"Everybody should like westerns, solve everybody's problems if they liked westerns."
Welcome to the first part of my series on the one and only, Martin Scorsese and when I said I was going in depth I meant it because here we travel back to 1965 when he crafted his very first feature film ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’ does anyone else find that title slightly ironic, as once you watch the film you realise that that question could well be asked by the film industry as the young Scorsese uses this film as a way to knock at their door, I’ll explain why later.
Chronicling the relationship between a young college student (Zina Bethune) and her Italian-American boyfriend J.R (Harvey Keitel) as they each struggle to cope with their different backgrounds and ideologies with the girl having a well-educated and catered upbringing whilst J.R is still very much a part of the gang culture of New York.
It’s remarkably difficult to view this film without drawing parallels to other work from Scorsese. It’s easy to point out so many themes and characteristics that run through his subsequent films that are on display here, they are not as polished or refined as we will later see from him, but one can witness the themes of redemption, guilt, crime, the contrast of violence and innocence, blending tragedy with his own dark sense of humour as well as the start of his obsession with the city of New York that has cropped up repeatedly in his career like from ‘Taxi Driver’ to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.
Scorsese completed the film when he was just 25 and then watched as it spent two years failing to get a distributor and sat on the shelf of the American indie scene. To get it to theatres he had to shoot some kind of nudity scene to justify the film’s rating and make it feel more like an exploitation film because as far as the studio was concerned, that was the best way to sell the movie (that’s right, back then studios wanted you to shoot sex scenes rather than take them out). It takes place within the fantasies of J.R and while it is a well-directed scene it feel oddly out of place with what is on the whole a remarkably grounded and gritty film.
It also has the feel of something that the director did not want to include in the film, given that so much of this film is clearly Scorsese’s vision. His vision is sometimes melodramatic and overly obvious though, with certain scenes being awkwardly manufactured and lend themselves to what Scorsese thinks the audience will understand rather maintaining a clarity of vision and simply saying what he wants to. Marty takes more credit for the shortcomings of the movie than he would usually as this was one of the few that he wrote as well as directed.
The film excels when it feels intimate, focussing purely on the two characters that lie at the centre of the story. When they first meet them they get into a conversation about John Wayne and though at times it feels awkward, it comes across as a deliberate choice to capture the nervousness and embarrassment each of them feel. Keitel and Bethune retain such marvellous chemistry and consistency throughout as they remain true to their characters, and we know that because they are so brilliantly established within their first scene together.
The film is not as strong whenever is strays from this intimate focus. It wants to capture some of the vibrancy and diversity of the environment these people inhabit but it always comes across as much less interesting and less evoking. It drifts between them rather inelegantly and though it does help to develop the characters and flesh them out, I wish there was an alternative and more intelligent method to accomplish it.
‘Who’s that Knocking on my Door’ is so clearly an effort for the director to tell the story he wants so tell, something that is directly applicable and relevant to his own life. It’s an evocation of his faith and its application to society around him consisting of life within New York City. This representation feels painfully true and tragically pertinent. The whole film rests on its ability to make us identify with it and Scorsese achieved that perfectly.
While it is far from a perfect film, Scorsese’s first directorial effort is essentially a smaller, less refined version of what was to come.