The BFI are releasing on DVD two early Martin Scorsese movies on the 27th of March: Who’s That Knocking at My Door from 1968 and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from 1974. The two films are different, tonally, stylistically and in terms of their genre, but each contain elements of the distinctive approach to fimmaking of the Italian-American pioneer of the New Hollywood wave.
The earlier movie, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, is Scorsese’s debut feature film. Harvey Keitel plays J.R., a young New York Catholic who meets a girl on the Staten Island ferry. The girl is a liberated college graduate, unnamed in the film and played by Zina Bethune. They begin to court, but despite his advances she resists having sex with him. Eventually she reveals that a sexual assault from her past (replayed in flashback) has made her reluctant to go all the way. Surprisingly, and depressingly, he blames her for this ‘flaw’ in her character and rejects her. Finally they reconcile, but when he forgives her for her past and agrees to marry her despite the fact she isn’t a virgin, she breaks it off with him. He returns to the church to seek enlightenment and redemption, but we suspect he achieves neither.
The film is a cinematic palimpsest. Originally conceived as a film school project and made over four years, Who’s That Knocking at My Door is an ever shifting movie with scenes inserted even after its initial release. Scorsese continued to add to it and to adapt it even after the original version, called Bring on the Dancing Girls, had been released. As such it is possible to see the evolution of the final film: originally intended to focus on J.R. and his group of friends, the pivotal romance plot was added, and the title changed to I Call First. Finally a distributor picked up the film and made Scorsese add an exploitative sex scene to create a third and final version. From this it sounds like the film should be a mess, but instead, despite the fact that the three periods of the film production are clearly identifiable, the film stands as a coherent and polished whole. One reason for this is Scorsese’s already competent and shockingly mature individual directorial style. The film is packed with pop-culture references, kinetic camera moves and cherry picks from European cinema, particularly the editing of Godard, but also the earlier poetic realism of Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné. As with the output of these French directors, Scorsese’s film is intangible, almost fantastical, focussing on a doomed and marginalised character. As such, the grafted on sex scene filmed in Amsterdam in 1968: a weird, oneiric, almost hallucinogenic sequence scored to the tune of The Doors’ The End, becomes a key link between Scorsese and the French New Wave that lifts the film from social realism to something more abstract and stylised.
It’s difficult to divorce this film from the body of Scorsese’s later work, especially as it contains so many familiar elements, not least the presence of Harvey Keitel as the central male character. It’s strange to see Keitel here, especially in such a vulnerable role, but again this gives the sense of a first step towards Scorsese’s later films, indeed this film is often seen as a trial run for the director’s breakthrough film Mean Streets.
The second movie in this dual release, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is, on the surface, far removed from the gritty urbanism of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and the New York focused, dystopian narratives of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Instead, Scorsese’s fourth film is a sunny, witty road trip movie set in New Mexico. The film follows Alice Hyatt, played by Ellen Burstyn, as she and her precocious son, Tommy, played by Alfred Lutter, travel to her hometown in search of work. Alice’s emotionally abusive husband has died leaving her with limited funds and a lack of stability, all she has is a desire to sing for a living. She and Tommy begin their journey, but quickly run out of money forcing her to pick up jobs firstly in Phoenix, Arizona and then as a waitress in Tucson. In each city she becomes involved with a man, the first played (again) by Harvey Keitel, the second played by Kris Kristofferson. As this is an early Scorsese film there are moments of darkness through the film, not least Keitel’s two-timing and violent lothario, but the bulk of the movie is set in the café that Alice find work in. These café scenes are light and small-scale, the narrative driven by quirky and eccentric characters. Indeed, these scenes gave rise to a long lived sitcom, not something you could imagine from any other Scorsese film.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is constantly surprising. Whenever you feel you have a grasp on the film, Scorsese undercuts it. What seems to be a drama about domestic abuse turns into a road trip; what seems to be a road trip in which a woman and her son bond turns into an intimate, yet static, character comedy. It swings between brutality and sweetness and between melodrama and slapstick without losing the consistency of the narrative and without leaving the audience behind. This is something it shares with Who’s That Knocking at My Door, but whilst the earlier film is slippery and mercurial because of the nature of its production, the latter seems designed that way. The glue that holds these disparate narrative and generic elements together are the performances of Ellen Burstyn and Alfred Lutter. Burstyn won an Academy Award for Alice, and rightly so, but without the precocious Lutter, or indeed the surprisingly powerful Kristofferson, to play off against, she would be limited in how far she could push the character.
The film, then, is a strange entry in Scorsese’s canon, especially at a time when his other movies seemed so personal and particular. Now, after his career has taken a variety of directions from horror-thriller to fantasy, it is not so unusual to think of him directing a film such as this, but in contrast with Who’s That Knocking at My Door and his other early work, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore feels like a massive, but refreshing, sidestep.
These two films tell us everything we need to know about Scorsese then and Scorsese now. The first film sets many of his basic themes and preoccupations in stone, whilst the latter demonstrates his range and his ability to be a distinctive voice regardless of setting and genre. Watched in a double-bill, you get the feeling you’re somehow unravelling Martin Scorsese’s cinematic DNA, definitely something worth doing before approaching his more famous movies.