Martin Scorsese’s American Express Commercials (2004)

2004 was one of the busier years for director Martin Scorsese, who had been showing no signs of slowing down in his sixty-two years. Indeed, he was on the cusp of a new act in his career, which would see him garner international acclaim and recognition and establish his legacy as one of America’s pre-eminent stewards of the film art form. He was putting the finishing touches on THE AVIATOR, his follow-up feature to 2002’s GANGS OF NEW YORK that was scheduled for release later on that year. He also found time to direct a television documentary for the History Channel, LADY THE SEA: THE STATUE OF LIBERTY (2004), commissioned to commemorate the grand re-opening of the iconic New York landmark after its closure following 9/11. The documentary was produced in partnership with American Express, who also hired Scorsese that same year to direct two commercials that paid homage to the treasured filmmaker and his relationship with New York City.


The first spot out of the gate was an ad produced in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival, a New York-based festival established by actor Robert De Niro. Serving as an unofficial reunion between the star and his longtime director, “TRIBECA”features De Niro walking the streets of New York while reflecting on his relationship to its people and culture. Scorsese creates a somber mood, bathing the frame in a monochromatic cobalt cast, cutting away from De Niro’s weathered mug to the clash of cultures that the city plays host to on a daily basis. While the reunion is fleeting and doesn’t offer much in the way of growth for either man, it’s nice to see them working together once again after their last collaboration nearly ten years prior in CASINO.


The second spot, “ONE HOUR PHOTO” features Scorsese himself in front of the camera, lampooning his image with a gag that sees him obsessing over how the photos he took at his nephew’s birthday party turned out. It’s a pretty memorable ad, one that distinctly stood out to me when it first aired and that I still remember fondly. The spot manages to capture the peculiar manic energy and rapier wit of Scorsese via the fast-paced editing and the curious choice to compose his set-ups with a large degree of headroom. An interesting note about this spot is that it really reinforces a particular perception of Scorsese’s character that was taking hold at the time—the idea of Scorsese as “Uncle Marty”, a jovial, grandfatherly man with a big heart and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. This is far removed from the young man Scorsese was at the beginning of his career: hoovering up lines of cocaine and threatening studio executives with handguns. We all tend to become gentler and mellowed out as we grow older, and the name of “Uncle Marty” becomes perhaps the best way to describe the master filmmaker during his late career resurgence.