Martin Scorsese’s Early Professional Work (1967-1970)

After the release of director Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), he found himself the recipient of attention from advertising agencies, who wanted him to bring his fresh, bold style to the world of commercials. The relative infancy of educational filmmaking institutions at the time meant that there was a relatively small pool of directing graduates, thus it was relatively easy to gain attention after making a film and parlay that into a full-time career. That’s not to belittle Scorsese’s achievement, it’s simply a statement of fact— the odds of something like that happening in today’s media-saturated world are slim to none. As the 1960’s drew to a close, the young Scorsese’s world was opening up. He made his first trip to Europe, immersing himself in its culture and applying his expanded worldview to his art while he made a living directing commercials.


During this busy, exciting time, Scorsese was able to fit in another short called THE BIG SHAVE—his first work in color. The film takes place entirely in a colorless bathroom as a man undergoes his morning shaving ritual—only this particular morning he shaves until his face bleeds profusely, finishing it off by slitting his throat and letting the blood pour into the sink. Shot by cinematographer Ares Demertzis mostly in punchy closeups, THE BIG SHAVE acts as something of a color study, studying the contrast of dark red blood against the pristine ivory sink with an almost fetishistic curiosity. While the short definitely stays consistent with Scorsese’s career-long fascination with visceral violence and bloodshed, it also plays to the iconography of his Roman Catholic heritage—specifically the Old World notion of self-flagellation and punishment as a way to redeem one’s sins. It’s a pretty morbid piece of work, especially because of the playful big-band jazz song that Scorsese uses to counterbalance the macabre action.


As I previously mentioned above, Scorsese’s first commissioned gigs saw him traveling abroad for the first time. I was only able to find out about three commercials he made during this period, and only one of them is actually available online. Scorsese’s spot for ICELANDIC AIRLINES is generally credited as his first commercial, and whatever information is available for his REVLON spot doesn’t leave a lot to go of off. The commercial that is publicly available—done for ARMANI—is interesting in how it is at once both anonymous in authorship (as most commercials are) and indicative of Scorsese’s hand. Presented in artful black and white, the spot features a young woman teaching a young man Italian—so right off the bat there’s the nod towards Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Furthermore, the spot takes place in a baroque space that suggests something not unlike a Catholic cathedral.


Perhaps Scorsese’s most significant work from this period remains publicly unavailable—the 1970 feature documentary STREET SCENES. The first of many documentaries that Scorsese would make throughout his career, STREET SCENEScovers two historical rallies held to protest the war in Vietnam: New York City’s Hard Hat Riots and the Kent State protests in Washington DC. The New York protest turns violent, which no doubt resulted in visceral footage. The film also features interviews with his WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR star, Harvey Keitel, as well as feature collaborators Jay Cocks and Verna Bloom. Coincidentally, one of Scorsese’s camera operators on the film was a young Oliver Stone. Unfortunately, STREET SCENES was never released on home video, which seems like a huge oversight given the historical importance of its subject matter. The creation of STREET SCENES illustrates Scorsese’s desire to explore social issues not just in a narrative context, but also in a real-world one. Indeed, Scorsese is one of the very few filmmakers who can regularly alternate between fiction and documentary and provide consistently brilliant quality.

This busy time saw the young Scorsese developing and experimenting with his aesthetic while mingling with an older generation of artists who recognized his considerable talent. After WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR, Scorsese cultivated a friendship and mentorship with independent film icon John Cassavetes, but his next feature project would come as a result of his association with an independent filmmaker of a very different kind—exploitation king Roger Corman.