Total Recall: Shine a Light on Martin Scorsese
Give these a spin: Who's That Knocing At My Door, The King of Comedy, and After Hours.
This week, Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light hits theaters. We at Rotten Tomatoes have decided to highlight some of the lesser-known gems in the filmography of a man many have called America's greatest living director.
If you haven't seen Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or his long-awaited Best Picture winner The Departed, get thee to a video store immediately. Still, Scorsese's body of work is so consistently excellent that even his second-tier films contain plenty of riches (Life Lessons, the short he made for the omnibus New York Stories) or have influenced other filmmakers (both Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater have paid homage to Scorsese's little- seen doc American Boy in their own movies).
After directing several audacious student films at NYU, Scorsese made his feature debut with Who's That Knocking At My Door (1967, 75 percent on the Tomatometer), a raw slice-of-life story strongly influenced by indie auteur John Cassavetes' Shadows. Door follows J.R. (Harvey Keitel, in his first billed role), a young man from Little Italy who idles away his hours hanging with a group of buddies. He falls for a girl from the other side of the tracks after a lengthy discussion of The Searchers on the Staten Island Ferry. However, when he learns she's been raped, J.R. falls into a morass of unease and Catholic guilt -- themes that would continue to inform later Scorsese's films.
It's easy to view Who's That Knocking At My Door as simply a rough draft for Scorsese's later, greater films. The movie went through a long period of development, with Scorsese editing scenes together that had been shot at different times for different projects; he even added an arty (and, frankly, overblown) sex scene after an exploitation distributor requested it. However, such an analysis overlooks the many pleasures -- and innovations -- on display. Scorsese's ability to present the daily rhythms of life in an urban neighborhood is already in evidence, and his use of contemporary pop tunes on the soundtrack was groundbreaking for its time. Channel 4 called Who's That Knocking At My Door "a wonderfully inspiring low-budget feature, with more than just an inkling of the treats to come."
Who's That Knocking At My Door's party scene (with different music).
Scorsese's films are filled with men who, despite limited talent or smarts, desperately want to be someone. If Rupert Pupkin, the antihero of The King of Comedy (1983, 92 percent), has a sunnier outward disposition than Travis Bickle, he's no less psychotic on the inside. Pupkin (played with smarmy neediness by Robert DeNiro) dreams of stand-up comedy fame; his apartment is decorated like the set of a talk show, and he has imaginary conversations with cardboard cutouts of big stars. One night, he weasels his way into the limo of late night host Jerry Langford (deftly played by Jerry Lewis). Langford is cordial to Pupkin, vaguely promising to check out his act. However, Pupkin blows this chance meeting out of proportion, showing up at Langford's office calling his home; after being rebuffed several times, he and fellow stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard) hatch a plot to kidnap Langford.
As black as black comedies come, The King of Comedy is often painful to watch; Pupkin's unearned self-regard lands him in plenty of awkward situations, but there are stretches of the film (including the much-debated ending) in which Pupkin's delusions seem painfully within his grasp. If King was met with confusion by the critics upon its release, its dark critique of the culture of celebrity looks eerily prescient in our paparazzi-saturated age. Chuck O'Leary of Fantastica Daily called it "one of the most disturbing, thought-provoking and funniest films of the 1980s. This underappreciated Scorsese great is more relevant today than ever."
The King of Comedy: How to blow a date in four minutes.
Pay attention to After Hours (1985, 92 percent): it's the closest Scorsese will ever come to making a stoner comedy. Set during one increasingly bizarre night, plain office drone Paul (Griffin Dunne) has one simple goal: to get back home after a failed one night stand. How many obstacles can Scorsese and screenwriter Joseph Minion stuff in a few hours? Try three psychotic blondes, angry taxi drivers and subway employees, an ice cream truck, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, a bonafide bloodthirsty mob, and Paul's Kafkaesque ability to never have enough money to get anywhere. Shot quickly and aggressively to rekindle Scorsese's love for filmmaking, After Hours is as hilarious as it is kinda frightening. The grit, the grime, the sheer randomness of New York as filtered through the eyes of a 1980s yuppie makes this "a rich, wincingly funny metaphysical farce." (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader)
After Hours: "Give me a token!"
Throughout his career, Scorsese has shown a devotion to branching out past strictly movies, uncovering new platforms to tell his stories. While the movies we just discussed aren't as widely recalled among the movie-going public compared to his other successes, even less seen is Scorsese's work in television, music videos, and short film. If you haven't gotten around to them yet, we'll start you off: the complete 16-minute video to Michael Jackson's "Bad" is available on YouTube, as is 2007's The Key to Reserva, which doubles as a really long commercial and a ravishing homage to Hitchcock.