“Like Samuel Fuller, Scorsese fills his movies with personal talismans; like Werner Herzog, he riddles them with documentary subtexts.” (1)
Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, is a curious beast. Sometimes dismissed as little more than an extended film school exercise, it is in fact a significant and quite revelatory document that provides important insights into both the director’s key thematic preoccupations and his development as a truly distinctive, even idiosyncratic filmmaker. Made over a four-year-period – 1965-68, and released in 1969 – Who’s That Knocking at My Door brazenly bares the marks of its convoluted, stop-start production history. The contrast between the material filmed in 1964-65 and that in 1968, for instance, is particularly marked, the changes in style and content reflecting broader cultural, aesthetic and moral shifts occurring over this defining period of American history and cinema (the shift from 35mm to 16mm across the film’s two key plot threads is also physically and visibly palpable), as well as in relation to Scorsese’s development as a filmmaker.
As Scorsese himself has claimed, the film is now probably most interesting as a kind of time capsule, its shifting pictorial and aural “surface”, fashions and quickly “out-of-date”, but still potent, attitudes and mores reflective of a period of rapid social change. In some respects, Who’s That Knocking at My Door is probably a film that looks and plays better now that the weight of cultural and authorial expectation has receded. Such a disavowal was characteristic of the critical response the film received upon its British “re-release” in the wake of the success of Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976) (2). As Tom Milne argued at the time:
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is a disarmingly straightforward film: a rough draft for Mean Streets in which Scorsese spells out his guidelines, his symbols and his meanings without ever quite welding them into an imaginative whole. (3)
But it is only now with the fuller passage of time, and Scorsese’s uneven and less enervating passage through the last 15 years, that the film’s true qualities and innovations can be properly assessed. Who’s That Knocking at My Door is definitely a naïve, relatively blunt and dramatically and aesthetically uneven work, but its seemingly “disarmingly straightforward” qualities have become much less obvious. Its sense of unkempt energy provides a pleasing alternative to the depleted pleasures of films like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006) (4).
Scorsese’s debut feature is now most fascinating for the appropriately piecemeal pleasures and insights it offers – as a literally fragmentary work akin to something like John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959, with which is shares many narrative and aesthetic commonalities) (5) or even such a contemporaneous Australian film as Pudding Thieves (Brian Davies, 1967) (6); low budget films in thrall of a potential cinema made outside of the system and collated or accreted over time – rather than as a fully satisfying or unifying work of art. Who’s That Knocking at My Door is a work full of behavioural ticks and autobiographical asides. For instance, it opens with a strange sequence featuring Scorsese’s mother baking a meat “pie” for a group of children, accompanied by a very minimalist percussive soundtrack. While self-consciously placing a personal dimension or signature within the film for those who recognise this “bit” player – as well as highlighting a key motif (food) of Scorsese’s Italian-American films that reappears in such films as Italianamerican (1974) and, most disturbingly, GoodFellas (1990) – this largely disconnected sequence is primarily concerned with establishing a sense of place. It is this sometimes potent, highly specific and engulfing sense of environment that provides the film’s greatest indication of the triumphs to come. Initially conceived as the second part of a trilogy – the first entry, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, was left unfilmed and the third, initially entitled “Season of the Witch”, finally saw the light of day as Mean Streets – Who’s That Knocking at My Door is in every way a transitional work. But it is also a film that the director had to make, a work that moves beyond Scorsese’s view of it as textbook of “what not to do” (7).
The fragmentary, atomised nature of Who’s That Knocking at My Door is evident from even a very distracted viewing of the film. Although there is a degree of stylistic, narrative and thematic unity in the film, certain moments, shots and even textures stand out from those that surround them. For example, one of the film’s most remarkable and admittedly showy scenes, featuring a series of sexual liaisons involving the film’s protagonist, J. R. (Harvey Keitel), that is scored to The Doors’ “The End”, was actually shot in mid-1968, in Amsterdam, after the “rest” of the film had received its premiere at the 1967 Chicago Film Festival, under the title I Call First. Who’s That Knocking at My Door – or a significant section of it anyway – actually had its first screening at the New York University Film Festival in 1965 under the title Bring on the Dancing Girls. The “final” film, first shown in 1969 under its current title – and rolled-out in a piecemeal fashion over the next year or so in limited engagements – is thus a fascinating palimpsest that charts the shifting concerns, obsessions and developing style of Scorsese the filmmaker and cinephile. The initial 1965 screening showcased a film preoccupied with the kind of male Italian-American community that Scorsese is now most commonly – if lazily – defined by. The temps mort, overriding machismo and nascent violence of many of these sequences was then combined with a series of more intimate exchanges between J. R. and “the Girl” (Zina Bethune’s character is given no other name) who slowly becomes his girlfriend in the 1967 version. Although these sequences are uneven in performance and delivery, they do require the more sustained engagement of their actors – Bethune is very good, Keitel a little more uneven – and reveal more directly Scorsese’s passion for the cinema.
J. R. and “the Girl” actually meet while waiting for the Staten Island ferry, and strike up a conversation about the merits of John Wayne and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) (8). Although these exchanges help reveal the tastes and autobiographical dimensions of Scorsese’s characterisation – J. R. can plainly be seen as an alter-ego for the director – they also forge an important bond and distinction between the two characters. J. R.’s tastes are more noticeably working class, and provide an important marker of the gap between the two characters (she likes Stan Getz and João Gilberto while he name-checks Percy Sledge; he cites Ford and Wayne while she reads F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night). Nevertheless, and quite revealingly, both display what I would consider undeniably excellent taste; one can detect the unifying if somewhat contradictory passions of Scorsese himself in their choices. (And this could be another way to read the film’s narrative, as a symbolic dramatisation of the split in Scorsese’s own experience and personality between the world of the university and film school and that of his more cloistered Italian-American upbringing.) As is true of many subsequent Scorsese features, the film’s protagonist operates both within a kind of “hieroglyphic”, ritualised world, and seeks an escape from it. He is an insider and an outsider, a guide to the world we are seeing and hearing but also somewhat detached from it. Who’s That Knocking at My Door provides a fascinating glimpse of the kind of world or milieu that Scorsese would later build with more density, purpose and intensity.
Although “The End” sequence is plainly inspired by the work of such European directors as Bernardo Bertolucci and Alain Resnais – Scorsese has widely remarked on the perhaps too large influence of Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964) on his early work – it also demonstrates the increasing command and ability of its director by the time it was filmed in June 1968 (9). This sequence, featuring a striking pre-Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) use of the “oedipal” section of The Doors’ track, literally stands out from the film, forcefully foregrounding the shifts of tone, style and even stock that characterise it in general. That this sequence was somewhat of an afterthought, added at the request of the film’s distributor to cash-in on the rapid liberalisation of American cinema at the end of the ’60s, is evidenced by the way in which it is sandwiched into the film, cut directly into a sequence in which J. R. leaves the cinema with his girlfriend after a screening of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) and Scaramouche (George Sidney, 1952) – no prizes for guessing which of these two films is the topic of conversation. Although this moment does bring to mind the more pointed and structurally significant “nudie” footage of Brigitte Bardot added to Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) by Godard at the producers’ request, it also highlights the limitations of Scorsese’s sensibility and approach at this early stage of his career. These limitations are also evident in the ways that Scorsese more directly and less organically quotes other films; such as the sub-Godardian montage of stills from a magazine spread devoted to Rio Bravo. “The End” sequence, featuring four women set in various poses alongside and with J. R. – including Anne Collette, who coincidentally featured in several of Godard’s early shorts (10) – doesn’t really move much beyond an often stunning exercise in editing and the exploration of the relationship between image and sound. As at various other points in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, we see the development of Scorsese’s trademark juxtaposition of often gritty image with found rock and pop score, a technique that is most dynamically demonstrated in the slow-motion and endlessly dissolving party sequence featuring Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” from 1963 (a song subsequently used by Brian De Palma, a close compadre of Scorsese, in Carlito’s Way, 1993).
But “The End” sequence also highlights a couple of other key links to Scorsese’s broader oeuvre. First, this somewhat unmotivated sequence is unclearly marked in terms of its status as either fantasy or objective reality. Like many moments in Scorsese’s cinema, and including throughout his latest film, Shutter Island (2010), it blurs the key distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity, drawing you into the world and obsessions of the character but also into a more distanced, critical space. Although this is partly a result of the truly non-sequitor nature of this particular sequence, it does characterise the film in general. Second, the sequence’s often spellbinding technique relates to the rest of the film and also departs from it. This is in keeping with the director’s broader work. Scorsese’s films are notoriously difficult to pin down and summarise stylistically and tonally, eternally restless, almost jazz-like in their deployment of varied shot lengths, editing patterns, camera techniques and even storytelling. Too often in Who’s That Knocking at My Door this technique seems to separate itself out from the characters and their situations – a fusion of form, style and content that would only fully come together in Who’s That Knocking at My Door’s sister film, Mean Streets.
Although Scorsese himself has been quite dismissive of his first extended effort, it does provide a fascinating, visceral and often markedly physical record of his development as a filmmaker (and of a particular place and time now vanished). Despite his dissatisfaction with the film, it has his fingerprints – and those of his long-time collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker – all over it. The difficult and varied conditions the film was shot under, at numerous points in time with various actors and different equipment and stock, are fully evident in the piecemeal, episodic and endlessly shifting surface of the film. Made on a very limited budget of around $75000, and initially conceived as Scorsese’s postgraduate project, the film’s protracted and less-than-fully-professional production history is plainly evident in the noticeably ageing Keitel, as well as the changing length and dimensions of his haircut.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is in many ways an “experimental” or exploratory film. Its experimentation is mainly restricted to the ways in which it tries on particular devices – such as the freeze frame, kinetic editing, low-key lighting – and explores a circular, temporally dislocated and, at times, elliptical form of plotting (relying extensively on crosscutting between two times and spheres of action). It is, of course, some distance from the lyrical and structuralist concerns of the American avant-garde cinema of the 1960s, and its fairly dominant New York chapter, but it does have close links to the work of Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Jim McBride and Jonas Mekas. In this context, Who’s That Knocking at My Door shares a similar space to such late ’60s underground films as McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and De Palma’s Greetings (1968). In contrast to the more politically charged work of De Palma and the more playful and knowing self-reflexivity of McBride, Scorsese’s film comes across as overly earnest and even buttoned down. But it is remarkable for its portrayal of repression and quickly outdated values, the kinds of views and perspectives that became deeply unfashionable for the late 1960s “counterculture”. In this context, and despite its naïveté, Who’s That Knocking at My Door should be commended for presenting a complicated and often dislikeable protagonist who struggles to navigate the passage between cultural influence and cultural aspiration, between the propulsively slinky salsa rhythms of Ray Barretto and the soft, sophisticated bossa-nova wash of Getz and Gilberto.
- J. Hoberman, Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991, p. 77.
- See, for example, the reviews of the film that accompanied its limited late 1976 British release: Derek Elley, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, Films and Filming vol. 23, no. 1, issue 265, October 1976, p. 42; Tom Milne, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 43, no. 512, September 1976, p. 203.
- Milne, p. 203.
- Since the brilliant Casino (1995), an appropriately terminal film, Scorsese’s best work has been in the field of documentary: Il mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy, 1999) and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). But even some of his documentaries have been surprisingly pedestrian: The Blues: Feel Like Going Home (2004) and Shine a Light (2008).
- For an extended comparison of Shadows and Who’s That Knocking at My Door see Leighton Grist, The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963-77: Authorship and Context, Macmillan Press, Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2000, pp. 28-9. Cassavetes was actually a great champion of Scorsese’s film, seeing the younger man as a like-minded spirit with a connected approach to both filmmaking and the neighbourhoods of New York.
- Pudding Thieves is one of the key works of 1960s Australian cinema. It was completed over a four-year-period on a very low budget. Made under the auspices of the Melbourne University Film Society, it was also highly indebted to the work of the nouvelle vague. Like Who’s That Knocking at My Door, its long period of gestation resulted in a degree of datedness when it finally premiered in September 1967.
- Scorsese during the commentary included on the Warner Home Video DVD release of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, 2004.
- This is yet another example of the nascent or formative quality of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Scorsese returns to The Searchers in a variety of ways in such films as Mean Streets – where it is one of the films the characters go to see – and Taxi Driver – which significantly reworks the narrative form and themes of Ford’s film.
- See Who’s That Knocking at My Door DVD commentary.
- These shorts include: Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (All the Boys are Called Patrick, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959); and Charlotte et son Jules (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960).
Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968 USA 90 mins)
Prod Co: Trimod Films Prod: Joseph Weill, Betzi Manoogian, Haig Manoogian Dir, Scr: Martin Scorsese Phot: Michael Wadleigh, Richard H. Coll Ed: Thelma Schoonmaker Art Dir: Victor Magnotta
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Lennard Kuras, Michael Scala, Harry Northup, Ann (Anne) Collette, Tsuai Yu-Lan, Saskia Holleman