Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Every once in a while, the universe serves up someone who, in whatever field has been chosen for them, is a natural. Babe Ruth. Louis Armstrong. Mozart. After seeing his debut feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door, one is tempted to add Martin Scorsese to this illustrious list. He is now long firmly established in the canon of the great American filmmakers, but many of Scorsese's strengths, his skill for marrying music with striking, often unexpected imagery, his gift for naturalistic dialogue, his strong eye for authentic moments of urban ethnography, are in evidence in this maiden effort. However, Scorsese's weaknesses are also on rather ample display here as well, and their presence makes for a fascinating, the-more-things-change look at the first flowering of an American cinematic giant.

Who's That Knocking began life as a graduate film production during Scorsese's tenure at NYU film school in the mid-'60s (NYU film professor Haig Manoogian, who was the instructor for the first film course Scorsese ever took, is credited as a co-producer on this film; the filmmaker's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull was later dedicated to Manoogian), and it was shot over the course of several years and went through numerous iterations as short films and truncated features under varying titles before finally emerging as this 90-minute feature in 1967. Not surprisingly, considering this extended gestation, not to mention the film's origins as a student project and its low budget (ultimately an estimated $75,000), the picture is rough around the edges in a classic first-indie-film tradition. Some of the sound work is quite harsh; an early barroom scene, in particular, could have greatly benefited from some overdubbing, as shuffling feet and the room's ambient tone bury many of the lines. Also, it's fairly easy to tell scenes shot early from those lensed later in the production by gauging the changing length of star Harvey Keitel's hair. Nevertheless, what is most remarkable about Who's That Knocking At My Door is how thoroughly engaged Scorsese is, even at this nascent point in his career, with the stylistic tropes and thematic concerns he will adopt as his own. Unlike many filmmakers' first works, and much more so than his subsequent feature, 1972's Roger Corman-produced exploitation Bonnie and Clyde rip-off Boxcar Bertha, Who's That Knocking has no trouble fitting comfortably on the shelf with Scorsese's extended body of work, representing the filmmaker's first crack at issues that would preoccupy him for a celebrated forty-year-and-counting career.

Who's That Knocking is the story, such as it is, of J.R. (Keitel), a rough-and-tumble Little Italy street tough who whiles away his days drinking, fighting, and causing trouble with his buddies, a road-company version of the petty hoodlums who would populate Scorsese's later gangland classics. It seems like a life destined to go around in relentlessly unfulfilling circles, until J.R. meets a Girl (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island Ferry and slowly eases into a relationship. He's falling in love, but he's troubled by his own reluctance to sleep with her...and even more so by her subsequent admission that she is not a virgin (she tells him that her past partner forced himself on her, but he struggles to believe that it's true). It's the classic madonna-whore complex; if J.R. accepts The Girl as she is, he marks himself as willing to stoop to being with just a "broad", one of those runaround girls from the neighborhood, and maybe no better than the prostitutes that J.R. himself frequents, in classic hypocritical male fashion. Will J.R. do the right thing, or will he succumb to the pressures of his milieu and the guilt-riddled Catholic culture in which he was brought up?

Basically, if Mean Streets and Raging Bull had a baby, and that baby was somehow older than both of those films, it would be Who's That Knocking At My Door. It's an amalgam of the former film's slice-of-life depiction of inarticulate Noo Yawk petty thugs and the later epic's chronicle of a man undone by jealous sexual fantasies about the woman he loves. Granted, Scorsese has grown by leaps and bounds since this initial foray into feature filmmaking, and Who's That Knocking is marked by this fact throughout its running time. His examination here of the life and crimes of petty hoods has nowhere near the verisimilitude of Mean Streets (or, for that matter, of GoodFellas or Casino). The Scorsesean bursts of sudden violence are fairly choppily choreographed, a few of the locations feel like obvious sets, and Scorsese's dialogue, from his own screenplay, has the later films' inarticulate, frequently circular cadence without their exhilarating profanity and gutter wit. Likewise, the street guys that surround J.R. here are manques compared to the explosive, larger-than-life personalities that would fill Scorsese's later work. The only characteristic the much put-upon Sally Gaga (Michael Scala) shares with his cinematic descendants is an amusing nickname (the emphasis is hard on the second syllable; he's "GaGA", not "GAga"), and the loudmouth troublemaker Joey (Lennard Kuras) has all the bluster and noise of Joe Pesci's tinpot martinets with none of the fire and nuance. Likewise, the examination of a relationship-destroying inability to accept a lover's past is handled here with nowhere near the subtlety and grace with which the same subject is addressed in Raging Bull. In that film, we knew Jake LaMotta suspected his wife of infidelity when he imagined her drifting towards other men in slow motion; here, J.R. expresses his lack of faith in The Girl's virtue by flat-out calling her a whore. (Worthy of note is the sketchy nature of the film's female characters; The Girl doesn't even have a name, and the only other prominent women are the prostitutes J.R. frequents, who have no lines, Gaga's hysterical and also nameless date (Wendy Russell) at a party-cum-brawl, and the nameless Italian mother, played by the much-beloved Catherine Scorsese, who makes a meat pie for some random children in the opening scene.) This lead-pipe-to-the-head lack of thematic subtlety reminds one both of Scorsese's European influences (Ingmar Bergman, for all the symbolism of his imagery, was also one for the thematically on-the-nose dialogue) and his simple naivete as a first-time filmmaker.

Nevertheless, given that this is a first-time feature, Scorsese's command of his medium here is remarkable, as is his already crystal-clear artistic vision. Who's That Knocking At My Door is full of performances, images and scenes that are undoubtedly Scorsesean in their style and thematic intent. J.R., significantly, does not woo The Girl with shows of strength or flagrant displays of wealth, but the way a young Scorsese himself might have, by engaging her in a conversation about westerns sparked by a photo of John Wayne in a magazine she's reading. (In a foreshadowing of one of Scorsese's own future films, J.R. name-checks Wayne's Searchers co-star Jeffrey Hunter and mentions that he played Christ in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings.) Movies also plant the seeds of the end of J.R.'s romance, as a discussion of Angie Dickinson's status as a "broad" versus a "lady" following a screening of Rio Bravo takes on added weight when J.R., arguing with The Girl about her sexual past, asks her if she's "that kind of broad". The film also features an unusual but thematically significant scene in which J.R., Joey and another pal drive to a small town outside the city and go hiking in the hills, only to spend their time at the summit bitching about what a foolish enterprise this is. You can take the boys out of the city, Scorsese suggests, but you can't take the city out of them, a fact that becomes painfully true when J.R. can only interpret The Girl's past through his ignorant "urban" perspective. The film also includes moments of telling ethnographic filmmaking, as in the opening meat-pie-making scene, and bits of typically blatant Scorsese symbolism, as when J.R., after forsaking The Girl, kisses the feet of a tiny crucifix only to come away with bloodied lips.

Most Scorsesean of all is the film's usage of music montage. Despite the wealth of quotable dialogue throughout his filmography, Scorsese himself often seems most comfortable as a filmmaker working with pure sound and image, and in Who's That Knocking, he indulges that tendency so frequently that at times the film almost plays like an urban tone poem set to music. Many key sequences are conducted with no dialogue at all, and the picture is remarkable as an early independent film for the rich variety of its pop soundtrack. The film's opening credits are set to a montage of a street fight cut to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels' exhilarating "C.C. Rider", perhaps the first example of Scorsese setting a scene of urban violence to an incongruously upbeat music track. J.R. courts The Girl amidst the New York rooftops to the Bell Notes's "I've Had It". A party scene erupts in playful though still threatening slow-motion violence to the strains of Ray Baretto's "El Watusi". The Doors' hallucinatory "The End", used to such striking effect in Apocalypse Now, here makes an earlier appearance as accompaniment to J.R.'s dalliances with prostitutes. And, most memorably, as J.R. confesses his sins and prays for forgiveness after losing The Girl to his own ignorance, a montage of agonized Christ statues and downcast Mother Marys is set, almost blasphemously, to the Genies' soaring doo-wop rendition of the title song. Scorsese has always been among the most imaginative utilizers of source music in contemporary cinema, and Who's That Knocking shows that he possessed that gift for scoring his films right from the jump.

The film is also significant in forging several relationships that were to serve Scorsese well throughout his career. Keitel, who gives a sometimes uneven but nevertheless persuasive performance here, went on to a prominent, Oscar-nominated career that included appearances in four more Scorsese films, most notably Mean Streets (playing a character very similar to J.R.) and Taxi Driver (as the pimp imprisoning Jodie Foster's underage prostitute). Scorsese's assistant director, Mardik Martin, went on to receive co-writing credit on the director's New York, New York and Raging Bull. Co-cinematographer Michael Wadleigh would subsequently direct the groundbreaking documentary Woodstock, on which Scorsese would serve as an editor. Also an editor on that film was the woman who cut Who's That Knocking, and with whom Scorsese has had arguably his richest collaborative relationship: Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited every feature Scorsese has made since Raging Bull, and who has taken home three Academy Awards for her trouble (for Bull, The Aviator and The Departed).

Oftentimes, a filmmaker's first work is more notable simply for being their first than for any artistic merits it may possess in its own right. I don't know a whole lot of people who are lining up these days to watch Steven Spielberg's 1968 debut feature Amblin', and Robert Altman kicked off his celebrated career with the trashy 1957 exploitation thriller The Delinquents. Of course, a few filmmakers do hit a home run their first time out of the gate. I am one of the rare people who thinks Quentin Tarantino has never topped Reservoir Dogs, and Kevin Smith has yet to duplicate what he achieved in 1994's Clerks with nothing but twenty-seven grand and a brilliant script. Who's That Knocking At My Door, however, falls on neither side of this equation. It is certainly not a film to rank with Scorsese's best, but neither is it a negligible footnote to an otherwise significant career. It is a rough and patchy but nevertheless engaging work, and an endearing snapshot of the earliest cinematic attempt to come to terms with the themes and issues that would spark one of the most celebrated careers in contemporary film. Few would argue that Scorsese hits this one entirely out of the park. But it definitely got him well into the game.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Zombie. I remember seeing this for the second time some years back and being surprised that it was a worthy entry in the Scorsese cannon. Some of the later films, maybe not so much.... I am still trying to figure out how he made a film portraying Howard Hughes as a hero, given that Hughes, for reasons of bigoted political spite, bought and destroyed perhaps the best movie studio in History.... but I guess thats another story.