Year of Release: 1967 Directed Martin Scorsese. Starring Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune, Harry Northup, and Anne Collette.
With his debut film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Martin Scorsese laid the groundwork for nearly all of his future films. Almost every theme that he explores in his later works is present here. An individual isolating himself through his selfish choices, (Raging Bull, Shutter Island) the difficulties and dangers of coping with a toxic native environment, (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, The Departed) the importance of family and connections, (The Age of Innocence) and finally the importance of cinema in transforming our lives. (Hugo) Scorsese’s integration of all these themes into a coherent, well crafted film is impressive, and his artistic talent was clearly apparent even in his earliest years as a filmmaker.
J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is a young Italian American living in inner city New York, frequenting bars, hanging out with gangsters, and trying to win the heart of a young girl (Zina Bethune) whom he finds attractive. He fondly recalls first meeting her as they bonded while chatting about the movie magazine that she was reading. When she expressed ignorance of the movie poster pictured in the magazine, J.R. incredulously and excitedly explained the importance of John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers, one of the “greatest films ever made.” (Scorsese has said he would include The Searchers in his personal top ten list.)
The choice of John Wayne in The Searchers is significant. In John Ford’s classic western, Wayne portrayed a character so immersed in his worldview and his prejudices that he was unable to break away from them. When a woman he loved came into his life, Wayne was unable to adapt and see things from her perspective. It is clear that this situation is also J. R.’s. When he learns a tragic and challenging aspect of his girlfriend’s life, his own prejudices and misconceptions threaten his ability for reconciliation.
It is possible to interpret J. R.’s final actions as an attempt at repentance, or it could be him withdrawing into the culture that he knows and finds comforting, even though that culture is damaging his ability to interact in the actual world. Either interpretation is plausible, although I am inclined to go with the latter. That interpretation also introduces significant moral issues into the film, because J. R.’s known culture to which he turns at the film’s end is his Catholic upbringing. Faith certainly is something that many people turn to after tragedy or personal crisis, and it is completely believable that J. R. would do so. However, it is all too possible that the film is suggesting that reliance on faith is a weakness that ultimately makes life more difficult, which The Searchers reference would seem to reinforce.
Throughout the film J. R. is clearly conflicted about his choices and actions. He refrains from having sex with his girlfriend because there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in his bedroom, but out on the streets he has no problem imagining lengthy scenes of intense sexual intercourse with attractive hookers. He blesses himself before pummeling a guy over the head with a heavy stick. Sitting in a bar filled with pornographic photos, he recalls the innocent and heartfelt first meeting with his girlfriend.
The film is composed with abrupt edits between J.R.’s dream sequences and reality. This technique employed Thelma Schoonmaker, who would become by Scorsese’s longtime editor, heightens the sense of unease and guilt from which J. R. suffers; he is a character who is searching, and the film searches with him.
Unfortunately, restraint was not a virtue that Scorsese learned until several years later in his career. Both Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door suffer from Scorsese’s decision to film his source material in a very raw manner with very little editing or caution in presenting the sordid material. Taxi Driver was one of the first film in which he clearly understood the horrific events that he was depicting, and exercised discretion in selecting what he showed on film. Also, unlike J. R., in Taxi Driver Robert De Niro’s protagonist was able to portray genuine isolation and inner conflict without relying on edits between fantasy and reality.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door did sow the seeds for the future career of Scorsese, but it took him several years to overcome his early weaknesses, to which he still occasionally reverts, and craft some true works of art.
Content Advisory: An extended and explicit sexual fantasy with gratuitous nudity, juxtaposition of Catholicism with morally questionable behavior, fleeting shots of nude photos, and occasional profanity and violence. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: D+