Monday, March 30, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part II: Who's That Knocking at My Door?

Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1968) *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (J.R.), Zina Bethune (Girl), Leonard Kuras (Joey), Michael Scala (Sally Gaga), Harry Northup (Harry), Ann Collette (Young girl in dream), Martin Scorsese (Gangster).

The first shot in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door is of a stature of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus. It is a statue that Scorsese will come back to time and again throughout the movie. It belongs to the mother of the film’s main character, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), and it is her most prized possession. The scene expands and we see that mother cooking, and feeding her family. Then we cut to a scene outside where J.R. and his friends are hanging around, and there is a sudden burst of violence, and we see them beat up some guy on the street as rock music blares on the soundtrack. I can hardly think of a sequence that more defines the films of Martin Scorsese.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door was Scorsese’s first feature film, and while the film is certainly rough around the edges, and has a few scenes that don’t seem to be completely in sync with the rest of the movie, it is a remarkably assured debut film. From that opening sequence right through the rest of the movie, you know you are in the hands of a talented director who has got something to say.

The film follows J.R. in two distinct relationships. When we first meet him, he seems happy to hang out with his friends not doing too much. They waste time, argue, bicker, try to pick up “broads”, and basically act like typical young men. They have no drive, no ambition, but they don’t really care. The second relationship is with his relationship with The Girl (Zina Bethune). In perhaps the film’s best scene, J.R. meets the Girl on the ferry, and starts to talk to her when he notices a picture of John Wayne from The Searchers in the French magazine she is reading. It is a long scene – perhaps as long as 10 minutes – and yet it never gets boring. Not only are the actors at the top of their considerable skills, but Scorsese’s camera keeps moving back and forth, avoiding the usual static two shot we would most normally get in a scene like this. From the beginning of his career, Scorsese’s camera seems restless – it wants to be a part of the action, and it has a way of involving the audience with his films on a more intimate level. He isn’t just using camera moves to show off, as many directors do, but with a real sense of purpose.

The film is basically about J.R. and his attitude towards women, which he explains thusly to The Girl after they watch Rio Bravo. The girl in that movie (Angie Dickinson) is a broad someone who is “not exactly a virgin”– you can mess around with a broad, but you never marry her. A girl is someone more innocent and pure – she is the type of girl you marry. J.R. thinks The Girl is that type of girl – and he fully intends to marry her. But then she tells him a secret – a few years ago, she went out on a date with a guy, who drove them to a secluded spot, and proceeded to rape her. J.R. doesn’t understand how she could let that happen. Why didn’t she stop him from driving her out there? Didn’t she see what was coming? Didn’t she lead him on, and do something to perhaps even bring it on herself?

The two most important scenes in the film directly follow this revelation by the girl, who J.R. has stormed out on. First, he and his friends have a party, and get a couple of “broads” to come over. In a scary scene, they men debate you will get to go “first” (hence the original title of the movie I Call First) with the women. To them, they aren’t human beings, but objects meant for their sexual pleasure. The second scene involves J.R. going over drunkenly to The Girl’s apartment the morning after that scary scene. Things seem to be okay, until he tells her that he forgives her for what she did, and he is willing to marry her anyway. She, unlike he, realizes that he will never be able to get past his sexual hang-ups he has about her. Things turn ugly, and he calls her a “whore”, in a scene so painful it is difficult to watch.

Who’s That Knocking At My Door is not one of Scorsese’s masterpieces. It is too rough, and the compromises he had to make to get the film released (notably an ill advised dream sequence in which J.R. has sex with a prostitute to up the nudity level of the film) show. It is not as polished, or as confident in itself as future Scorsese films would be. And yet, it remains a fascinating film, one that draws you in much more than perhaps it should. The acting is superb, particularly by Keitel, who is perfect as the Scorsese surrogate in the film. It also introduces Scorsese’s main themes in a single film. If the Scorsese hadn’t gone on to become “Scorsese” the film most likely would have been forgotten, much like many strong films, independent films do. But the film still works remarkably well as a film unto itself. The fact that we are able to watch it through a prism where we can tell what Scorsese was going to do in the future, makes it even more rewarding.

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