Very few careers have become as influential and awe-inspiring, within the film world, as director Martin Scorsese. Be it his documentary work with films like No Direction Home or his iconic gangster pieces like Goodfellas, or his work with writer Paul Schrader (films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) Scorsese has made as many full-on masterpieces as he has films that, over the years, have become known as unsung and underrated classics.
One of these true gems from Scorsese’s early period, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, may even be one of the auteur’s lesser-talked-about keepers. It’s also one that desperately needs a new restoration, and even has yet to hit Blu-ray here stateside.
And hopefully, one day, Criterion can change that, because they should be honored to have a film as lively and truly fantastic as Scorsese’s killer melodrama.
From the very first frames, melodrama becomes this film’s biggest apparent influence, and it’s biggest apparent aesthetic aspiration. With sundrenched photography, the film sets the viewers mind to think that he or she is about to watch a very classically Hollywood melodrama, with as much over the top artistic cinematography as it has equally heightened emotions. However, while the film’s narrative does offer up a handful of emotionally charged sequences, what we instead get is a beautiful portrait of a woman unwilling to settle for anything less than her dream, her American Dream.
A singer, we follow the story of Alice Hyatt, as she deals with not only the sudden death of her husband, but a move she then decides to embark on with her young son, Tommy. On their way to Monterey, California, the mother-son duo settle down for some time while Alice attempts to find a job in cities like Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. A true character study, the cast here is breathtaking, and it’s all led by Ellen Burstyn, who would win an Oscar for this performance.
Always a fantastic thespian (one of the film world’s most underrated actresses, if you were to ask this writer), this may be Burstyn’s crowning achievement. Perfectly distilling everything about her that makes her as interesting a screen presence as there is, she imbues this performance with a shattering sense of drive and beauty while also giving us her inherent kinetic mannerisms and the heightened emotion found within the DNA of both classical melodramas, and the work of Burstyn as an actress. Alice doesn’t seem that far away from a character like the one she portrays in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, in both her character’s melancholic look at her life and where it has gone/is heading as well as their heightened sense of drama and emotion. It’s really a fantastic turn, and one that is definitive of the greater body of work for actress Ellen Burstyn.
The supporting cast is equally fantastic. Alfred Lutter is great here as Alice’s son, Tommy, a perfectly precocious youngster who pairs off perfectly with his mother. One of Scorsese’s many collaborations with Harvey Keitel, he’s solid here as an abusive man who Alice falls for on her journey, and the pair of Diane Ladd and Valerie Curtin offer up a really great duo for Alice to bounce off of. Rounded out by Kris Kristofferson as David, a rancher who strongly catches the eye of Alice as well as finding himself getting close to her son, the film’s cast may be as strong and superb as director Scorsese and his almost God given artistic hand.
That hand is on full display here. While that previously-mentioned opening sequence hints at Scorsese’s appreciation for films like Gone With The Wind (the paint-like photography can’t help but cause the viewer’s brain to go directly back to that film’s beautifully lit conclusion), the film ultimately becomes something far different. A much more realistic aesthetic is implemented, often opting for improvisations and other in the moment flights of fancy that connect the film not only to classical melodrama narratives but to neo-realism. The bits of physical violence are visceral, the emotional brutality even more so, and the naturalism behind the camera, and, thanks to the performances, in front of it, cultivate a sense of narrative depth that is shocking coming from a director as green as Scorsese was at this point in his career.
So, if this film is so superb, where’s the Blu-ray? A DVD was released about a decade ago, and while it’s been collected into various ‘Martin Scorsese Collection’ DVD box sets, a Blu-ray (according to Amazon US) is not available. A UK Blu-ray isn’t even available, so where is it? Scorsese is as big a director name as there is out there, so his canon is likely hard to snatch up rights to, but Criterion could do worse than to nab this film up. It’s such a fantastic visual piece of work that it deserves to be restored and given the Blu-ray treatment. Toss in a commentary, a retrospective (I’m thinking one akin to Criterion’s recent retrospective featurette on the Rosemary’s Baby disc) and a visual essay, and you’ll have a release that could make huge waves. One of Scorsese’s most underrated films, this deserves yet one more time in the spotlight.