Martin Scorsese has a pretty unshakable reputation as one of the great American directors but despite a lengthy and richly diverse filmography, most people think of a particular kind of film when his name is mentioned. While examinations of bruised masculinity are common amongst Scorsese’s films, they are not always delivered by way of expletive-ridden, chattering wise guys and mobsters or gritty reflections on urban savagery. This is a director whose resume includes a costume drama, a musical, a biblical epic, a children’s fantasy and a biopic of the Dalai Lama yet the name Scorsese, even to those familiar with his entire catalogue, immediately conjures images of Robert De Niro threatening his own reflection, Joe Pesci asking “Funny how?” or Harvey Keitel laying back on his pillow to the strains of Be My Baby. It’s no insult that this is the case, since the parent films from which these moments come are undoubtedly among the finest in Scorsese’s canon. And yet, to ignore the other films that surround them is to miss out on a rich, varied cornucopia of gems that flesh out the director’s extraordinary talents to a much greater degree. With the BFI’s new DVD releases of two of Scorsese’s early films, appreciating these lesser-discussed works just became that little bit easier.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Jospeh Weill, Betzi Manoogian, Haig Manoogian
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Lennard Kuras
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 86 mins
Most people seem to think Martin Scorsese’s career began with Mean Streets but in fact there were two films before that independent classic helped change the language of cinema. One of these films was Boxcar Bertha, an underrated B-movie that Scorsese directed for Roger Corman which is usually reduced to a footnote in the director’s story. The other film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, is a more personal, artistic film and while it gets some occasional attention from cineastes, it is surprisingly neglected given that it was the debut feature of one of our great directors. Many critics seem in such a hurry to get to Mean Streets that they brush aside Who’s That Knocking at My Door as a mere curiosity but within this great debut there are numerous themes and stylistic choices which greatly inform Scorsese’s more famous follow-ups and even amidst the uncertainty of a first film, shot piecemeal due to budgetary issues, the ingenuity and infectious energy is apparent.
Shot over several years in the mid-60s, Who’s That Knocking at My Door began as a short student film called Bring on the Dancing Girls, which focused exclusively on Harvey Keitel’s J.R. and his troop of immature, do-nothing pals. To this material, a new romantic plotline was added featuring professional actress Zina Bethune and the film was renamed I Call First. Finally, in order to gain a deal with exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner, Scorsese was asked to shoot a long sex scene which was inserted into the middle of the film and which balances its gratuitous elements by being neatly incorporated into the film’s themes, as well as quite beautifully presented. For a movie with such a fractured creation process, Who’s That Knocking at My Door emerges as a smooth, hip and riveting piece of cinema which stands apart from the average film released in 1967 and feels like an important stepping stone towards the less plot-driven indie films of the 70s. John Cassavetes is one of the obvious influences and was reportedly a fan of the film himself, pointing to it as an example of the kind of films Scorsese should be devoting himself to in light of his disappointment with Boxcar Bertha, a piece of advice instrumental in the subsequent making of Mean Streets.
In its comparative self-consciousness, Who’s That Knocking at My Door is clearly a first picture but it also thrives on the infectious energy of that same youthful experimentation. Scorsese manages to imbue scenes that were very tightly scripted and storyboarded with an improvisational feel . The juvenile antics and earthy wit of the scenes depicting J.R. and his friends are beautifully interwoven with the tender, delicately observed courtship of J.R. and the unnamed girl who steals, and then inadvertently breaks, his heart. Although they were essentially shot as two different films, these plot strands compliment each other beautifully, illustrating where J.R. gets his misogynistic view of women from and then what happens when these views are tested by a strong, intelligent woman who doesn’t quite fit into either of J.R.’s two categories of womankind. J.R. is an obvious surrogate for Scorsese himself in some respects, such as his enthusiastic talk about John Wayne westerns. Westerns were generally films that split women into two categories, the saint or the whore, and this opposition is clear in J.R.’s chosen ideology. But the western he discusses by name is John Ford’s The Searchers, one of the most morally complex westerns ever made which examines prejudice by way of a deeply conflicted hero whose opinions could be taken in different ways by different audiences. This ambiguity seeps into the central conflict of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, with Scorsese observing J.R.’s struggle with his own ridiculously simplistic views of women from a relatively non-judgemental standpoint. He seeks to understand rather than to outright condemn, although a climactic piece of symbolism does offer confirmation of Scorsese’s own views on the matter.
On the acting front, Scorsese’s young amateurs do well. As incredulous leader of the gang Joey, Lennard Kuras displays both a naturalism and a penchant for the theatrical which neatly compliments the film’s style and makes it hard to believe that this was his one and only film credit. Keitel, soon to be a star thanks largely to his collaborations with Scorsese, a chief collaborator role that would eventually be supplanted by De Niro, is also fine in the lead role of J.R., his internal contradictions manifesting themselves in a shy awkwardness and a hot-headed anger that sweeps aside all reason. The scene in which he attempts to forget his problems by laughing drunkenly and hysterically with his friends taps into an empty desperation which casts earlier scenes in a new light, while his final confrontation with the girl over whom he is so mixed up shows him walking a fine line between his Jekyll and Hyde sides as remorse, fury, confusion and regret all vie for pole position. Top acting honours in a very male film go to Zina Bathune, whose status as a professional actress is clear but whose measured approach to character allows her to fit into this world convincingly. She comes across as a woman of great sensitivity and intelligence, able to quantify traumas in her life with a cool-headed retrospective decisiveness with which J.R. just cannot cope. Though Scorsese famously told Ellen Burstyn he didn’t know anything about women “but would love to learn” several years later, the creation of a character who refuses to fit into the expected subservient roles of victim or slavish devotee seems to contradict this professed ignorance. Perhaps instead it points to the triumph of experienced actor over inexperienced director in creating a human being rather than a cypher and Scorsese’s decision not to give the character a name, while it could be viewed as misogynistic devaluation or faux-European pastiche, seems rather more like a comment on how men like J.R. struggle to identify with a female so resistant to their rudimentary labelling system.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Robert Getchell
Producers: Audrey Maas, David Susskind
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Diane Ladd, Alfred Lutter, Kris Kristofferson, Harvey Keitel
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 112 mins
Scorsese’s fourth film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore feels as much a film belonging to its star as to its director. Ellen Burstyn, who won an Oscar for her extraordinary portrayal of Alice Hyatt, was not only responsible for choosing the script she wanted to star in but also the director she wanted to make it with. Strongly influenced by the growth of the woman’s movement, Burstyn rejected all the scripts Warner Bros. sent to her for consideration because she felt that the roles were always defined by the male role they were supporting. She wanted to make a film about a woman making her own choices and her own mistakes and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s slice of life approach to the tale of a newly widowed mother trying to start a new life for herself and her son seemed to fulfil the requirements perfectly. The only problem Burstyn had was that the script felt a bit too slick and she wanted someone who could add a bit of grit and reality to it. On the recommendation of Francis Ford Copolla she watched Mean Streets and immediately felt that Scorsese was right for the job.
It’s hard to understand why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has been unavailable for so long. It certainly isn’t the first film people think of when they think of Scorsese and, in some ways, it’s one of his most atypical works but it’s also an important and influential film by an A-list director featuring an Oscar winning central turn by a revered star. The cynic in me feels that the fact that it focuses so strongly on a woman’s story, with men sidelined but not demonised or erased, that it got buried in what is still a very male-dominated industry. The film also appeared between two of Scorsese’s most famous films, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and critics have once again found it easier to simply draw a line connecting those gritty, urban masterpieces which crosses out Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore completely in the process. Quite simply, it deserves better. For over two-thirds of its runtime, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of my favourite Scorsese films. It mingles elements of soapy melodrama with a satirical determination to deconstruct the same (see the striking, Douglas Sirk-referencing credits and Wizard of Oz style tongue in cheek flashback that open the film), blends an at-times disturbing vision of patriarchal oppression with hysterically funny character comedy and aligns itself with a feminist ideal without shackling itself unconvincingly to a too-good-to-be-true non-reality.
This latter quality is crucial in making the film more credible than others of its kind. While many would approach a feminist drama by making the central female an indomitable, flawless role-model, Alice is portrayed as both a strong, determined woman and as flawed and emotionally fragile as anyone else. When we first meet her, she is in an unhappy marriage with a boorish, unappreciative husband and while she keeps despair at bay with her prominent sense of humour (one of the film’s strongest suits and pivotal to Burstyn’s charismatic performance), she occasionally finds herself crying helplessly in her marital bed. In this particular sequence, there is a small moment which is indicative of the film’s dedication to a challenging complexity rather than cut-and-paste stereotypes. When her husband’s hostile indifference to her attempts to hold a conversation reduce Alice to tears, he looks over at her for a moment with a deep, pained sadness in his eyes and then gently holds her. He doesn’t break completely from the humourless oppressor he has been established as in earlier scenes but the look says it all. Alice’s husband’s inability to break out of the identity he has built for himself is subverted by Alice herself when, in what could uncharitably be called a lucky break, he is killed in a car crash and Alice suddenly finds herself left alone to raise their child. In a decisive break from her established rut, Alice sells her belongings and takes to the road to pursue a career as a singer and with a view to finally settling in her childhood home of Monterey, the last place she (mis)remembers being happy.
From here, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore becomes a road movie as Alice and her son Tommy (brilliantly played by the young Alfred Lutter) travel first to Phoenix and then Tucson, where employment as a lounge singer and a waitress respectively help support them. The mother-son relationship is central to the film but there are other men in Alice’s life, including Harvey Keitel in a brief role as young suitor Ben whose transformation into an abusive threat forces Alice and Tommy to move on. This scene, in which Alice is visited by the wife she did not know Ben had, clearly underlines a theme of self-preservation trumping any other ideological ideals, as Alice grabs her son and takes to the road rather than staying to help Ben’s terrified wife, something a more idealised but less real heroine might have done. Similarly, in the much-debated ending of the film (SPOILER ALERT) Alice decides to abandon her intentions of moving to Monterey in favour of staying with her new man, not because she sees having a man as more important than her own desires but because her own desires have shifted, the man has proved himself willing to take her needs into account at the expense of everything important to him and in this she sees the chance for a better life for herself. While the original script called for Alice to pick up and leave Tucson to pursue her singing career in Monterey, studio pressure demanded that the film end with her marrying Kris Kristofferson’s David. Searching for a compromise, the revelation that David is willing to give up everything in order to follow Alice’s dreams emerged in an improvisation and the cast and crew agreed it was appropriate, although Scorsese’s decision to have this public declaration be applauded by diner customers is one of the film’s worst missteps and a rare slip into Hollywood convention. (SPOILER ENDS)
The final third of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is something on which I find myself torn. The scenes in the diner where Alice finds herself working are some of the best in the film, with terrific performances by Diane Ladd as an inventively foul-mouthed waitress and Valerie Curtin as a shy, jittery colleague maximising the comic potential of the situation (this portion of the film was adapted into the long-running US sitcom Alice), but the arrival of Kris Kristofferson as the rather dull love interest David also introduces a romantic plot that starts to slow the film down like a generator on wheel spokes. Kristofferson was, by his own admission, a tentative newcomer to acting and his part is both underwritten and underplayed, the inevitable romantic spanner-in-the-works seeming to come from nowhere, arriving too late in the game and being too neatly resolved to truly convince. While there are all sorts of rationales for and arguments against where the plot eventually goes, Roger Ebert’s assessment that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a film that exists outside ideologies feels closest to the truth, making it all the more frustrating when it ultimately ravels itself up in them and thrashes to an unsatisfying finish. There’s also a bizarre final camera movement in which the picture jerks back awkwardly miliseconds before it cuts to the credits. It’s a jarring moment of amateurism that exacerbates the effect of the crumbling narrative. But for all these quibbles, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is still a terrific film that throws up as many questions as it answers but, in doing so, presents us with a series of believable and delightful characters, top-notch performances (including, in Burstyn’s central turn, one of my favourite lead performances of all time) and insightful examinations of modern American values, gender roles and attitudes to romance. It amply demonstrated Scorsese’s growing talents as a director of great diversity and willingness to adapt his style to fit the material; in his own words, “to learn.”
Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore are released on DVD by the BFI on 27 March 2017. Special features are as follows:
Who’s That Knocking at My Door
-Partial audio commentary by Scorsese and Mardik Martin
– From the Classroom to the Streets: The Making of Who’s That Knocking at My Door – a 13 minute interview with Mardik Martin covering the film’s creation
– Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Christina Newland and full credits
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
– Partial audio commentary by Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson and Diane Ladd
– Second Chances… The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – decent 20 minute feature on the making of the film with amusing insights from Burstyn and Kristofferson
– Original theatrical trailer
– Illustrated booklet featuring essays by Nicolas Pillai and Christina Newland plus full credits