Everybody should like Westerns. Solve everybody’s problems if they liked Westerns.
While every legendary director, names like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg or the like, seem picked directly out of the cinematic heavens with only the ability to create interesting, masterfully crafted pieces of art, they all have a beginning. There’s always a “first” film. Be it a failure, a solid (but minor) piece of work, or in the case of the film from which the above quote is drawn, one of its director’s most interesting and enthralling works, a lot can be seen in, and said about, a director’s very first feature length piece of work.
For director Martin Scorsese, it all began with the 1967 masterpiece, Who’s That Knocking At My Door. Arguably one of today’s most beloved and revered auteurs, Scorsese has been churning out films for going on six decades now, ranging from legendary character pieces to thrilling experiments in genre work, and even branching off into the world of documentary cinema, and now even the art of film restoration. However, even this legendary, generation defining auteur had to start somewhere, and boy, was his debut feature an announcement of what was to come from this master filmmaker.
As one would expect a first film from Scorsese to touch upon, the film tells the tale of a young Catholic, Italian-American man named J.R. (Harvey Keitel), stuck in the streets of New York. With a close knit group of friends opposite whom he paints the city as red as he possibly can, he one day becomes entranced by a beautiful young woman whose name we don’t learn throughout the film, but whom is played by the effervescent Zina Bethune. The two spark a relationship, only to fall mutually head over heels in love. However, when J.R. discovers that she had been raped by a past boyfriend, he bolts as fast as he can. A story about deeply entrenched Catholic guilt and ultimately forgiveness, this breathtakingly energetic drama is both one of the most definitively “Scorsese” pictures the auteur has ever made, and also one of his most vital and engaging.
First things first, the performances here are top notch. Led primarily by the pair of Keitel and Bethune, each bring a great deal of depth and energy to the picture. Their moments together are particularly well crafted, as the relationship feels as if it’s ripped right out of a Cassavetes picture (Faces would arrive just one year later). Strikingly real and visceral, many of their sequences feel as if Scorsese simply outlined the scene and let the actors go where they felt like going (there’s a rooftop sequence that really brings that to life), and in this type of grainy, deeply lo-fi picture, these type of ground level performances are almost the equivalent of watching two expert jazz musicians lighting their sheet music on fire instead letting each other lead, one note at a time. Ostensibly a neo-realist melodrama (think if Cassavetes did All That Heaven Allows but instead of small town America being the ultimate judge of one’s life, God takes this film’s lead), the film takes a lively performance from a rarely better Keitel and an unsung turn from Bethune and turns this into one of Scorsese’s most human and humane portraits of guilt and forgiveness to date.
It’s also one of his aesthetically playful as well.
With photography from the pair of Richard Coll and Michael Wadleigh (the former’s only feature credit, while the latter is a storied documentary photographer) the film has an energy and a liveliness to each frame that Scorsese rarely taps back into. Awe-inspiring in its use of the black and white photography, this film screams the same raw and kinetic energy that films of this generation had, but its one major difference is its director’s understanding of the idea that cinema is much more than just a vehicle, instead a living and breathing language to tell a story with. There are various expressive and, in many cases, experimental (I’m thinking a fragmented series of shots of our lead’s face) flights of fancy, all of which hinting at things to come in Scorsese’s career. Scorsese doesn’t simply rely on his actors to paint this tale, despite the fact that they give some of the best work of their careers, instead proving to be an assured filmmaker with a knowledge of just what type of voice his camera can truly give him. A bravura picture in every way imaginable, this is a debut film that feels as if it came from a director far more experienced than the then green Scorsese could have ever hoped to be.
And yet, it’s a hard cookie to find on home video. There is a single stand alone release available on DVD, and it’s also part of a handful of Scorsese box sets, but sadly, no Blu-ray is currently available. This is where Criterion should come and save the day. A new restoration for this film could be absolutely bewildering, as the soundtrack here is typical Scorsese bombast, and the photography turns this film into a world class masterpiece. There are more than a handful of proponents of this film, so finding a commentary track shouldn’t be all that difficult, and with Scorsese being so close to Criterion, a retrospective series of interviews shouldn’t be too hard to come by. Toss in some source interviews, trailers and even a look into the rather intriguing production history of this picture (like the addition of a love scene months after it had wrapped), and you’d have a release that could be one of Criterion’s most talked about pictures. One of the greatest cinematic debuts, or at least one of the loudest and most bombastic, as far as student pictures go, Scorsese’s first feature, a film he made during college, is one of the greatest. And needs more respect.