Born in Queens, New York on November 17th, 1942 Martin Scorsese has become the American filmmaker of the last 50 years. Raised among immigrants, priests and gangsters his childhood in New York’s Little Italy influenced Scorsese’s formative years as a filmmaker and in doing so influenced the themes of his work as a filmmaker.
Scorsese’s aesthetic is informed by the films he saw in his formative years, asthmatic and considered by many in the neighborhood a weakling Scorsese’s parents took him to the movies as much as possible. In the movie theaters of the 1940’s and 1950’s the young Scorsese fell in love with cinema. Starting with the Golden Age of Hollywood films particularly the musicals, gangster and film noirs that would become a lasting influence in his work. The works of John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk had an influence on Scorsese.
Like many filmmakers of his generation a teenage Scorsese fell under the spell of the films coming out of Europe and Asia. Scorsese’s foreign film influence is particularly found in the Italian Neo-realism of Roberto Rossellini, The French New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard along with the mastery of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. A major influence on Scorsese that sets him apart from many filmmakers of his generation was the films of John Cassavetes who would become a major mentor to Scorsese during his early years as a filmmaker. Cassavetes debut film “Shadows” released in 1959 particularly influenced Scorsese. Cassavetes recollected by Scorsese is one of a calling to him and young filmmakers to be independent and uncompromising in their vision; “Once we saw that, we all realized that you can’t sit around and talk about making a film, you gotta just go do it. He exemplifies independence: Don’t be taken in by them. Do what you feel, what you feel in your heart. Don’t be cut down. He was like an uncle in the way he talked to you about this.”(Scorsese)
Apart from film his Catholic upbringing during Vatican 1 instilled in Scorsese with questions regarding the dogma and morality. Scorsese’s influence of the church has stayed with him and is defining aspect of all his films. With a childhood that left him seen as a weakling and a coward Scorsese filled his films with an energy and confrontational attitude that future collaborator Paul Schrader would sum up Scorsese “He was not very confrontational. Which I think is one of the reasons he gets so confrontational in the films, he just letting all that out. All the stuff he can’t do in his day to day life.” (Biskind 306) This brings an understanding to Scorsese as a filmmaker and a context to his work. After finishing a bachelors degree in English from New York University Scorsese entered what was then the infancy of the now legendary NYU film school under Haig Manoogian. Under Manoogian’s guidance Scorsese became the star pupil at the school.
Scorsese’s made many films over his four-decade career, ranging from the underground “Who’s that Knocking at My Door” and “After Hours”, the exercises in style and genre of “New York, New York” and “Cape Fear” & the explorations into faith and morality of “Bringing out the Dead” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. It is the experimentation in technique and genre exercise that is the hallmark in Scorsese as a filmmaker. This need to push the medium and also to show a love of cinemas past is the hallmark of Scorsese as a filmmaker. Of all the films Scorsese has done it is four films that show truly his aesthetic and obsessions. These films also show Scorsese’s progression as a filmmaker and as one of the great moralists in cinema of the last 40 years.
Though he had made two films previously to “Mean Streets” this was the first true Scorsese film, a culmination of Scorsese’s life up to that point the film is a mix of everything Scorsese had been influenced by both in film and in his upbringing in Little Italy. With its use of source music he was simultaneously showing the influence of Italian Neo-realism, French New Wave and the musical. With its plot about a hood trying to protect his friend who many believe is crazy and needs to be “taken care of” the influence of noirs such as Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil” is apparent. The over all theme of the film is the main character Charlie’s guilt, megalomania that he has a greater relationship with God over others are questions Scorsese was and is still dealing with in his films. “Mean Streets” also introduced Scorsese to the most important collaborator he would have and who would become the Scorsese actor, Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro’s collaboration is the New Hollywood equivalent of John Huston & Humphrey Bogart in which filmmaker and actor are in sync with what the other wants. De Niro’s portrayal of histrionic small time hood Johnny Boy is a revelation and shows the power De Niro would bring to future work over the next 30 years. Johnny Boy is also the first of Scorsese’s exploration into unhinged males, men who are not able to conform to society. Opposite to De Niro’s Johnny Boy is Harvey Keitel as Charlie who is a stand in for Scorsese, a young Roman Catholic who is pulled between wanting to live a religious life but can’t escape the neighborhood where he works trying to get up the ranks of the local mob but his heart is not in it nor does he have the lack of morality fully to make it as a mobster. Charlie’s inability to let Johnny Boy pay for his transgressions towards loan sharks leads to him being exiled from the neighborhood. “Mean Streets” is one of the definitive films of the 70’s and its influence is far reaching with Roger Ebert proclaiming, “In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies.” (Ebert)
With “Taxi Driver” Scorsese is revealing the darkness of being isolated and not being one of the group. “Taxi Driver” is Scorsese taking film noir and turning it into art. While Scorsese is to be praised for the film it is the script by Paul Schrader that is the foundation for the film a mix of film noir, “The Searchers” and Dostoyevsky. The influence of these three is very clear in its protagonist Travis Bickle. With his job as a taxi driver he is in lineage with the working man characters of noir such as Walter Neff of “Double Indemnity”. In his need to purify the world from the filth he sees on the streets of Time Square he is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers” brought into the 20th century. With his depravity and loneliness he is the unreliable narrator from “Notes from Underground” by Dostoyevsky. It is no surprise that these influences in the profile of Travis Bickle leads Kolker to write that “Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic, each the obverse of the other, each equally dangerous.” (Kolker 239)
It is Travis’s warped psyche that brought Scorsese and his director of photography Michael Chapman to create a film that is from Travis’s point of view. This decision allows the viewer to understand his loneliness and self-hatred. This is clear in the use of close ups on Travis’s eyes and the point of view shots of Travis looking at what he despises about the world. Of all the shots that are used in the film to help the audience understand Travis it is in a scene when he is talking to Betsy on the phone after the date where he is asking her when will they see each other again, the camera tracks away from Travis and focuses on a vacant hallway because it is too painful to watch. The violent resolution of the film is visceral and simultaneously heightened and stark in its depiction of the violence. The climax is a build up of nearly two hours of tension from De Niro’s performance and threats of violence through dialogue and confrontations. The end of the film makes it clear that Travis will commit violence again but that next time he might not be so lucky in being portrayed as a hero.
While “Mean Streets” was peripherally a gangster film it is with “Goodfellas” that Scorsese pulled out the stops in depicting the life of mobsters both in its honest depiction of mobsters in the way it is told, shot and edited. The film shows Scorsese fully coming into his own as a filmmaker with his own style. The quick cuts, the dark humor, the vibrant color palette and innovative use of voice over put the audience into this world. “Goodfellas” is the alternative to the romanticized “Godfather”, Scorsese showed the most realistic depiction of mobsters ever in a film. Its depiction of mobsters particularly the violence committed by these characters is shocking even for Scorsese. While “Mean Streets” had characters who committed violence they did not enjoy it like they do in “Goodfellas”. Joe Pesci’s character of Tommy is a sociopath who sees no problem in shooting a man for not walking fast enough to bring him his drink, compared to Michael in “Mean Streets” who does not take violent action against Johnny Boy until Johnny Boy has crossed the line in calling him a “jerk off” and refusing to pay him back. The unpredictability of violence in “Goodfellas” as Kolker writes “almost always winds up in a joke” and that it turns the gangster film into a “low-life screwball comedy with blood and with a self-awareness that distracts us from its more appalling elements.” (Kolker 215) Scorsese however in the film makes the viewer befriend the gangster and shows what makes one become a gangster or in the case of Henry Hill’s wife Karen why they are attracted and stay with someone they know steals and kills people. The audience for the first half of the film enjoys the anarchy and mayhem of these characters lives and it is not until the murder of Billy Batts that the audience realizes fully that this life is nothing but danger and damnation. Scorsese shows also in the ending the complete nerve the character of Henry who becomes an informer to save his life and is in witness protection wishes that he was still a gangster instead of as he calls it being “a shnook”.
With “Goodfellas” and its spiritual sequel “Casino” Scorsese believed he had said everything about the mob but with “The Departed” Scorsese found a new way to use the gangster film to explore morality and ethics. The plot is a throw back to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and delves into themes of loyalty, guilt, betrayal, father figures, and ultimately the showdown of good vs. evil. The film is perhaps Scorsese’s most overtly moral film, in Billy Costigan played by Leonardo DiCaprio the first true Scorsese character ever who is a good man trying to do the right thing. The film however is far removed from “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” though, “The Departed” is about Irish gangsters as opposed to Italian gangsters and the camaraderie that makes the two previous films so warm and engaging are next to non existent. Robert Kolker in his examination of the film says the lack of camaraderie makes sense “Everyone is rightly suspicious of everyone else because everyone is out to betray someone” (Kolker 260). In getting rid of the camaraderie and feeling of good will among not just the gangsters but law enforcement Scorsese is able to portray the themes of betrayal, paranoia and guilt more effectively. It also allows for Scorsese to once again examine loneliness like he had in “Taxi Driver”, Costigan is a man without a country he has to survive within the world of gangsters while being at his heart a cop, yet he does not fit in as a cop.
“The Departed” also is an homage to gangster films of the pre code and Hayes code era and a denouncement of those films. While Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello is right out of Howard Hawk’s “Scarface” and Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” a monster devoid of any human decency yet he has moments of righteous annoyance towards the hypocrisy of the archdiocese of Boston. Yet it is the film’s ending which is the thumb at the nose towards the morality of the Hayes Code. While violent and even a nihilistic ending it does follow in many ways the tradition of Warner Brothers gangster films in that as long as the bad guy dies at the end of the film its moral. The ending lead Scorsese to say “I just had no place to go. I was at moral ground zero at that point.” (Carne) If “The Departed” is Scorsese bidding farewell to the gangster film for good much the way John Ford ended his meditation on the myth of the West with “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” with denouncing the myth of the West he is ending it on a high note.
As a filmmaker Scorsese has been an influence on filmmakers. His redefining of editing, camera work and his portrayal of violence and psychologically damaged characters have influenced directors diverse as Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino to even showrunners as “The Sopranos” David Chase. Chase has been very vocal in the influence Scorsese had on his creating “The Sopranos” which is seen not just in the casting of many actors from Scorsese’s films but also in the shows referencing of Scorsese’s films. Perhaps though the most well known filmmakers who Scorsese’s influence has been on is Spike Lee and Oliver Stone students he taught during his many times as both a guest and adjunct professor at NYU. Stone has praised Scorsese as a teacher who taught his students to make a film that is personal to ones experiences. Lee perhaps the closest to Scorsese in style in terms of editing and cinematography has over his career praised Scorsese’s work and has worked with many actors from Scorsese’s stable of actors. Lee is also the one closest to Scorsese having both a deep friendship and also working relationship, Scorsese was a producer on Lee’s adaptation of “Clockers”.
Over the course of a career that started with “Who’s that Knocking at my Door” to his most recent triumphs with the 3D family film “Hugo” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, Scorsese continues to challenge not just the viewer but the medium of cinema. If Steven Spielberg is this generations John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille, Scorsese is Elia Kazan or John Huston.