Thursday, September 29, 2016

Directorial Debut: Martin Scorsese's WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR

Welcome to a new installment of DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS, where we look at some of the best, most interesting, and iconic directors and the films that started their careers. This week we take a look at the debut of master director Martin Scorsese with the film WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.

Martin Scorsese is literally one of those directors who needs no introduction. As one of the most significant filmmakers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he has defined and influenced modern cinema in many ways. Whether it was his groundbreaking films of the 70s and 80s, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, his gangland masterpieces of the 90s and 00s, like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, or his bold prestige pictures of today, like Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the upcoming film Silence, Scorsese has never flinched and has been delivering great films for the better part of four and a half decades. Although he had done some short films earlier, Martin Scorsese got his feature directorial debut with the 1967 film Who’s That Knocking at My Door.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door is a drama/romance film that follows J.R. (played by Harvey Keitel in his feature film debut) as he falls in love with a girl (who is never named, played by Zina Bethune) and the two struggle with a certain conflict that is brought to bear in the film. There is a parallel story in the film featuring a number of characters we later find out to be J.R.’s friends as they banter and live as Italians in New York. Generally, this film shows certain aspects that we came to admire from Scorsese and there is definitely talent behind (and in-front of) the camera. Despite this, however, this film has a very strange story-structure that also contained certain elements that were very uncomfortable as a modern viewer looking backwards. There are also certain technical problems that showed from inexperience and small budget.

Beginning with the positives, there are certain aspects of the direction that show the promise of the great director we would see over the coming decades. His actors all play comfortably around each other as believable humans. There are moments that could have been more explosive and have more of those “Oscar moments” but the choice to make certain situations more quiet still worked. Scorsese also does a good job at developing shots and moving the camera. There is one particular shot focusing on one character as we see the other’s reactions in a mirror next to him (shot depicted below). It was such a captivating shot and is just one of many subtle examples in this film of the skill Scorsese would one day bring to his big-screen masterpieces.

This film also showed off Scorsese’s true passion for film and music. The two lead characters bond over the movies and the famous John Wayne westerns (which were, at the time, contemporary films). The film using striking and boldly highlighted music throughout certain scenes showed off Scorsese’s interest in that element of film. I think that experiencing the love that drips out of these elements of the film almost makes this film worth watching in an attempt to understand the Martin Scorsese we would see over the many years of his illustrious career.

The final positive I want to note is the performance given by newcomer Harvey Keitel. Much like Scorsese, he went on to be a great actor and it is easy to see why from this film. His character has an interesting struggle and I think he brought exactly what was needed of the character. There are certainly problems with how the character was written (which I will get to) but Keitel brings a special something to this role which is really commendable in a film of this sort.

This film has some serious problems despite the promise a lot of the players show. They mostly surround the writing (done by Scorsese) and story-structure. There are smaller technical issues as well. These included some weak editing, strange unrelated cut scenes, as well as some unacceptably bad ADR work to make up for having the camera far away from the actors to get a cool shot. Those issues aside, I will now go through the story issues. Without spoiling anything, the story was uncomfortable in a modern context (and frankly should have been uncomfortable at the time) and the parallel story felt entirely unrelated to the main plot and should have been absent in its entirety.

This paragraph will contain spoilers because there is no other way to express qualms with what this film does to make for a reasonable critique. Please skip to the paragraph below for the close of this review if you want to avoid spoilers. The main snag that the leads hit in their relationship is J.R.’s catholic morality about only marrying a woman who was a virgin whereas the unnamed female lead is not because she was previously raped (which is shown to the audience). J.R. at first accuses her of possibly lying to him about it and later apologizes. But, when turned away by the girl who accepts (for some reason) that he won’t ever be able to get over this moral issue, he decides to call her a “whore” (which he again apologizes for). The film leaves the story with her sending him away at which point he goes to a church and fails to find solace in religion in lieu of the lost relationship. The huge issue with this story arc is that it puts the audience in a position where they’re supposed to have some understanding of why this guy is victim-shaming the female lead. And it does so in a circumstance where the audience knows that J.R. is indeed wrong from the outset because we see that she was raped. The film generally goes about showing the females in this film as largely objects and uncomfortably so. I couldn’t appreciate the struggle J.R. was going through because (despite Keitel’s great work) the situation itself was so absurdly wrong it was very uncomfortable to watch. The biggest failure in all of this is that I don’t really know if it even had a good point (or a point at all). Maybe it’s trying to say that we shouldn’t get too hung up on religious mores because it isn’t more fulfilling than love? Maybe it’s trying to say that women don’t have value if they’ve had sex? It’s really unclear and with a plot point as disturbing to the senses and dramatic as this it really failed to land cinematically.

Overall, this film has a lot of elements that show the promise of a good director and a solid cast but it unfortunately has deeply troubling and problematic story issues and technical issues that make it a troubling and overall weak film in a filmography of a genius. Scorsese thankfully moved on from this to bigger and better things and this is more or less a vestigial mark of history that is interesting in that respect alone.

Ryan’s Score: 4/10

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