Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. First up is 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Who’s That Knocking at My Door
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Zina Bethune, Harvey Keitel, Anne Collette, Lennard Kuras
Fifty-two years before The Irishman, Martin Scorsese began his career as a film director with this protean little effort, detailing the life of J.R. (Harvey Keitel, in his first movie role), a typically unreconstructed young Italian New Yorker who hangs out almost exclusively with a coterie of close friends of similar disposition. On a ferry trip to Staten Island, he encounters a girl (Zina Bethune) and develops a relationship with her. As the film progresses, we learn that J.R.’s hermetic life doesn’t allow for much growth, while issues with his girlfriend lead to an impasse. When he is told by her that she was raped by a previous boyfriend, he recoils and ends the affair, citing what happened as her fault. And when he attempts to reconcile with her, he once again fails to bridge the gap between himself and the more sophisticated girl.
Despite this effort being sophomoric in places, it is of genuine interest to Scorsese fans simply as it does hint at later triumphs – the mise en scene is certainly Scorsese territory, while the general demeanour of J.R. and his rather boisterous chums is certainly a template for the macho bonhomie of later movies. Shot in stark black and white, the movie opts for a verite feel that more or less eschews much in the way of plot, with the focus being on the bleak cityscape of New York, in which the two protagonists play out their doomed romance. What is of interest is that J.R.’s girlfriend never intersects with his world, while J.R. is completely outside his comfort zone when he leaves the city.
Scorsese’s first feature does feel like a work in progress, and indeed took several years and numerous changes (including the title of the film) before its completion. At times it comes across as the amateurish student movie it started out as, while at others the noir cinematography captivates, the shrouded night time streets aglow with endless trundling traffic. Certain themes (such as Catholic guilt, the tug of family and the need to retain loyalty to traditional values) do seem oddly superfluous at times, even though they should be the dramatic motor. This is especially noticeable at the end when J.R., seeking solace, ends up in a church – the close-up religious iconography within juxtaposed with the Genies’ title track seems almost reminiscent of Kenneth Anger. There are also scattershot attempts to ape the tropes of other cinematic movements, such as the Nouvelle Vague, as well as the fantasy scene in which J.R. is in flagrante with various ladies of the night. This section (set to the Doors’ The End – very studenty) was inserted into the film later on in order to sell it as a “sexploitation movie”, despite Scorsese filming it with whatever gravitas he could muster.
Despite all the misgivings, it’s nevertheless a worthwhile document of where it all began, not just for Scorsese but for his friend Harvey Keitel, whose performance certainly imbues the movie with energy and menace (much like his later turns). Both he and Zina Bethune are excellent, the young actress providing a mature and measured bit of acting that exudes both vulnerability and stoicism. Keitel would revisit J.R.’s character to some extent in Mean Streets. Above all, Scorsese makes it work by not romanticizing J.R. and his friends’ constant misbehaviour, the claustrophobia of their small apartments and dive bars a reminder that this is where they belong, and how hidebound New York can be for those with no horizons. All this set to the type of doo wop and rock n roll soundtrack that Scorsese would become renowned for. We have lift off.
Here’s the film’s trailer