In this series, I’ll be taking you through some of the great minds of 20th century film-making and trying to offer a ‘way-in’ for those who want to explore films of the past but don’t really know where to start. As the list goes on, the films become progressively less ‘accessible’ to first-time viewers, so work your way through them or if a story summary really grabs you then start there and work around it. Some may be for you and some won’t strike any chords regardless of how many times you see them- but you gotta start somewhere, right? This time around: Martin Scorsese, the man with the music.
If you’re starting with the worthy, best-picture winning modern classic starring contemporary starts Di Caprio and Damon or going a little further back to De Niro and Pesci’s genre defining epic that should have won best picture back in 1990- the effect will be the same. Both are smart, stylish, infinitely accessible crime films telling stories of double-crossing rats in the mob and FBI- and then the story of a three decade rise through the mafia respectively. Pick one and then see the other straight afterwards because both are just as worthy of your time and attention as anything that comes out this year, if not more so.
Going back to his roots, next dive into Scorsese’s first big directorial debut in Mean Streets- featuring all of the fantastic techniques that have become hallmarks of his filmography except all the more raw on their first outing. It’s a test run weathered a little by time and the repetitive scrawl of a script read in the same voice by six different actors- but Mean Streets still stands as a movie you should see if you’re getting into Scorsese, at least for what might be cinema’s best opening title sequence.
The biographical tale of Jake LaMotta, the boxer with a domestic life akin to the hellish nightmare that was the Vietnam War- I’m not as big of a fan of Raging Bull as most. You’ll find it on any respectable ‘best of’ list for 1980, the 80s and film as a whole- ranking right at or at least very near the top on nearly every occasion. What I thought at first glance was the film that inspired Rocky (I was ten, to be fair) turned out to be a searing, passionate portrait of domestic conflict and the addictive nature of violence that is still just as powerful today as it was on release- one particular scene still standing as the finest piece of screen acting I have seen to date. Such anger flows through this film, such hatred and rage- that it is far more testing than the bloody violence of GoodFellas and Mean Streets- and indeed the focus-swap from devil-may-care (and occasionally does deeply) gangster odyssey to slow, harsh, often brutal biopic of a barbaric boxer may jar some. Rest assured: Raging Bull is worth finishing, even if it’s just so you can sit back and say to yourself “I did it”.
Chronicling the obsessive, psychotic and most importantly lonely life of Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver is the finest portrayal of isolation ever put to the silver-screen. It’s a sure-fire masterpiece brimming from head-to-toe with sublime moments of subtle intimacy with our ‘protagonist’ [?]- Slowly spiraling into frenzied madness that will rock you to the very core. Harakiri may have done it first and arguably just as well- but we all remember the ending of Taxi Driver to this day for a very good reason. Not grabbing you the first time around? Sit it out and wait for the thunder and lightning to strike; because Scorsese has never struck gold this good since. It was and still is the man’s magnum opus. Well, if not for…
The King Of Comedy
Is this Martin Scorsese’s best film? If so, it’s certainly his most overlooked. King Of Comedy follows Rupert Pupkin, the screen’s most delightfully awquard psychopath, and his quest to carve out a place as one of the great comedy stars of the century. I said in my glowing review that this is a film in which what is going on in the foreground is nowhere near as impressive as the startling subtext and unmatched technique that lies beneath, so not an easy watch nor a film that is at first easy to appreciate. Indeed perhaps the reason it has failed to penetrate pop-culture quite like Raging Bull or GoodFellas have is this surface simplicity- hiding an ocean of pertinent, piercing social commentaries and masterfully understated film-making. King Of Comedy is not an easy instant gratification flick but rather, a-la The Big Lebowski and Deliverance, one that reveals unquestionable greatness if you’re willing to put in the time to find it.