Martin Scorsese Retrospective


David Swindle

Given that October 6 saw the release of director Martin Scorsese's newest film, "The Departed," now is a great time to take a look back at the career of this remarkable moviemaker.

Let's add a few qualifiers - "living" and "American" - to make the declaration a little less grand and debatable. Scorsese is the greatest living American filmmaker. Trying to figure out the greatest filmmaker in the world is a difficult, problematic task - granted, Scorsese would still be in the running. He'd most certainly at least be in the top 5. "Living" also works to pull out a film legendary American directors like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder.

So that would make his remaining competition Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, and Oliver Stone. All of them have crafted masterpieces on par with Scorsese's gems.

But what makes Scorsese rise above the rest? There are many signs indicative of a great filmmaker but one is the most important and the rarest: consistent excellence. There are plenty of directors who make one or two stunning, amazing films. Few, though, continually deliver top notch work. Across the almost 40 years in which Scorsese has made his films - 24 features and several shorts - there has hardly been a dud among them. Of the living American directors listed above the only ones who might claim that distinction are the Coen brothers and Tarantino - and they have many, many more films to make before approaching Scorsese's long list.

In numerous other judgments of quality Scorsese triumphs. In the technical category of filmmaking he's at the top. His films are visual extravaganzas, utilizing bold, compelling cinematography and editing to accurately express the feeling needed at the time. One example is one of the most famous shots in "Taxi Driver." The lonely Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is on a pay phone trying to make amends with a woman after a bungled date. As the conversation grows bleaker - she won't see him again - the camera drifts to the right, showing an empty hallway. And we are Travis - utterly alone. Or consider the editing and jumpy, quick shots used in the third act of "Goodfellas" to truly put the viewer in the place of wise guy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he frantically drives around town running errands high on way too much cocaine. Here we see the difference between the great filmmaker and the master filmmaker. The greats use flashy, impressive visual styles and techniques. The masters use the technique to further the needs of the film.

Another mark of greatness is the ability to work in different genres and make radically different films. Some directors find a formula that works and they play variations on it. Perhaps they like to make crime movies that jump around in time, feature ultra-cool characters speaking profanity filled dialogue with pop culture references, and extreme acts of violence. (*cough* Tarantino *cough*) Or maybe they like to do all kinds of different things like a semi-autobiographical movie about street hoods and Catholic guilt ("Mean Streets,") a musical celebrating 1940s Big Band music ("New York, New York,") one of the greatest concert films of all time ("The Big Waltz") a wild black comedy about a guy running around New York City at night ("After Hours") a deeply spiritual film exploring the human aspects of Jesus ("The Last Temptation of Christ,") the definitive gangster film based on a true story ("Goodfellas,") a 19th century costume drama based on an Edith Wharton novel ("The Age of Innocence,") two documentaries about film ("A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Cinemas" and "My Voyage to Italy,") an "urban western" of New York street criminals during the Civil War ("Gangs of New York,") and a documentary about Bob Dylan. Now that's not to say that a director cannot have a genre or style that he returns to every now and then. It's great that Tarantino does these hip crime movies but at this point one would hope that he might stretch his wings some. For Scorsese his home territory is the mob picture. Over the years he has explored it in different ways in "Mean Streets," "GoodFellas," "Casino," and somewhat in "Gangs of New York." "The Departed" will . One can compare the idea to a band's albums. Over the course of the Beatles' career they gradually evolved and changed, tried new things, but still did what they did: amidst their stretching and experimentation they still churned out great rock ‘n' roll songs.

Another major consideration that is not thought of as frequently is acting. Great performances are rarely only the work of the one speaking the lines. Throughout his career Scorsese has helped numerous actors deliver groundbreaking performances. Scorsese's most famous actor-director collaboration is with Robert De Niro - they have made eight pictures together. Of those, De Niro received three nominations and one victory - for "Raging Bull." Other frequent collaborators include Harvey Keitel (5, including Keitel's and Scorsese's first film,) Joe Pesci (3, 2 Oscar nominations, 1 Oscar victory for "Goodfellas") Daniel Day-Lewis (2, 1 Oscar nomination) and Leonardo DiCaprio (3, one Oscar nomination for "The Aviator.") Other actors to win Oscars in Scorsese's films include Ellen Burstyn ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,") Cate Blanchett ("The Aviator") and Paul Newman ("The Color of Money.")

The final criteria to consider is an obvious one: intensity. They need to make films that hit you in the face, that leave you changed, that produce an exhilarating experience from start to finish. In my experience there are two pieces of evidence that are rock solid signs of this. First is re-watchability. A film that you watch once and then never have any interest in watching again is, in some sense, a failure. (Ultra-depressing painful films like "Schindler's List," "Dancer in the Dark," or "Requiem for a Dream" might be legitimate exceptions.) What that means is that in a single viewing you've sucked out everything the movie has to offer. It is also a clear sign of a fairly boring, ho-hum movie experience. No, give me a film with so many elements and layers that I can watch it two dozen times and continually put the pieces together in different combinations. The second is the fly-in-the-spider-web effect: as soon as you start watching it, or if you stumble across it on TV halfway-through, you have to struggle to pull yourself away from the movie. The film must grip you in a vice - kind of like what Joe Pesci does to that guy in "Casino."

In the most recent issue of Time magazine, an interview about "The Departed" with Scorsese, DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Matt Damon touched on this aspect of the cinema experience. Damon says, "There are just those movies - GoodFellas - is like that for me. You stop what you're doing, and you can't turn it off." DiCaprio agrees, saying, "There's something about Marty's directing where if his films come on, I watch them every time. It's a rare thing, but you do find these details you've never seen before." Scorsese then says, "Kubrick is really the killer. The other night, there it is again - The Shinging. What could I do? I had to watch the whole [expletive deleted] thing."

"GoodFellas" is perhaps the best example of Scorsese's films that has this effect. The energy in the film is just overwhelming. It yanks you into this fascinating world where something is always happening. There isn't a dull moment in the entire picture. I'm glad that Scorsese also mentioned Kubrick because he's the other American director whose films possess this magical quality. Just turn on "Full Metal Jacket" and try stopping it before the end of the first half of the film. It's not possible. Same deal with "A Clockwork Orange."

Well, hopefully I haven't oversold Scorsese too much. I have a bad habit of doing that sometimes - I let my enthusiasm get the best of me and perhaps let people's expectations get too high. Oh well. The following is a list of Scorsese's feature films. Shorts and obscure work that cannot be found outside the world of bootleg tapes and DVDs have been expunged. Brief summaries and recommendations on the key films are included.

"Who's that Knocking at My Door?"
Starring: Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune
Rated R
Plot: This semi-autobiographical expanded student film explores Catholic guilt - a subject found in much of Scorsese's work. J.R. (Keitel) falls for a girl, though struggles when he discovered she was raped.
Notes: Keitel's first film. The film was partly assembled from material shot years before in an earlier film school project. To help get the film released Scorsese went and added some sex scenes so that it could be marketed as a sexploitation film.
Recommendation: An interesting film primarily for Scorsese devotees.

"Boxcar Bertha"
Starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine
Rated R
Plot: Two lovers and train robbers struggle to survive in the 1930s American South.
Notes: Producer Roger Corman was very important in that he gave rising directors the opportunity to makes some of their first films. He helped such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Donald G. Jackson, James Cameron, and John Sayles Working for him they learned the ins and out of low budget filmmaking - important skills they would utilize when making their personal low budget films that would launch their careers. Scorsese's experience with "Boxcar Bertha" prepared him for what would be his breakthrough, "Mean Streets." Also of importance is that Hershey was responsible for giving Scorsese Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese would film it 15 years later with Hershey in the role of Mary Magdalene
Recommendation: Like "Who's that Knocking at My Door," this is another early film primarily of interest to Scorsese fans.

"Mean Streets"
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, David Proval, Richard Romanus, Cesare Danova
Rated R
Plot: The film explores street life in Little Italy. It primarily focuses on Charlie (Keitel) who struggles with his faith and the self-destructive behavior of his friend Johnny Boy (De Niro.)
Notes: It was an especially important film for De Niro. Had he not acted in the film he would not have had the opportunity to play Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," a role for which he would win an Oscar.
Recommendation:"Mean Streets" is within Scorsese's top 5 films. It's a masterpiece and a must-see.

"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster
Rated PG
Plot: Alice (Burstyn,) a widow, moves out of town with her son to start a new life.
Notes: "Alice" is an anomaly in Scorsese's career. He's primarily known - and celebrated - for his depiction of men. Nevertheless, he crafts an interesting film. The TV series "Alice" was spawned from this film. Burstyn picked Scorsese to direct the film after seeing "Mean Streets."
Recommendation: This is a particularly good Scorsese film for viewers who might be uncomfortable with the profanity, violence, and disturbing elements of many of Scorsese's other films.

"Taxi Driver"
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle
Albert Brooks
Rated R
Plot: Disturbed loner and Vietnam Vet Travis Bickle works long night hours driving people around New York City in his cab. Throughout the film he grows obsessed with saving and protecting two women - first a beautiful campaign worker (Shepherd) and second a young prostitute (Foster.)
Notes: "Taxi Driver" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival. It was also the first collaboration between Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader. They would work together again on "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," and "Bringing Out the Dead."
Recommendation: This is a required film for anyone who wants to have even the most basic American cinema education. It's also an important pop culture artifact. "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "GoodFellas" are generally considered Scorsese's best films. "Taxi Driver" is also the definitive film on the subject of male loneliness.

"New York, New York"
Starring: Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro
Plot: After World War II a saxophonist and a lounge singer struggle with their relationship and career.
Notes: Of Scorsese's films this musical is generally regarded as his weakest. It was a box office failure that sent Scorsese into a serious depression.
Recommendation: The film is worth watching simply on the grounds that it's the director who gave us the violent and psychotic "Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas," and "Casino" doing a musical. Come on, if Michael Bay or Wes Craven decided to make a musical surely it would warrant a viewing based on curiosity alone.

"The Last Waltz"
Starring: The Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Bobby Charles, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Stephen Stills, Carl Radle
Rated PG
Plot: After 16 years of touring The Band stages a farewell
Notes: Widely regarded as one of the greatest concert films ever.
Recommendation: Its reputation is well-deserved. What music fan can resist a film with that kind of line-up?

"Raging Bull"
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent
Rated R
Plot: Middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro) rises and falls. He triumphs in the ring and marries a beautiful girl. Gradually his paranoia and jealousy destroy his marriage and his boxing career. He ends up as a pathetic night club owner and stand-up comic.
Notes: Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker won an Oscar for editing. She would win again 25 years later for "The Aviator." In that time she would edit all of Scorsese's films. Her Oscar is well-deserved, the film's fight sequences are vastly different than any other boxing movie. The film lost at the Oscars to Robert Redford's "Ordinary People." Ten years later another Scorsese masterpiece would also lose to an actor's film, Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves." At the time De Niro achieved the record for most weight gained for a role. His record would be broken by Vincent D'onofrio for "Full Metal Jacket." That record would be broken by Christian Bale, when he put on the muscle for "Batman Begins" after dropping down to 130 for "The Machinist."
Recommendation: "Raging Bull" is Scorsese's most acclaimed film and it's probably his most thematically rich and complex picture. Required viewing.

"The King of Comedy"
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
Rated PG
Plot: Obsessed wannabe-comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) kidnaps a Johnny Carson-esque late night talk show (Lewis) host as he struggles to pursue his dream.
Notes: One would think that with the success of "Raging Bull" Scorsese's career would shoot off like a rocket. Unfortunately "Raging Bull" was one of the final films of an era. The 1970s were a Hollywood renaissance where a group of directors, actors and writers managed to make deep, meaningful, hard-hitting films about the issues of the time. Near the end of the decade, though, with the success of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" studios began shifting toward more escapist blockbuster pictures. This posed a problem for directors like Scorsese who had made these grittier, usually lower-budget personal films. The ‘80s would be a rough time for Scorsese and many of his peers.
Recommendation: Do not forget this little gem. De Niro's performance as Pupkin is an interesting riff on a character somewhat removed from yet in the still neighborhood as Travis Bickle.

"After Hours"
Starring: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, Linda Fiorentino,
Cheech and Chong
Rated R
Plot: A mild-mannered word processor (Dunne) has one hell of a night in New York City.
Notes: This was a return to low-budget, guerrilla-style filmmaking for Scorsese. It was a project he jumped on after his initial attempt to film "The Last Temptation of Christ" fell apart.
Recommendation: Cheech and Chong in a Scorsese movie. That's reason enough there, isn't it? Scorsese is also especially slick with his technique here. He does a great job depicting the growing chaos of the poor protagonist in this black comedy.

"The Color of Money"
Starring: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise
Rated R
Plot: The story of pool shark Fast Eddie Falson (Newman) is reprised in this sequel to "The Hustler."
Notes: This was really the first time Scorsese acted as a director for hire so that he could make films that he actually wanted to make.
Recommendation: Not at the top of the list of Scorsese films to see. Still, though, Newman did win an Oscar for it so there has to be some value in it.

"The Last Temptation of Christ"
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, David Bowie, Harry Dean Stanton, Andre Gregory
Rated R
Plot: The humanity of Jesus is emphasized in this deeply spiritual film. The title refers to an extended sequence in which Satan tempts Christ with the possibility of a normal life.
Notes: "Last Temptation" became one of the most controversial films of all time when masses of Christian fundamentalists - who had not seen the film - protested against it. (In the last temptation Christ is tempted with a life where he marries Mary Magdalene and has children. Hence there is a brief - less than 20 seconds - tasteful scene of them making love.) Thankfully time has gradually been healing those wounds as Christians who actually see it find a serious, respectful film that is anything but blasphemous.
Recommendation: This is my favorite Scorsese film and one of my top 5 favorite films of all time. It arrived in my life at just the right time and continues to challenge me spiritually. Thankfully it has been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection in a great DVD edition.

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
Rated R
Plot: This is the true story of Henry Hill. It depicts his life as a mafia wise guy from childhood up through middle age.
Notes: Probably Scorsese's most popular film.
Recommendation: The greatest mafia movie of all time. You can't stop watching it.

"Cape Fear"
Starring: Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker
Rated R
Plot: A violent ex-con (De Niro) stalks the prosecutor (Nolte) who was responsible for putting him in jail
Notes: A interesting bit of trivia: De Niro paid a dentist to mess up his teeth for the part. Afterwards he had them fixed.
Recommendation: Not one of his major films but still worth seeing especially for De Niro's performance. This was also an early film for Lewis and foreshadowed the great performances she would give in the future.

"The Age of Innocence"
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder,
Rated PG
Plot: Based on a novel by Edith Wharton, the film follows a wealthy New York lawyer (Day-Lewis) who struggles between the decision of whether to marry a socially-accepted, passionless woman (Ryder,) or the socially outcast woman he truly loves (Pfeiffer.)
Notes: Ironically, the next time Scorsese would direct Day-Lewis would be in another film set in the 1860s.
Recommendation: Like "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" Scorsese again shows his range and ability to make strong films in different genres and subjects.

Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, James Woods, Frank Vincent
Rated R
Plot: "Casino" tells the story of how the mafia lost control of Las Vegas. It focuses on master gambler Sam ‘Ace' Rothstein (De Niro) who runs a casino in Las Vegas. His childhood friend Nicky Santoro is the town's violent mob enforcer. And Ace's wife Ginger (Stone) is a former Vegas show girl who loves the life that Ace can provide her but not Ace himself. Within a decade of coming to Vegas, Ace, Nicky and Ginger are responsible for everything collapsing.
Notes: The film is kind of a thematic sequel to "GoodFellas." It again teams writer Pileggi and actors De Niro and Pesci for a violent, fact-based story of the rise and fall of the mafia.
Recommendation: While "Casino" does not have the universal respect of "GoodFellas" I feel quite strongly that it is still one of Scorsese's richest, most engaging films.

Rated PG-13
Plot: The film follows the life of the Dalai Lama from childhood to adulthood.
Notes: As a result of making the film Scorsese and others involved with it were banned by the Chinese government from ever visiting Tibet.
Recommendation: Again, Scorsese stretches his spiritual muscles.

"Bringing Out the Dead"
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Patricia Arquette
Rated R
Plot: Burnt-out New York City paramedic Frank Pierce (Cage) struggles with his job over the course of three nights with three different ambulance drivers.
Notes: The film is in some ways an exploration on the themes of "Taxi Driver." Scorsese teams again with Paul Schrader and explores the damaged psyche of a man whose job takes him all around a nighttime New York City.
Recommendation: As with "Casino," "Bringing Out the Dead" did not receive nearly as much praise as it deserves. It's filled with Scorsese goodness.

"Gangs of New York"
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson
Rated R
Plot: In 1860s New York City street gangs battle against one another for dominance.
Notes: Scorsese's biggest project was one he had been wanting to do for over 20 years. Originally - in the late ‘70s when it was first conceived - he wanted the Clash to star in it. The film is also the first of so far three very fruitful collaborations with DiCaprio.
Recommendation: My favorite movie of 2002. The only film that's as good or maybe even better from that year was Roman Polanski's "The Pianist."

"The Aviator"
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda
Rated PG-13
Plot: A biopic of film director, industrialist, eccentric, and airplane innovator Howard Hughes (DiCaprio.)
Notes: Pay attention to the colors and look of the early part of the film. It was shot and digitally treated to look similar to the films of the period.
Recommendation: A great success for Scorsese both critically and commercially. It's also probably his most accessible film for the movie-going public at large.

"The Departed"
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin
Rated R
Plot: The cops have an undercover office in the Boston Irish mob. The mafia has one of their men infiltrated into the police.
Notes: This is the first collaboration between Nicholson and Scorsese. It is also Nicholson's return to playing villains. In recent years he has primarily acted in comedies.
Recommendation: An excellent thriller.

OK, if you're wanting to know what to see, in order of importance and quality, here's my summary:

Level 1: "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "GoodFellas"
Level 2: "Mean Streets," "Gangs of New York," "The Last Temptation of Christ" "Casino," "The Aviator" "Cape Fear" "The Last Waltz"
Level 3: "Bringing Out the Dead" "The Age of Innocence," "Kundun," "The Departed," "The King of Comedy," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "After Hours,"
Level 4: "New York, New York," "The Color of Money" "Who's that Knocking at my Door," "Boxcar Bertha"