The Irishman screens Wednesday, November 27th through Thursday, December 12th
Whether it’s about the long-awaited debut of The Irishman or controversial comments he made about the Marvel movie franchise, it seems impossible for Martin Scorsese to stay out of the news cycle. Not that this is a bad thing: on the contrary, it’s nothing less than heartening to see such an accomplished filmmaker and his work getting so much attention.
From early ventures like Mean Streets to modern epics like The Departed, it’s understandable that many viewers would associate Scorsese primarily with gritty gangster films. This isn’t an unearned association – this is the man who directed Goodfellas after all – but it is a bit reductionist. Having helmed biopics, novel adaptations, and even a musical (New York, New York in case you’re wondering), Scorsese has a wide palette of works that establish him as much more than a teller of crime stories. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss five of his greatest movies that don’t focus on gangsters or crime.
Now, any top Scorsese movie list is bound to be controversial, so I’d like to clarify what I mean by “great”. By “great”, I don’t mean the most ambitious or technically proficient. The Aviator and Kundun, for example, are excellent films that are both more ambitious and technically impressive than some of the entires in this list, but they suffer from issues ( a tendency to hew to biopic conventions in Aviator‘s case and minimal characterization in Kundun‘s) that keep them from reaching the heights they could have. Rather, “great” is used in the sense that a film set out to do something specific and did so with aplomb.
Having established this, let’s talk about five of Scorsese’s greatest non-gangster movies!
Taxi Driver (1975)
It’s an obvious choice but no list of the best Scorsese films, non-gangster of otherwise, would be complete without Taxi Driver. Equal parts penetrating drama and psychological thriller, the film demonstrates Scorsese’s ability to synthesize elements from disparate sources and influences into compelling cinema that is distinctly his.
Written by fellow auteur Paul Schrader, the movie takes the audience on a deep dive into 1970s New York. Our guide is Travis Bickle, a disturbed Vietnam vet who works as – you guessed it – a taxi driver. Played with masterful precision by Robert De Niro in the performance of a lifetime, Travis is a brilliant character in no small part due to the ease with which he courts (and wins) viewers’ sympathies, making them his co-conspirators as he describes his fantasies of violence and revenge to them. Mixing raw charisma with an unmitigable sense of menace, one can understand why Travis remains a hero to misguided young men even today (or so a friend who got a mohawk in high school after seeing the film tells me.)
De Niro acts opposite a veritable powerhouse of supporting actors (including Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, and of course, Jodie Foster), but the real co-star of the film is the city itself. Grimy and mist-ridden, the movie portrays New York as a sleazy hellhole deserving of the bloody retribution Travis dreams of inflicting on it. Extended scenes of Travis driving alone late at night serve to not only convey the terrible loneliness he feels but make viewers feel like they’re experiencing it themselves. Driving home the sense of overwhelming alienation is Bernard Hermann’s affecting score, which is anchored by two recurring themes: a wistful, almost mournful piece associated with Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy and variations of a deliberate, threatening theme associated with Travis himself.
Embodying the most anti-social sensibilities of the 70s, it’s practically a miracle that the movie still feels fresh well over 40 years after its initial release. It may be dark and moody but it’s eminently watchable and lends itself well to repeat viewings. I myself have watched it God knows how many times and I still find something new with each viewing. I’ve seen Travis ask Betsy if she felt the connection he felt when he first laid eyes on her countless times, but I never felt truly felt the power of that particular conversation until I watched it here at the Frida, literally gasping aloud when Betsy answered that she wouldn’t be talking to him if she didn’t.
Cited as an influence on Todd Phillips’ Joker and, more infamously, as an inspiration for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr, Taxi Driver remains a captivating gaze into the human abyss that, for better or worse, speaks to something deep within ourselves.
The King of Comedy (1983)
As if I haven’t showered enough praise of Taxi Driver, I have to add that I absolutely love its tag line: “On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” The funny thing about this tag line though is that it could just as easily be used for The King of Comedy, another NYC-set film that stars Robert De Niro as a social reject who wishes to be something more.
With a combover, a split mustache, and some incredibly tacky suits, Rupert Pupkin is about as far from Travis Bickle in terms of cool as Bozo the Clown is from James Bond. A self-styled comedian hampered by his cluelessness as to how the business works, Pupkin seeks a spot on talk show host Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) show in the belief that doing so will launch his career. Whereas Travis seeks vengeance against his peers, Rupert seeks validation from his, coming across as hopeless rather than threatening. Deploying dramatic hand gestures, forced laughter, and an unflappable obliviousness to others’ impatience for him, De Niro portrays Pupkin as a pathetic little man who just might be desperate enough to get what he wants.
Though the film doesn’t delve into outright surrealism, it does feature a number of scenes depicting Rupert’s fantasies of being a successful comedian. Most are easy to spot (i.e. him getting married on Jerry’s show after receiving an apology from his old principal for not having faith in him) but others are plausible enough that you believe they might actually be happening until the scene cuts and the illusion is revealed. The most effective such scene, however, has to be one where Rupert stands in front of a portrait of Jerry’s audience, the camera pulling back as he regales them with his material and imagines the sound of their laughter. It comes a bit early in the film, but the combination of the imagery and sound make it the best demonstration of the gulf between Rupert’s delusions and reality.
While the movie is indisputably De Niro’s, the rest of the cast get their own opportunities to shine. Jerry Lewis steps up to the occasion as Langford, playing the straight man to De Niro’s fool in a way that will make you ask yourself, “Isn’t this the guy who played the Nutty Professor?” Yet as entertaining as the interplay between De Niro and Lewis is, it’s the interplay between the two of them and Sandra Bernhard that is comedy gold. Appearing as Rupert’s unstable pal Masha, Bernhard’s character has the dubious honor of making him look rational by comparison, flinging herself at Jerry at the movie’s start and spending the rest of it arguing with Rupert as they stalk him. At least, she does before carrying what has to be one of the most wince-inducing “seduction” scenes to ever be put to film.
As likely to make you blanch as as it is to make you laugh, The King of Comedy is a progenitor for both today’s cringe comedy and the black comedic sensibilities of later Scorsese films.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The funny thing about this entry is that although many know the story around The Last Temptation of Christ, not many seem to have watched it themselves. This was very much the case with the film’s fundamentalist detractors when it came out, with many calling for the movie’s destruction without having seen so much as a frame of it. In their zeal to halt distribution of the film, some even went as far to claim that it would incite anti-Semitism. Amongst who they wouldn’t say, as the protestors were apparently more than happy to let the producers read it as the not-so-veiled threat that it was.
The irony, as countless commentators before me have relished in pointing out, is that virtually none of the heavy lifters behind Last Temptation were Jewish. Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the book it was based on, came from a Greek Orthodox background, screenwriter Paul Schrader was raised as a Calvinist, and Scorsese, it goes without saying, was Catholic. It perhaps says a lot about the film’s Christian enemies that they couldn’t imagine any of their own making such a movie, but it also says a lot about the movie and its treatment of Christianity that the principals reflected such a wide swathe of the religion.
Working off of Kazantzakis’ fiction rather than the accounts told in the Gospels, Scorsese and company took it upon themselves to explore a side of Jesus we don’t see or hear much of: his human side. A far cry from the stoic, almost alien figure portrayed in more traditional depictions of the Christ story, Scorsese’s Jesus agonizes and despairs long before the Romans march him out to Golgotha. Tormented by voices in his head and wracked with doubt, desire, and guilt, he questions why he has to be the Son of God and not just another son of man. It is through this novel take on the character of Jesus that the audience is able to connect with him, relating to him as a real human being instead of an abstract icon.
On that note, it’s not a little strange that out of all the people in the world to make Jesus a real human being, Willem Dafoe ended up being the one to do it. Coming off of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Dafoe was years away from being typecast as troubled weirdos when he signed onto Temptation, but the funny thing is that said typecasting would have actually helped, not hurt, his portrayal of Jesus. As mentioned before, Jesus is depicted as struggling with his divine purpose, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing him as the loud-mouthed rabble rouser he probably was. Yet through it all, through duty and disobedience and through faith and disbelief, Dafoe’s Jesus believes in the truth of every word that comes out of his mouth, right up to the moment he looks up to the heavens and declares, “It is accomplished!”
Supporting Dafoe is a bona fide bevy of talent. Barbara Hershey tempts Jesus as Mary Magdalene, David Bowie appears briefly as Pontius Pilate, and Harvey Keitel moves as Judas, reimagined here as Jesus’ most loyal disciple rather than the traitor the Gospels claim him to have been. The stand-out supporting performance, however, has to be Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul. Fantically preaching the message of Christ’s death and resurrection even after Christ elects not to go through with either, Stanton plays the former Pharisee as a dark counterpart to Dafoe’s messiah (an anti-Christ, if you will), claiming with a straight face that Jesus didn’t survive the crucifixion right after Jesus himself says otherwise. Even as he cops to “creat[ing] truth” to advance his agenda, there’s an inexplicable conviction in Stanton’s delivery that makes Paul disturbingly sincere in his intent and demeanor.
Shot in the North African country of Morocco, the film nevertheless takes great pains to stay true to its ancient Near East setting. The sight of animals being butchered for ritual sacrifice and mere commerce as well as the sound of ceremonial chanting and ethereal wailing serve to remind believers whether they like it or not that the story of their savior took place in the Middle East, during a period of occupation by a militaristic foreign power no less. On the subject of sound, Peter Gabriel (who, coincidentally, was once frontman for the biblically-named Genesis) provides a stunning original score that befits the movie’s deconstructionist approach. Mixing Middle Eastern textures and tones with experimental sensibilities, Gabriel’s soundtrack is driving at times, contemplative at others, but awe-inspiring all around.
Whatever one’s faith background or lack thereof, viewers would be wise to watch The Last Temptation of Christ with an open mind so they can receive it as it was meant to be. That is, a sacred epic for a secular age and that most rare of religious films: one that makes unbelievers want to believe.
After Hours (1985)
Remember how I said that The King of Comedy was a progenitor for the dark humor in future Scorsese films? Expanding on that metaphor, if The King had a first-born child, it would be After Hours. Previously included in a list I made of underrated 80s movies, this film takes the black comedic instincts of The King and takes them up to 11, 12, and all the way to 6AM.
One of Scorsese’s most underrated films, the movie features, fittingly enough, the terribly underrated Griffin Dunne. Best remembered as Jack from An American Werewolf in London, Dunne shines here as Paul Hackett, a word-processor who, looking for a little excitement after work, visits a girl who gave him his number at a coffee shop. Lacking guns and the power to perform miracles, Paul is simply a mundane man trying to navigate his way through a series of trials and tribulations over the course of one night. Expressing the amount of bewilderment and frustration you’d expect someone going through everything Paul is to, Dunne is a relatably vulnerable everyman who everyone who has ever found themselves lost in an unfamiliar environment can sympathize with.
Keeping Paul from getting home is a neighborhood that might as well be the NYC equivalent of Wonderland. There’s a lot going on but the streets are empty, people disappear and reappear at inopportune times, and they adhere to a logic that only other residents of the neighborhood understand. An unwritten rule of said logic seems to be that though a character can offer aid or moral support to Paul, they can’t help him in a way that will actively help him get home. This leads to bartenders offering him change for the subway only for the cash register to get jammed and ladies letting him use their phone only to interrupt him as he tries to dial another number.
Among the people alternatively helping and hindering Paul is a gaggle of artists, thieves, and S&M enthusiasts. There’s Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), the flirtatious girl who draws him out to the area in the first place only to reveal that she has a boyfriend. There’s Tom (John Heard), the friendly bartender whose cash register gets jammed. And then there’s Julie (Teri Garr), the amorous waitress whose odd behavior and retro style would fit right in a David Lynch movie. Though none of them ever threaten to upstage Paul, they are all effective at moving the narrative forward even as they derail his efforts to get home.
Based on a script by Joseph Minion (which in turn was adapted without permission from a monologue by radio performer Joe Frank), much of the movie’s humor stems from the bizarre interactions and conversations Paul has with the other characters. From Marcy telling him about an ex who used to shout “surrender, Dorothy” during sex to robbers Pepe and Neil (Cheech and Chong in bit parts) resolving that “the uglier the art, the more it’s worth”, there are some real choice bits of dialogue to quote here.
From the moment the faux neon title card flashes and Mozart’s Symphony, K. 95 swells, it is clear that After Hours is a very different kind of Scorsese movie: by the time the bruised and battered Paul sits down at his desk and the symphony resumes, it’s clear that it’s one of his best.
Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967)
This last selection is a bit of a dark horse, and perhaps understandably so. Scorsese’s very first full-length film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door started as a student film, a fact that’s not hard to deduce at all. The black and white cinematography, the unconventional editing, and the restrained tone all point to the production’s indie roots, while the hip soundtrack and reference-heavy dialogue peg Scorsese as the insatiable young connoisseur of culture that he was.
Where the movie differs from other indie films is how authentic it is. The formal qualities mentioned above feel like considered directorial decisions instead of pretentious gimmickry, and Scorsese’s quoting of John Wayne movies and “Shotgun” comes across as the earnest gushing of a convinced fan rather than the contrived name-dropping of a poser. The scene where Harvey Keitel’s J.R. meets Zina Bethune’s Girl (no name given, she’s just the Girl), for example, hits many of the same beats as similar scenes in countless indie productions that followed (“Oh you know Movie X? No way, have you seen Movie Y?”) but there is an honest energy to this one that most others lack. A big part of why the scene works so well is the fact that much of it occurs in one take, giving it a sense of immediacy and realness that sticks around well after the camera finally cuts to a close-up.
The other major component is the performance of the two stars in general and Keitel in particular. Decades away from his graphically violent roles in Bad Lieutenant and Reservoir Dogs (and indeed years from his turns in Taxi Driver and Last Temptation), Keitel is unexpectedly endearing as J.R. Although he still possesses the hard features and gruff presence we’ve come to know and love him for, Keitel somehow manages to harmonize these qualities with a surprising boyishness. Contrasting the working-class New Yorker’s irresponsible interactions with other men and the soft, sweet side he shows with the Girl as the film does, it’s no small achievement that Keitel is able to strike a believable balance between the two sides of JR’s personality.
This makes the story all the more tragic as we see that even though JR isn’t a bad guy, he buys into toxic ideas and assumptions that harm his relationship with the Girl. He holds what he sees as her putting herself in vulnerable positions against her yet sees nothing wrong with getting drunk with his friends, brawling with other men, or (in an experimental scene set to The Doors “The End” a full 12 years before Francis Ford Coppola famously used it in Apocalypse Now) fantasizing about having sex with the very same “broads” he derisively describes to her. Of course there are moments where he seems to pick up on the errors and incongruities of his values and lifestyle – such as when he goes on a hike with his friends and stares pensively at the sky and land before him while they complain and wonder what they came all the way out there for – but ultimately he proves to be too invested in them to make room for the values and lifestyle that sustaining a relationship with the Girl would entail.
Some may dismiss it as a prototype for Mean Streets but judged on its own terms, Who’s That Knocking At My Door holds up as an impressive blend of experimental filmmaking and a heartfelt story, to say nothing of holding up as Scorsese’s feature film debut.