the dying composition of the great Bernard Herrmann, and the last great American New Wave film, at the time when the affectations of the genre were being borrowed to make blockbusters and crowd pleasers (Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever).




Taxi Driver shatters the sheen of outsider chic that drove films like Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Easy Rider by presenting an alienated “hero” whose secret life is the poisoned well of the mainstream, a manifestation of the sickest elements of the time. The sense that, say, Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea had a squall of rage in him finds its thematically final, ugliest consummation here, as does the fascination with assassination after the political violence of the ’60s, which formed part of the texture of Robert Altman’s celebratory Nashville from the previous year, and also to Network, whose famously ranting newsman has his mirror image here in a strung-out, raging black man on the street; they share a telegraph wire to the zeitgeist.




Taxi Driver represents a vital intellectual and emotional severing point. Out of the volcano of this film formed the cool, ironic crystals of indie cinema, with its rejection of emotional conflation. A New York Times critic much more recently labeled the resultant film a work of “disco noir,” an evocative if reductive phrase describing the hedonist idiocy and decayed glamour of the cocaine-and-polyester scene; indeed, to many today, Taxi Driver is that scene. As a basic story, Taxi Driver follows the template of Dirty Harry and Death Wish as tales of lone white men engaged in a violent battle with a universe of moral entropy. The difference is that in the course of emptying out their own shit-caked psyches, Schrader and Scorsese analyse the mindset behind the popularity of those other film, with a judicious, but not judgmental, dissection of their racism, misogyny, and macho conflict in an age pushing feminism, racial equality, gay liberation, all that jazz.




“All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” Travis Bickle muses, watching the brawling night life of New York, with its panoply of contemptible, obscene creatures dedicated to living a life of extroverted sensual expression Travis cannot take part in. Herrmann’s music swells as Travis’ vehicle fins through the night, liquid neon spewing across his windshield; Herrmann’s theme features whispers of romantic saxophone alternating with a stygian mass of woodwinds and brass, evoking a fine filament of humanity struggling through Hades and capturing the film’s driving dichotomy of Travis both as hero and devil.




Travis Bickle’s desire is to transcend, to become be an angel of death and savior. We learn that Travis was a marine, honorably discharged, a Vietnam veteran, setting the mould for a future movie cliché. War trauma may be part of his trouble, but I also suspect Travis, as a returned warrior, expects himself to become a exemplar of democracy. Instead, he’s barely keeping his mind together as he roams the city, driven by insomnia, dogged with an inability to relate. His smirk for the man who hires him for the taxi company (Joe Spinell, a signal ’70s character actor) reflects his unhinged, amused contempt for the work-a-day world. He gobbles candy, a cinema staple since Psycho for suggesting the rot of arrested development. His desires—to find a woman, to accomplish fine and brave things—are mostly at odds with his impulses, which are basically to rage, kick, insult, defile, debase, and destroy.



The tension between these two opposing states keeps him, for the first two acts of the film, in a muted, awkward, semi-normal stasis. As The Clash would succinctly describe it, Bickle is one of “those who see ghettology as an urban Vietnam.” Taxi Driver is the first true Vietnam film in that it deals with its social, intellectual, and emotional fall-out in the terms of the conflict’s experience. Travis is often described as a monster, a sick and twisted beast. But he’s an iconic monster not because he is a condensation of tropes that signify the Other, like the evil comfortably divorced from the everyday represented by Hannibal Lecter, but rather because he’s a condensation of every neurosis, embedded prejudice, latent source of rage, and antisocial impulse common to the average male in the ’70s. Travis becomes Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man remade as a savagely unsentimental anti-intellectual for the Nixon era.




Although Travis quotes Kierkegaard when calls himself “God’s Lonely Man,” he utterly resists traveling down the route of philosophy (“morbid self attention” as he calls it) in an age as sentimental as it is anti-intellectual. Travis, like stations of Cross, passes through devolving forms of culture—office humor plates, Betsy’s (Cybill Shepherd) faux-intellectual quotation of Kris Kristofferson, the pseudo-advice of Wizard (Peter Boyle), through to bathing in the sublime idiocy of The Young and The Restless, soft rock on American Bandstand, and combating Iris’s (Jodie Foster) idea that her lifestyle is in some fashion “hip,” that is, self-liberating. No wonder his training regimen has an aspect of Buddhist self-abnegation. Travis wants to strip himself down to a concept of pure force, and remove himself from this realm of gibberish entirely.




“Here, a man wants to die, he locks himself in a room and stabs himself in the belly,” says Richard Jordan in The Yakuza. “Back home he takes out a gun, shoots a lot of other people.” Schrader’s clearly referencing his own thinking, poured into the other screenplay on his mind, and he establishes a crucial divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality and social life. When Travis shaves his head to a mohawk, he is engaging in a primal ritual, one practiced for real by some soldiers in Vietnam when setting out on patrol. It is a timeless burial of the self into warrior guise, animal form (“Animal Mother,” Adam Baldwin’s baby-faced nutball in Full Metal Jacket, is named for a shamanistic idea of human rebirth into pure force via an animal totem. Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now all delve into the primeval devolution that fuelled the consciousness of Americans engaged on the ground level of the war). It is clear then that to be reborn, Travis needs to pass through this savage ritual and follow it to a conclusion, however apocalyptic.




The taxi drivers all hang out at the Belmore Café. He listens to the make-believe sex life recounted by Wizard, who serves, by default, as a wise elder. When Travis goes to him for advice, Wizard eventually shoots back, “What the fuck do you expect from me? I drive a taxi!” Everything that surrounds Travis is possessed with some import, either sexual (like another driver who shows off a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub with its traces of legendary sexual escapades) or demonic (a menacing cohort of black pimps).




Fittingly for a study of pagan impulse, Taxi Driver charts an Odyssean route, to the point where Travis journeys to Hades after meeting a goddess and a king. The goddess is personified by Betsy. Betsy works in the campaign of the would-be king, presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a populist WASP icon whose hollow rhetoric sounds uncannily like the tripe that would soon gain Ronald Reagan the White House. Betsy’s engaged in a go-nowhere romance with witty but so-not-butch co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Tom is everything Travis isn’t—easy, witty, safely asexual. In Schrader’s script, he was a standard, whitebread, pretty boy, a dully easy match for Betsy. By casting Brooks, Tom becomes the nebbishy kind of guy who makes a career out whining about not getting the girls, thus getting all the girls.




Bickle encounters Palantine in his taxi. The politician’s unspecified appeal to the disgruntled finds its readymade fan in Travis, who appeals to Palantine to clean up the city with the fire of the righteous. Palantine, in a small, but telling touch, slightly curls his mouth as he exits Travis’ taxi, partly derisory, knowing he’s just met someone neither brilliant nor nice, but certainly uncommon. Betsy responds to Travis for similar reasons—his intensity and honesty, even in his clichés. Betsy’s radiant looks hide a shallow, vaguely narcissistic personality. She’s someone who’s already heard every line in the book, never expecting something as corny as “You have beautiful eyes” to be recited with such feeling. She is intrigued before being repelled. Betsy makes a perfect bitch goddess to idolize and trample, and Scorsese’s sympathetic heroines of earlier films essentially go out the window.




Travis’ social ineptitude is made clear with bleak hilarity when he takes Betsy to a porn theatre, blowing the chance of romance for good—the apogee of the film’s blackly comic edge. Later, when Travis tries to call Betsy again, Scorsese moves the camera away from him to regard an empty hallway to avoid the embarrassing spectacle and to more forcefully illustrate the gaping maw at the center of Bickle’s future. To Scorsese, this was the most important shot in the film.




Travis’ second phase begins. He blows up at Betsy’s workplace. The menacing score, suggesting a wakening leviathan, which first accompanied shots of Bickle’s cruising taxi, now lumbers beneath a slo-mo shot of Travis in the fab red-velvet jacket he wore with such flair to his and Betsy’s first meeting that is now a signpost of distress and a predictor of the blood that will coat him. Travis the avenging angel has broken from his shell.




Travis has a grim vision of himself when one of his customers, a ranting, coked-up businessman (Scorsese, in his greatest personal performance) who spins a spell of perfect malignant energy: “You see that window with the light? The one closet to the edge of the building? You know who lives there? Of course you don’t know who lives there, but I’m saying ‘Do you know who lives there?’ A nigger lives there, and that isn’t my apartment. My wife is in there and… I’m gonna kill her…Have you ever seen what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy? Now that you should see.” Destruction of female sex with Dirty Harry’s mighty weapon. Travis reacts to him like he’s scum, but Travis’ own warped condition registers this as a visitation by an evil demon, a harbinger, to be paid attention to.




Travis arms himself to the teeth with guns brought from a cheerful get-you-anything salesman (Steven Prince, a real salesman and acquaintance of Scorsese’s) and sets about training himself for the coming war, rehearsing imagined confrontations and planning the tactics of street fighting. He kills a black kid sticking up a convenience store owner; the unpeeled loathing of the store owner, who begins beating the corpse with a baseball bat whilst promising to cover for Travis, is the most coldly brutal element in the film and one whose racism Scorsese originally wanted to back off from.




Two missions appeal to Travis: assassinating Palantine and rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Ivy from her pimp, “Sport” Matthew (Harvey Keitel). Travis first met Iris when she tried to escape from Sport in Travis’ taxi. Sport bought his inaction with a crumpled bill made by some act of alchemy to resemble a soiled condom. Travis keeps it as a marker for some future rite of vengeance. Both scenarios offer electric transcendence, and the instant fame of the assassination trumps. But Palantine’s secret service goons spot him, so Travis instead goes off to kill Sport and the timekeeper (Murray Mosten) in their tenement block base.




Scorsese and Schrader decided the way to play the story was to have Travis essentially become a Western hero, a brutally dissected yet still <curiously heroic example of the sort of sociopath who’s good to have on our side (Wyatt Earp). By mimicking the varmint-plugging structure of a John Wayne film, Taxi Driver retains its driving quality. De Niro, in his improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scenes, is quoting Shane, and Travis reminds us how much heroism can be divorced from moral sensibility, as he blows the concierge’s hand off, shoots Sport in the stomach without giving him a chance to arm himself, and riddles one of Iris’s johns with holes. Much like those Wild West titans, Travis is lauded for his actions by the popular press purely for being, for converting thought and impulse into action.




Schrader had wanted the final impression to be surreal and garish; instead, Scorsese’s handling of the (scripted) tracking shot from out of the tenement coolly creates a voyeuristic context for the finale, as it finds corpses sprawled as they will appear in the newspaper photos, chalk outlines, with a crowd of flocking onlookers. We meet Travis again after a long cooling camera drift past his triumphantly collected newspaper clippings and the dryly caring sound of Iris’ father thanking him by letter. Travis is grinning and chatting easily with the other drivers outside the Belmore, and gets Betsy as a fare. Travis gives her a free ride, and leaves her behind, with a look through his rear-view mirror at….something, suggested by a swift sound effect quickly swallowed by Herrmann’s music and the city night. Travis will never be free of the demon singing from the back seat, but his song is sweeter now.




As much as the work’s blood is Schrader’s, the muscle and flesh are Scorsese’s. Taxi Driver is a work of total style, despite the intense reek of realism. Almost every shot is skewed with a succession of editing, lighting, and camera effects (with cinematographer Michael Chapman working his butt off), bending perspective through the gravity of Travis’ perception, and only finding clear-eyed calm when Travis converses with Betsy and Iris in mirroring scenes. Taxi Driver reveals Scorsese’s potent capacity to charge objects with totemic, fetishist import; for example, when Travis cavorts with his guns and weapons, it is as chillingly clear as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey handling bones and realizing potential. Both scenes that have become iconic for masturbatory latent violence. Scorsese’s previous heroes are lost in maelstroms of ethical and physical confusion. Travis Bickle is the first to emerge from the other side.

1970s, Auteurs, Drama

Boxcar Bertha (1971)




Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen,
And as through your life you travel, yes as through your life you roam,
You will never seen an outlaw drive a family from their home.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” – Woody Guthrie

“Congratulations!” John Cassavetes cried to erstwhile former employee and fan Martin Scorsese after viewing his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, “You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”

Shit? No, not at all. It’s almost worthy of the declaration, “Scorsese and Corman, Together At Last!” Roger Corman was one of the top four or five creative forces in American cinema at a time when the studios were brontosaurs collapsing under their own weight. Many talents—Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Nicholas Roeg, Robert Towne, Monte Hellman—passed through Cormanville on the way to Tinseltown. Corman handed Scorsese $600,000 and a simple equation: give skin, have artistic freedom. Hell yes, Marty said. The film is most memorable to many for the Playboy photo spread it yielded. Letting Barbara Hershey wear a gold belly chain for a sex scene in a Depression-era ruin is pretty dumb.


Boxcar Bertha is indeed an extraordinarily sensual film, though I’m not referring to eyefuls of Hershey (her best performance, light years from her later, mannered drip). Scorsese composed 500 storyboards preparing the film and shot on location. Despite the low budget he conjures a delicious feel for time and place, a quality of light, a world that positively reeks of morning dew, coal smoke, lovers’ flesh, fresh-cut wood. One of the post-Bonnie & Clyde wave of Depression-exploit flicks (see Big Bad Mama, The Grissom Gang) but one with more than bullet-riddled flappers on its mind. The epic anthropologist of Gangs of New York lurks here, digging into a past of labor wars, gambling, prostitution, racism, of grim survival located just on the edge of a collective memory. “Just what are these Reds, anyway?’ Bertha asks, quoting Tom Joad. The movies have a longer memory than society. Rather than being based on a pulp novel or tabloid hero, the film is adapted from the testimony of a real Bertha, as recounted in Ben L. Reitman’s oral history Sisters of the Road.


Bertha’s the auburn-haired, dress-bursting peach of a daughter of a barnstorming crop duster. In the pre-title sequence, he’s sent aloft in a rickety plane by unscrupulous capitalist types. A bunch of workmen, including perpetually cop-dodging labor leader Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine, warming up for Woody Guthrie), and her pal, blues-blowing man-mountain Von Morton (Bernie Casey), watch with her in grief as Daddy crashes, and immediately start pummeling the men who have caused his death. Bertha wanders the highways and byways looking for a way to survive without becoming a prostitute. She’s in love with Bill—their unions are always sexually explosive (hello, skin)—but because he’s constantly pursued by strike breakers, they never can stay together.


The one place Bill is safe is giving speeches. In an hilarious scene, he points out two “McIvers,” aka, railroad-employed private detectives (Victor Argo and David Osterhout, who resemble a malevolent Laurel and Hardy), to his crowd of attentive strikers, ordering them to beat the pair up. “Bullshit!” the McIvers blurt before bolting. Vengeance is theirs. When the strikers are jailed by redneck cops and Von is bullied, the prisoners start fighting back. They take the cops easily, but the McIvers calmly march in with shotguns and randomly blow holes in the rioters until the jail is a sea of carnage.


Bertha, still rambling, encounters a tight-lipped gambler who, the moment he opens his mouth, blows his identity as an exiled Noo Yawker. This is Rake Brown (Barry Primus), who might as well be Joey from Who’s That Knocking On My Door?—whiny, fussy, sharp but comical, physically uncourageous, railroaded into foreign climes. Bertha coaches him in Southern elocution (“Mah dee-ah”) and poses as his elegant mistress, keeping opponents’ eyes on her figure rather than his cards. One game turns violent, and Bertha pops a guy with a derringer. Bertha and Rake spring Bill and Von from the clink, and the foursome find themselves described in the papers as a gang. Bill is stricken by the appellation. He’s a worker’s warrior, not a criminal, but when he learns even his union finds him persona non grata, he leads the foursome in a criminal war harrying capitalist institutions, most notably the Sartoris clan (cheeky Faulkner name-check) and its scion H. Buckram Sartoris (even cheekier, casting John Carradine, David’s father and the former Preacher Casey; the scene where David sticks him up and swaps Bible quotes is a film geek’s delight), raiding their trains and even a ritzy party.


Sartoris plots a trap, which they walk into. Rake, with chip on shoulder from being called a coward in the papers and being jilted by Bertha for Bill, refuses to surrender. The McIvers shoot him, giving Bertha a chance to make a break. On the chain gang, Bill is beaten and becomes ill. Bertha, hungry and desperate, takes up work in a brothel, where her clients include a glass-eating weirdo and a lonely guy who doesn’t want to sleep alone (Scorsese himself, plump and beardless, in his first cameo). One night, passing a blues joint, she hears a familiar wail.
Inside she finds Von, who has been released. He reveals Bill has escaped. Von takes her to the shack where Bill is holed up, and she finds a gray-haired wreck of a man, ponderously penning radical tracts like a down-home Trotsky. Bertha stirs Bill back to passion, and Von leaves them alone. As they leave the shack, they are set upon by the McIvers and hillbilly thugs. As a final punishment for the offending rebel, they crucify Bill on the door of a boxcar, forcing Bertha to watch.


Ah, Marty, ever the Catholic fetishist. He is, however, drawing the vital link in image and theme with the pre-Moral Majority conjunction of the labor movement and Christian idealism, the folk-wisdom of Woody Guthrie’s Jesus Christ (and also Guthrie’s charitable outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd). Bertha is Scorsese’s most baldly pinko film. Its imagery anticipates the twin religious/historical imagery of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and anticipates, with its boxcar Jesus, Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” The heroes of Boxcar Bertha, not as conflicted as later Scorsese protagonists, are a likable bunch of outsiders, all of whom embody a different perspective—pre-hippie radical Bill, pre-civil-rights black individualist Von, prefeminist wild child Bertha, and Rake, his unmacho, urbane self tragically stuck in Hicksville. The villains are likewise plainly villains.


Dramatically speaking, the plotting is poor, and the film chugs and rattles more than one of its vintage steam trains. Scenes, characters, and acts come and go with picaresque speed and scant logic. The idea of Bill and his band conducting a guerrilla war on big business is brilliant, but these scenes are fiddle-and-banjo hijinks staged for yucks. Marty was still having difficulty calibrating his style to a story; in spurts, the film has the lean and dangerous despair of classic noir, the wistful melancholy of Nicholas Ray, the knockabout grace of Preston Sturges, but too often it’s overstuffed with comedic chicanery and tonal uncertainty. The cray-zy comedy and harsh violence sit uneasily together.


Yet I prefer it to most of its rivals of the time, of which there were many—comedy-drama westerns and gangster flicks infused with Hippie Americana. It evokes the world of Guthrie’s songs more effectively even than the biopic Bound for Glory (1976). It possesses a lucidity about the period conflicts that Bonnie & Clyde elides. Boxcar Bertha combines folk-nostalgic whimsy and Depression misery in a more meaningful way than The Sting (1973). Scorsese already has a deft flexibility, delivering sex and violence within an oddball, vital film. He creates startling shots, including one scene where dozens of escaping chain-gang convicts flee through stacks of fresh-cut timber and another with Bill, in a fury, marching down the hall of an abandoned warehouse being pursued by Bertha and Rake, slanting light sun-dogging on the lens. These shots are not just technically impressive, but also create a beatific historical vision.


It’s also Scorsese’s first film to really deal in violence. When guns fire, Scorsese amplifies the sound to the point where shotguns sound like cannons and blow bloody gouges in people. When someone gets hurt, you feel it. I’ve rarely been happier to see a bunch of bad guys shot than at the end of this one, and when Von returns, takes up one of the McIvers’ shotguns, and massacres the thugs as they smugly watch Bill’s crucifixion, it’s hard not to cheer. Scorsese’s staging establishes his career’s dichotomist view of violence. He can’t really see Von’s outrage as a triumph (especially as he’s too late to save Bill) and Von, judging by his baleful final expression, finds even justified violence degrading and soul-depleting. All the ethic of violent repression practiced by the McIvers and Sartoris has accomplished is brutalizing everyone. In storyboarding the crucifixion scene, Scorsese specified the nails that pierce Bill’s hands be seen protruding from the wood, smeared with blood, visceral but avoiding a Mel Gibson horror show; he would repeat the shot later in The Last Temptation of Christ.


Bertha is still Scorsese’s most unaffected and appealing heroine, bolstered by the script written by the husband-and-wife team of Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington. Bertha is partly a bawdy joke fit for the period—a country girl in a loose dress looking for adventure, a cliché slowly dismantled as Bertha watches the men she loves destroyed and is driven to selling herself. It’s clear why, with the sympathetic and successfully drawn women of his first three films (The Girl, Bertha, and Mean Streets‘Theresa), Scorsese was chosen to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Solid were his credentials as a cinematic feminist, but Scorsese would lose that reputation when his women became as perverse as his men.


Cassavetes was right, however, when he told Scorsese to do something personal next. With greater skill and experience, Scorsese would return to the old neighborhood in Mean Streets. Pause a moment, though, to regard the final shot of Boxcar Bertha, one of my favorite shots of all time—simply accomplished, but starkly effective—as a distraught Bertha runs alongside the moving train (a dangerous and impressive physical feat from Hershey), trying to keep hold of the dangling Bill’s hand, until she is left behind in the setting sun amidst the railside rubbish.

So long it’s been good to know ya.

1960s, Auteurs, Drama

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

aka I Call First ; JR

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

by Roderick Heath

More than a decade ago, in the wee hours of the morning, watching television with the despairing diligence of a teenage film fanatic in a boring town. In between episodes of Night Court and infomercials, a blast of black-and-white shocked my eye. On screen, a seamy flat, a mother preparing dinner and feeding it to her kids, set to weirdly percussive rock music. The mother looked familiar, the caterwauling filmic style, too. Cut to a street scene. Macho epithets between scrawny youths, and is that a young Harvey—shit, it is a really young Keitel. “Jenny Jenny” cranking up as the youths get busy, batons hidden behind backs now slapping skulls, two guys kicking another along a pavement, brawlers colliding with wire fences in the grimiest Brooklyn backstreet.

My budding cineaste’s brain immediately recognised that somebody made this, somebody who had capital-T talent. The somebody was Martin Scorsese. The mother was familiar because it’s his mother, Catherine, not the beloved frizzy-white-haired granny who cropped up in his later work, but a thick-armed, double-chinned, suburban momma. The distance between that kitchen montage and his recent work is vast in every respect, except that, 40 years later, Marty’s feel for the cubist contours of montage is just as fundamental. The New York cinema scene of the ’60s was a warrior movement of hipster guerrillas under the aegis of Warhol and Cassavetes, the film schools, the new critical league with its Sarris, Kael, and Schickel, soaking up the French New Wave vivacity, the British Free Cinema veracity, the pan-European cine-cultural conversation, and wedding it to quintessential American energy. Spitting creative heat like an oiled hotplate, this landscape produced an ocean of experimental shorts, and some features.

Scorsese survived youthful infatuation with the idea of becoming a priest to become the pet student of NYU film lecturer Haig Manoogian (he coproduced Who’s That Knocking at My Door? with wife Betzi, who contributed to the script). Scorsese impressed with shorts like What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! The Great Society going bush and bust in Vietnam, and a private depressive fit, resulted in his breakthrough short The Big Shave (1966). Scraping together $75,000 at age 25, Scorsese set about making a short feature, variously titled in development Bring on the Dancing Girls! and I Call First. He wanted chum Keitel to star, but Harvey was comfortably ensconced in a job as a court stenographer after being hungry too long as an actor. Nonetheless, Harvey took his chance and was joined by costar Zina Bethune, a stage and TV actress and the closest thing to a star of this bunch.

Blood-brothers of Fellini’s “little goats” (I Vitelloni, 1953), JR (Keitel) and pals Joey (Lennard Kuras) and Sally Gaga (Michael Scala) are spivs who spend most of their time hanging around Joey’s hole-in-the-wall bar, The 8th Ward Pleasure Club. JR, a former bank teller, and Sally are unemployed and run on credit, borrowing so much money that Joey whines that he can’t walk through Chinatown anymore without getting ambushed by their loan sharks. This trio spend their time in arguments each night about what to do, driving the neon veldt of the city and winding up back where they started. Scorsese establishes an argot and mise en scene that will eventually be placed into a narrative form in Mean Streets, but here remains a kind of experiential immersion into a place, a mood, a way of life. Their existence teems with chance—they live in the world’s biggest city—but is actually hermetic, self-involved, which is why JR is prone to zoning out in his friends’ company, and meditating instead on The Girl (Bethune).

Scorsese keeps the JR-and-friends and JR-and-The-Girl sequences formally separate. The fact that she is only known as “The Girl”emphasizes her singularity in JR’s otherwise generic life as a young Italian-American male. JR and The Girl meet waiting for a ferry ride and flirt nervously. JR spies a picture of John Wayne in her magazine, and movies proves the first, vital commonality of their attraction (cinephilia is, of course, a major theme). After his command of the possibilities of montage, Scorsese’s most impressive early trait is his ability to encourage Cassavetes-style improvisation controlled by a clear sense of desired effect and a fine ear for truth—both difficult for young artists. Such scenes crackle with verisimilitude, even though they drag and are not contoured into an easy narrative form. Strong narrative command lies in Scorsese’s future.

JR and The Girl establish a less nervous rapport as he impresses/bemuses her with his film-geek lexicon. The sense of excitement and newness is contrasted with the stale, grumpy exchanges of the three male friends in their drives about town (“That girl is bothering you!”). Scorsese uses experimental style (Kenneth Anger, again–shiny metal is sexy) to fetishize the happy interaction of the young men with their technology. The weird exhilaration of riding a car lift. Of pulling switches and raising electrified car windows. Fetishize the human form; JR and The Girl making out (but not making it) on his bed; super-close-ups of faces, skin, kisses, shoulders, the texture of flesh marked out, the weird exhilaration of human on human. Except that JR is young, and Catholic, and afraid. “Call me cold—anything you want—old-fashioned or what!”

The young men, gathered in someone’s family flat. Play-acting. A gun, wielded with excitement. Violence acted and sublimated, like static electricity, waiting for an arc to become active (but young Martin never gives an iota of gangland aura; no, they’re just dumb young wannabes, more in love with the movies than their women). They strike their poses, enact their parts—hood and victim. Scorsese uses slow motion, celebrating this transient transcendence from men to screen gods. Later, they make a foray into upstate New York; climbing a mountain stirs a wealth of comical whining from Joey but sparks something JR’s soul.

Emerging from a revival-house showing of Rio Bravo, JR joyously explains that Feathers was a “broad”. The Girl, of course, must remain pure. Madonna/whore complex, natch, but it’s a cover. Suggestion of homoeroticism in JR and his friends would send them into paroxysms, but they are loathe to engage with the feminine. In explaining the Broad identification to The Girl, Scorsese plummets into one of JR’s sexual fantasies. This bit, shot later at a producer’s insistence, to which Scorsese adds skin to make the film marketable as a sex flick, is actually the best in the film, a scene of great technical show and vertiginous dream-speed, anticipating such orgiastic montages as the cocaine locomotion of GoodFellas. JR’s beautiful boy-manhood is celebrated in quick, carving edits, his flesh desperate for erotic realization, and he beds anonymous whores in a carnal funhouse of an attic room, whilst imagining, but not screwing.

The Girl, who stands, naked in Grecian inviolability. The Doors’ “The End” bellows oedipal climax; JR throws a handful of cards across a woman’s body—ejaculation as contempt. On one level, it’s dumb. But it’s breathless and compulsive, that it is to say, pure Scorsese (and also, pure Thelma Schoonmaker, who erupts with her own editing genius). Back to walking arm-in-arm with The Girl after the movie. What’s JR’s problem? Virginity? Arrested development? Religion? We know his friend’s opinion of women. We’ve seen Sally making out with his girl in the 8th Ward, stealing money out of her handbag. The big crash? The Girl confesses that she has had a sexual encounter—a rape by a former boyfriend, when parked in a car. Well, that’s not her fault surely? JR thinks not: good girls don’t park with men of doubtful character, do they? To JR, it reeks of violation, defilement, terror, sex as bestiality. That it’s rape he’s up against makes the distaste more intense.

Scorsese’s staging of The Girl’s confession has no sound effects, just a rock ballad dubbed over, made to skip, repeat, distort as we see The Girl’s brutal rape, wrestling on snowy ground and being pinioned on the front seat. It’s filmed in stark and chilling terms (the movie was shot in uneven, but sometimes impressive, high-contrast by Richard Cillo and Michael Wadleigh, who would direct the epochal rock doc Woodstock, with Scorsese as an assistant editor and director). JR gets drunk with Sally and Joey, transfigured in his giddy laughter by imaginings of the rape. The boys get together and obtain a pair of prostitutes, Susan and Rosie (Susan Wood and Marrisa Joffrey). Watching a bad movie on the couch whilst the first pair of boys get busy, the remaining boys raffle turns to go in. JR loses, and in sweaty, fake-comic panic, drags the girls out, vowing if he can’t go first, no one’s going. Things turn almost nasty when one of the girls lashes out, scratching Joey’s neck; he angrily throws them out. It’s an orgasm in itself, ejecting the whores from the boy’s circle.

JR, tipsy and in sexual-emotional anguish, goes to The Girl’s apartment. Reunion seems blissfully possible. “I understand now, and I forgive you,” JR drunkenly offers. The Girl goes rigid, and rejects his entreaties: “I won’t marry you on that basis.” Driving him to insults, including the inevitable “You who-ore!” he attempts apology, but things are done. JR flees, drowned in alienating white light, to church. He confesses, prays, bows and kneels before iconography. Shots and actions repeat; the ritual of religion encages JR, or, rather, he encages himself in it. Kissing the foot of Jesus, his lips bleed—or so he hopes. His religion seems fit for Hellraiser; it puts hook and chain in your flesh and condemns you for eternity of body-ache. The song “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” plays—cheesy pop, but evoking the insistent demand of conscience, responsibility, religion, sex, everything cacophonous in JR’s immature ears. The last we see of JR, he and Joey take leave of each other outside the 8th Ward.

By the end of Who’s That Knocking, we might not like JR much, but we understand him. Scorsese would later confess his intellectual stance as one of an anthropologist who begins here with own milieu. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a moral and a sociological study, of the failures of everyday morality and socialization to educate a young man in dealing with real life. Scorsese shows that JR has gone through an experience that has shaken him to the core but refuses to indicate that JR has learned a lesson. Autobiographical, but with an artist’s clear distinction of self from self-study, Keitel’s JR may or may not, Stephen-Dedalus-like, be Scorsese. He’s an alter-ego, possibly doomed to mediocrity through a failure of growth, or who may, as his poet’s expressions in watching the sunset from the mountain hints, one day escape himself. This type of film making is far more common today; in fact, Who’s That Knocking deserves some credit for inventing a whole genre in bildungsroman American indie films. Messy, occasionally naif, and dated, it still possesses an urgency, a bravura technique, and a fumbling towards a new lucidity that makes most of what came after it look pallid.

The finale of JR in church promises the opening of Mean Streets–still in the church, still praying for guidance, still receiving silence.