Martin Scorsese's first feature film is a Frankensteined piece of work stitched together from a 16mm NYU film school project and new footage shot anywhere from three to five years later. The story is slim. A young man from New York falls in love with a beautiful girl, but because of his Catholic upbringing, he leaves her she tells him she was once raped on a date and is no longer a virgin. After a night of carousing with his buddies and some local "broads" who are nearly gang-raped, he has an epiphany and goes back to her to make up, but blows it anyway. It might not be much of a story, but it is actually more than you'll find in MEAN STREETS.
WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? is instantly recognizable as a Scorsese film. It resembles MEAN STREETS, with its similar gang of loud young Italian hoods in New York City hanging out at bars, arguing and drinking. These scenes come from the original 16mm film and are more identifiably "Scorsese" than the later footage featuring Harvey Keitel and actress Zina Bethune.
Because the film was created over five years, with only Keitel available from the original cast for the added scenes, the story is non-linear. Although Bob Dylan hadn't written it yet, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR could have been called TANGLED UP IN BLUE, as it shares that classic song's Picasso-like view of time. We are never quite sure exactly where we are in the story, if some scenes are Keitel's memories or simply real-time events. Keitel's changing appearance adds to the confusion, especially when scenes are edited together from old and new footage. Keitel somehow manages to stay in character, and establishes himself as an actor of great promise.
The film is most notable for Scorsese's pioneering use of popular music that appears on the soundtrack from no identifiable on-screen source. Background music had first appeared in the days of silent films, but Scorsese perfected the art of using pop and rock hits in his films to underscore the action or mood of his scenes. George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI is most likely responsible for the explosion of such soundtracks in films, but even in that film, the music was always coming from car radios or jukeboxes. Scorsese simply imported rock songs into his soundtracks as if they were music specifically composed for the film. His use of The Doors "The End" in this film to create a strange, otherworldly mood was later copied by Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW. And there is no better filmic depiction in all of Scorsese that displays his struggle between the real world and the Catholic world he grew up in than the scene where Harvey Keitel goes into church to confess his sins, and a montage of religious icons are displayed while the doo-wop raveup "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" blares away on the soundtrack. This technique, thought up by Scorsese after seeing two bums stumble home one night while somewhere, somebody was playing Fats Domino's "When My Dreamboat Comes Home", would show up in many of his films. Once seen, it is hard to forget the use of The Rolling Stones' "Tell Me" to establish the mood of MEAN STREETS, or Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" to underscore the menace of the scene where Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta discuss knocking off Morrie the wig salesman.
WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? is a bit of a mess, but it is a mess made by a budding genius, and as the prototype for such classics as MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS, it should be seen by every Scorsese fan. - JB.
Catherine Scorsese, Martin's mother, has appeared in several of her son's films, most delightfully as Joe Pesci's mother in GOODFELLAS, where she feeds her son and his "friends", lending them her good good carving knife, blissfully unaware that it is going to be use to chop up a body. In WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, she is the first person on screen, and is once again making dinner. You can also catch Catherine in Francis Coppola's THE GODFATHER PART III as one of the women telling Joey Zaza how the neighborhood is going to hell.