The Gangster Priest

By John V. Brennan

"Martin Scorsese makes pictures about the kind of people you wouldn't want to know."
    -- Variety review of Raging Bull

     The fall of the Production Code and the arrival of the 1970s ushered in a slew of young, talented visionaries, such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.  Spielberg emerged as the Paul McCartney of the group (in the best sense), keeping audiences happy with perfectly-made gems of entertainment like Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy.  Coppola made three classics in a row in The Godfather, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, and followed it with one of the greatest overblown flawed masterpieces of all time, Apocalypse Now.  But, despite this impressive competition, and more, including Woody Allen and Robert Altman, it is Martin Scorsese whom most still consider to be the best director of his generation.

Marty and Bob     This despite Variety's quite correct assessment that that Scorsese movies often feature protagonists whom, in real life, you would do your best to avoid.   Despite also, it should be said, Scorsese having more than his share of box office disappointments, including some which have gone on to become his most revered films.  You know all those friends of yours who can quote reams of dialogue from THE KING OF COMEDY?  Well, when it was released in 1983, it died at the box office.  Scorsese's reputation really rests on a few films, especially TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, which are so outstanding, that despite their unsavory characters and unpleasant subject matter, they automatically propel Scorsese into the top ranks of Greatest Directors of All Time.

     Yet there is so much more to Scorsese than TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, or the popular GOODFELLAS.  Scorsese  has directed lavish period pieces such as THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, KUNDUN and GANGS OF NEW YORK.  He's had mainstream hits with ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE, THE COLOR OF MONEY and the remake of CAPE FEAR.  He's helmed comedies such as THE KING OF COMEDY and AFTER HOURS.   He's dabbled in musical productions, not only with the fictional NEW YORK NEW YORK but also with two outstanding documentaries THE LAST WALTZ and NO DIRECTION HOME.  Want a religious epic Scorsese-style?  Check out THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.  A Biography?  THE AVIATOR.  I haven't even mentioned MEAN STREETS, which, some would argue, is his greatest film, or CASINO, which may be his most aurally and visually dazzling.

     Scorsese is a walking film encyclopedia who is just as likely to be influenced by a Hope and Crosby routine as a classic shot or scene from Bergman or Hitchcock.  His style is as eclectic as the films he has made.  Nevertheless, when you think of Scorsese, several obvious things come to mind.  Staccato dialogue, often improvised, that more often than not reveal a complete lack of communication between characters.  Masterful traveling shots, such as in GOODFELLAS when Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the nightclub from the back door and travel through hallways and kitchens right up to the floor show.  Rock classics such as underscoring scenes to perfection (who can forget the use of the piano section from Eric Clapton's "Layla" in the scene in GOODFELLAS where mob bodies keep popping up in the strangest places?).  Seemingly calm situations often exploding into violence and murder.  Characters stuck between their religious upbringings and the amoral nature of their livelihoods.

     But most of all, you think of Robert De Niro.  As John Wayne was to John Ford and Toshiro Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa, Robert De Niro was the ideal actor to bring Scorsese's characters to life.  They came from the same New York neighborhood, and, as luck would have it, they both grew up committed to the craft of making movies, albeit from different sides of the camera.  As often as Scorsese is called the greatest director of his time, De Niro is called the greatest actor.  Together, they brought out the best in each other in films like MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE KING OF COMEDY, GOODFELLAS and CASINO.

      Scorsese rose to fame in the the 1970s, when directors ruled Hollywood.  He rode out the 1980's with an impressive series of of hits and misses, and now, in the new studio era, when producers and corporations consider a good movie to be one that makes money, Scorsese is still making the films he wants to make.  He is a survivor. 

Martin Scorsese     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

Copyright © John V. Brennan, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Stuff You Gotta Watch
Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee