50 Years Ago This Week – Scorsese’s Debut Feature
November 15, 1967 marked another milestone for the emerging New Hollywood—the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s first feature film at the 1967 Chicago International Film Festival. Not that this was obvious at the time. The movie, then with the title I Call First, had been shooting in fits and starts over several years as its not-quite-shoestring budget allowed (one early eversion was submitted to, and rejected by, the 1965 New York Film Festival); important elements of the plot were developed over the long course of the film’s production; and the final version – what we now know as Who’s That Knocking at My Door – only imade its way to theaters when a semi-shady distributor agreed to pick up the film if Scorsese added a nude scene. (He did: shot years after most of the film’s principal photography, it’s stuck in the middle of the movie as a fantasy sequence; it is artfully (and we’re even going to say tastefully and thoughtfully) done, shot without sound and effectively scored to the Doors' "The End."
Who’s That Knocking is often described as a rough draft of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), which is understandable given some of the similar themes (religious iconography, gritty streets, barroom brawls, just-under-the-surface hostilities between affiliates, a reverence for rock music), and shared visual sensibilities (especially the illustrious hit-and-run location shooting featured in each). But Scorsese’s first film can and should stand on its own. It tells the story of J.R., possibly outgrowing his old, insular Little Italy neighborhood and ne’er do well, going nowhere friends, as he meets the more cosmopolitan (and markedly blonde) young woman (Zina Bethune). In the lead role, Harvey Keitel is more than just the director’s alter-ego; in the first reel of the film, talking quickly and at some length about movies onboard the Staten Island Ferry, he’s essentially doing a spot-on Scorsese impression (Keitel finds his own feet as the movie develops).
Unabashedly episodic, Who’s That Knocking toggles back and forth between J.R.’s relationships, old and new, and the tensions the competing lures of each naturally generate. And it is a thrilling ride, deeply imbued with the influences of the French New Wave, cinephilia, and, most obviously in two intensely discomforting party scenes captured by a curious, jittery hand held camera, John Cassavetes—a hero to many in the hip, young film generation of that time. (Scorsese screened the film for Cassavetes, who loved it, calling it not simply “Great!” but, much higher praise back then, “something authentic and genuine.”)
Who’s That Knocking ends on a down note—de rigueur for the emerging seventies film. But much more impressively, it ends with J.R.’s rejection. A central dramatic element of the movie is J.R.’s initial inability to deal with learning of an ugly, traumatic sexual episode that occurred in his new girlfriend’s past. Harboring a rather pathetic (if then common) Madonna/whore complex, he nevertheless eventually sees the error of his ways, and finds it in his heart to “forgive” her. “Forgive?”—that doesn’t come close to cutting it. She shows him the door, for good. It’s a powerful, early-feminist denouement from a writer-director often pigeon-holed as masculinist or even dismissed as misogynist. (Though Ellen Burstyn would within a few years hire him to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, on a production where both agreed that there would be “as many women in positons of authority as possible.”)
But more than anything, Who’s That Knocking is teeming with the youthful sensibilities (and unmistakable fervor) of the emerging New Hollywood. Scorsese was twenty-five at the time; editor Thelma Schoonmaker was twenty-seven (the Cornell grad would go on to edit every Scorsese film from Raging Bull onwards, picking up three academy awards for her efforts); cinematographer Michael Wadleigh, also in his twenties, would soon direct his first movie, Woodstock (bringing in both Scorsese and Schoonmaker to help edit that film). And it was generally received as a youngster's first try, with polite if condescending reviews. An item in Time Magazine that ran under the headline “The Student Filmmakers” assessed the film to be “flawed and immature in plot and structure,” but acknowledged its “exact sense of the Lower Manhattan milieu and some authentic hard-edged dialogue”; The New York Times, was gentle if unenthusiastic—“I must say that I like Scorsese's enthusiasm even while wincing at some of the results.” But young Roger Ebert, at twenty-five only a few months Scorsese’s senior and in his first year reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun Times, looked at the screen at the Chicago Film Festival and saw the future: “I Call First . . . is absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere. I have no reservations in describing it as a great moment in American movies.”
Boy Meets Girl (on the Staten Island Ferry)
Walking the Streets, Night for Night (She reads French Magazines)
Same old Buddies, Same old Hangouts
"You Know, That Movie with John Wayne"
Anything for Distribution
"I Called First!"
You forgive Me?