Notable Festivals: Chicago
Nowadays, going to college to pursue filmmaking is almost as commonplace as studying law or economics. Nobody bats an eye when a young man or woman declares his or her intentions to become a filmmaker (except maybe for the parents shouldering those insane tuition fees). It’s hard to believe, in the late 60’s when the idea of “film school” was new and untested, that pursuing a profession in film carried a certain stigma with it. That first class of school-taught filmmakers, comprised of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, or George Lucas, would prove invaluable in legitimizing the idea of film schools as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s top cinematic talents. Sometime in the mid-60’s, a young man named Martin Scorsese was sitting in a film history course at New York University and found himself struck by his professor’s sheer enthusiasm and love for cinema, beginning a journey that bring him to the forefront of his particular generation of filmmakers.
The young Scorsese would try his hand at filmmaking by directing two shorts during his undergraduate studies—WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963), and IT’S JUST NOT YOU, MURRAY! (1964). However, the real test would come in the form of a student short he embarked on the following year—a film about rambunctious young Italian men called BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS. He might not have known it at the time, but what he was reallyembarking on was his very first feature film—albeit the process of how it came to be deviated greatly from conventional processes. In 1967, Scorsese added a romantic sublot with actress Zina Bethune to the short and changed the title to I CALL FIRST, eventually screening it at the Chicago Film Festival the following year (and even earning high praise from a young Roger Ebert). This led to the film’s acquisition by exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner, who forced the young director to add in a gratuitous sex scene (spliced quite literally into the middle of a dialogue scene) and retitle the film to WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.
The film takes place in a world the young Scorsese knew quite well: the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan. JR (Harvey Keitel, in his first of several collaborations with Scorsese) is a young hood who spends his days raising hell around town with his no-good friends, and his nights getting his kicks with an endless rotation of loose women he dismisses as “broads”. He’s a little bit of a dreamer, but for all his open-mindedness, he can’t help fall in line with the community mentality towards women. One day, he meets a girl (the aforementioned Bethune and the first of many Scorsese blondes) on the Staten Island Ferry and is taken with her effortless charms and virginal purity. They begin a courtship, bonding over their differences as well as their similarities (for instance, a shared obsession with movies). When JR announces to the girl that he wants to marry her, she reveals a dark secret about her past—a few years ago, she was raped while on a date with another boy. JR is unable to deal with the revelation and storms off into the night for a round of raucous partying with his friends. Unable to forget her, he returns to her apartment the next morning to say that he’s forgiven her—but it’s not forgiveness that the girl seeks, and their incompatibility as a couple is ultimately revealed. A relatively simple narrative told in an endlessly complex fashion, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR shares its provocative insights into the double standards that men impose on women. It has lost none of its relevancy considering today’s problems with rape culture and attitudes of entitlement that perpetuate the objectification of women.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was cobbled together over the course of several years and different shoots, so the cinematography varies throughout its brisk running time. Michael Wadleigh and Richard Coll are credited as the directors of photography, shooting on a mix of 35mm and 16mm black and white film. At first glance, Scorsese’s stylistic approach here reads like a grab bag of French New Wave tricks: handheld camerawork, jump cuts, fast-pacing, cross-cutting, non-chronological ordering, and impressionistic flourishes (like a party sequence rendered in slow motion). Independent filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes was a big influence on Scorsese, and the mark of Cassavetes’ 1959 film SHADOWS can be felt in every frame of Scorsese’s debut. Thelma Schoonmaker had the unenviable job of piecing together no less than three separate stories and shoots into one coherent whole in the editing room. For her efforts, she would be rewarded with a long, fruitful working relationship with Scorsese as his regular editor—a relationship that continues to this day.
Scorsese is credited with helping to popularize the use of contemporary rock music in modern American cinema, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR gives us our first glimpse at the young director’s musical affectations. Scorsese populates the soundtrack with several jukebox and doo-wop hits. They may sound antiquated to us today, but back in the 1960’s, these songs had the establishment clutching their proverbial pearls. The standout is the use of The Doors’ “This Is The End” during JR’s sex fantasy in the middle of the film, predating Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the song in APOCALYPSE NOW by nearly twelve years. The sound of Scorsese’s music may have changed over the course of his career, but the character remains the same— full of vitality, energy, and rebellious spirit.
Scorsese’s early work deals heavily with Catholic concepts of redemption and guilt, as well as how it relates to the Italian American experience in New York. In this regard, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR is perhaps the bluntest instrument of the bunch, hammering its themes home with extended montages of old world Catholic iconography—cathedrals, statues of Mary, Christ on the cross, prayer candles, etc. The love plot serves as a prototypical form of the classic Scorsese romance archetype—a man comes to love a woman who appears like a vision out of a crowd (usually a blonde wearing white), promising to be his salvation from a brutal world— but when she fails to live up to his exacting, ultimately unrealistic standards of purity and innocence, discord most surely ensues. This Madonna/Whore complex runs through Scorsese’s work—it even pops up in his most recent narrative feature, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). It’s a conceit deeply rooted in the social and religious structures of Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Other hallmarks of Scorsese’s work—depictions of violence as messy and chaotic and cameos by his mother Catherine Scorsese—make their first appearance in the young director’s scrappy debut.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was a strong, albeit technically flawed debut that heralded the arrival of a major new voice in American cinema. It brought Scorsese to the attention of commercial production companies as well as the studios, and it saw the beginning of a long series of fruitful collaborations with Thelma Schoonmaker and Harvey Keitel. It may have been overshadowed by the visceral power of his better-known masterpieces, but it holds it own as a daring entry in the annals of independent film. After an adolescence spent idolizing the cinema as a spectator, Scorsese was now officially a participant—and the art form would never be the same.
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers.
Produced by: Betzi Manoogian, Haig Manoogian, Joseph Weill
Written by: Martin Scorsese
Director of Photography: Michael Wadleigh, Richard Coll
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker