Reassessing Martin Scorsese's legacy

Think Martin Scorsese's films are all about gangsters, violence and mayhem? Think again

Feature by Film Team | 03 Feb 2017
  • Taxi Driver

Is there a filmmaker who’s been more misrepresented by film culture than Martin Scorsese? Perceived wisdom tells us he’s cinema’s great ambassador for movie violence, a chronicler of gangsters, thugs and lowlifes. When you hear the director's name you're likely to conjure up an image of Taxi Driver’s racist vigilante Travis Bickle, grinning while wearing his mohawk and shades, or the tortured masculinity of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a brute who was as vicious outside the ring as within it.

Curators and programmers seem to be under the same illusion: that Marty is our pre-eminent maker of cinema violence, the connecting tissue between Peckinpah and Tarantino. Just look at the promotional material for BFI’s Martin Scorsese season, which runs at BFI Southbank until 28 February, for evidence. Its trailer promises blood, gunshots, explosions and an immersion into the grittiest streets of New York City. The promo’s opening quote from the director himself – “I can’t really envision a time when I’m not shooting something” – even plays with this notion. The Scorsese films that get re-released and repackaged back into cinemas stick to this narrative too. It’s early in 2017, but by the end of the month the UK will have seen two of Scorsese's most brutal films back in theatres: a new print of Goodfellas was released 20 Jan, and Taxi Driver is coming up 10 Feb. 

Crunch the numbers, however, and you realise quite quickly that this reputation is unearned. Yes, films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York and The Departed run red with blood and bad guys, and B-movie thrillers like Boxcar Bertha, Shutter Island and Cape Fear simmer with the threat of violence, but beyond these ten titles you’ll find an additional 15 plus films in Scorsese’s oeuvre that help make it one of the most diverse and rewarding in modern cinema.

He’s made a surreal screwball comedy (After Hours), a kids’ film (Hugo), a sumptuous Edith Wharton adaptation (The Age of Innocence), a Dalai Lama biopic (Kundun), a feminist road movie (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a yarn about pool hall hustlers (The Colour of Money), a satire about Wall Street swindlers (The Wolf of Wall Street), a musical (New York, New York), an elegiac concert film (The Last Waltz), a study on the humanity and fallibility of Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ) and, most recently, a historical epic about the attack on Catholicism in 17th-century Japan (Silence).

Below are The Skinny Film team's favourite Scorsese films outside his narrow gangster canon – many of them crying out for rerelease and reappraisal.

After Hours (1985)

After Hours

Scorsese's aptitude for comedy is too often overlooked in favour of his preoccupations with low-life violence and Catholic guilt, but nowhere is it more apparent than in After Hours.

Taken on during the jobbing director's wilderness years in which he struggled to secure backing for The Last Temptation of Christ, the project is nevertheless the work of a committed, driven auteur. A wilfully surreal screenplay from Joseph Minion is handled with deadpan assurance, the 1980s 'yuppie nightmare cycle' at its heart allowing for Scorsese to explore the tensions between New York's gritty urban landscapes and the gentrification encroaching upon them.

Griffin Dunne's office drone is hopelessly ill-equipped for a night in Soho that sees his every attempt to escape thwarted. Ricocheting between neurotic artists and local hoodlums, he conveys both longing and dread toward his day job, before a sense of exhausted zen sets in. The city will eat him alive and this is precisely what makes it so special. [Lewis Porteous]

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

To paraphrase the title of this exuberant, delightfully rough-hewn melodrama, it’s kind of a shame that Marty doesn’t make movies like this anymore. Scorsese’s first, and so far only, 'women’s picture' features Ellen Burstyn in her Oscar-winning role as Alice Hyatt, a recently widowed housewife approaching middle age who decides to leave the crappy confines of Tucson, Arizona, relocate to her California hometown, and rekindle her long-dormant career as a lounge singer. Desperately short of cash, she gets stuck living in a motel with her smart aleck preteen son, waiting tables in a dreary desert diner populated by assorted misfits.

It’s a lot more fun, and funny, than it sounds. While Scorsese adds a layer of violent menace (the first sequence, an expressionistic reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, is so crimson red the camera lens could have been soaked in blood); his frenetic, freewheeling shots crackle with weird, hopeful energy even during the film’s quiet and quotidian moments. Featuring a slew of outstanding supporting players – Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd, a pint-sized and hilarious Jodie Foster – the movie ultimately lives and dies on Burstyn’s performance. Fortunately she imbues Alice with so much infectious vigour, we want to follow her wherever she ends up living. [Michelle Devereaux]

The Aviator (2004)

The Aviator

Howard Hughes lived an epic life: he was a billionaire, mogul, aviator, and also a mentally ill recluse. Scorsese omits the tragic later years though it’s easy to spot the approaching shadows in the third act, which concludes with Hughes repeating the mantra, “The way of the future.”

Amidst the sumptuous period detail of The Aviator lie a plethora of wonderful performances. Cate Blanchett won a best supporting Oscar for her accomplished Katherine Hepburn, while John C Reilly is typically excellent as Hughes’ unflappable personal assistant; Alec Baldwin (as Pan-Am rival Juan Trippe), and Alan Alda as a slippery senator also register strongly. The Aviator ranks among DiCaprio’s greatest performances; he captures the paradox of Hughes’ character with nuanced conviction.

Hughes endured seven plane crashes, one of which proved almost fatal, and is reproduced in terrifying detail here. Yet again, Scorsese was robbed of a best director statuette – he deserved it for the latter scene alone. [Steve Timm]

Bringing Out the Dead (1998)

Bringing out the Dead

Set in New York in the early 90s, Bringing Out the Dead sent Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader back to the mean streets that Travis Bickle drove his cab through two decades earlier. This late-night trip is played in a very different register, however. As paramedic Frank (Nicolas Cage) spends a weekend of night shifts with three contrasting partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Frank Sizemore), Scorsese throws every filmmaking technique in the book at the movie. Robert Richardson’s luminous cinematography makes the screen explode with light and colour, while Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is visceral and exhilarating.

“Saving someone's life is like falling in love,” Frank tells us. “The best drug in the world.” But he’s a man haunted by the memories of those he’s failed to save, and as we follow Frank on his dark nights of the soul, Scorsese produces some of his most vivid and surprising images. Bringing Out the Dead is propulsive, shocking and hilarious, but it also has one of Scorsese’s quietest and most touching endings, as Frank finally finds a possible way to escape the ghosts and save one more life – his own. [Philip Conncanon]

The Colour of Money (1986)

The Colour of Money

Only Marty could have an Oscar and two of Hollywood’s classic leading men lurking in his ‘lesser’ canon. Its omission from the Scorsese classics list is possibly due to The Color of Money just not feeling quite like a Scorsese film – a grimy Midwest roadtrip, hustling on the green baize, seems more suited to the neo-noir of John Dahl or the like. Scorsese has the good grace to let his distinctive directorial fingerprints evaporate from the film, with the acknowledgement that its primary identity is as the twilight sequel to cult classic The Hustler.

It is a product of fine casting. A 24-year-old Tom Cruise is perfect as poolroom prodigy and petulant brat Vincent (needing to study only the pool, we imagine), while the rundown scenery is decorated with high-end character actors such as John Turturro and Forest Whitaker. At its core of course is the Oscar winning performance of Paul Newman, looking like he’d lived in character as Fast Eddie Felson for the 25 hard years since the original. Felson is a tragically flawed man whose life had been lived and lost on an 8 ball, and the film a sadly beautiful tale which plays like a requiem to that sweet bird of youth. [Alan Bett]

The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy

Scorsese’s pitch-black comedy, which stars Robert De Niro as mentally unhinged, wannabe stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin, was a huge box office bomb. That could be explained by its tone, which seems ahead of its time. The King of Comedy’s deadpan sensibility and relentless humiliations of its characters engender so much discomfort that it could have been called The King of Cringe, and Pupkin himself is a grotesque parody of 21st-century societal narcissism and entitlement culture. De Niro manages to portray him as banal, pathetic, and yet completely terrifying, a kind of tragi-comic fraternal twin to another much more famous psychotic in Scorsese’s perverse pantheon, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Rupert might even be scarier than Travis – the former is easier to relate to, however.

When Rupert obsessively stalks, and then kidnaps, famous talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) he does so in order to secure the fame and adulation he is so convinced he’s due, despite being largely talentless. Nowadays, the film’s final moments, when Rupert becomes the star he always wanted to be, feel like documentary and not delusion. Presciently, that’s mostly how Scorsese shot the picture, letting De Niro’s anxious and anxiety-inducing performance do the heavy lifting for him. [MD]

Kundun (1997)

Kundun

For his follow-up to 1995's frenetic, ultra-violent Las Vegas mob movie Casino, Scorsese relaxed the pace and moved out of his typical urban milieu. Kundun follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, from the moment he was discovered as a small boy near the Tibetan border with China, through his education, inauguration, meetings with Chairman Mao and the events which would eventually lead to his exile. In contrast to the protagonists of the director's most famous films, who typically have violent, hair-trigger tempers, Kundun is told entirely from the perspective of the young, pacifist Dalai Lama in a way that illuminates the colour, ritual and superstitions of Tibet and its people, while, for much of the running time, only providing glimpses of wider regional events and political intrigue.

In line with the film's subjective point of view, Scorsese reaches for hallucinatory and impressionistic imagery as the film approaches its quietly satisfying conclusion. Dazzling cinematography from Roger Deakins, alongside an emotive Philip Glass score, help to make this a contemplative, if sometimes overly reverential, treat. [Tom Grieve]

Life Lessons (1989)

Life Lessons

Three great filmmakers joined forces for 1989’s New York Stories, but only Martin Scorsese delivered a great work. Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks offers some fun and Francis Ford Coppola’s Life Without Zoë is a grating disaster, but Scorsese’s Life Lessons stands alone as a remarkable work of art. Nick Nolte is Lionel, a struggling painter with an impending deadline, and Rosanna Arquette is his former assistant, lover and muse Paulette, whose continued presence in his life despite their broken relationship stokes the fires and suppressed emotions that he needs to create.

Set largely in Lionel’s paint-spattered loft and scored by Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, this 44-minute gem is a riveting exploration of an artist’s struggle and the ceaseless search for inspiration. It was the first film Scorsese made after the difficult experience of The Last Temptation of Christ, and it feels like a release. The film pulses with energy, desire and passion as the complicated emotions shared by the two lead characters are smeared on to Lionel’s canvas. This isn't a minor effort by any means; it’s one of the great films about the artistic process. [PC]

New York, New York (1977)

New York, New York

Just because there’s little physical violence in New York, New York – Scorsese’s dynamic musical following the dysfunctional relationship between a ducking-and-diving jazz musician (Robert De Niro) and a sweet-hearted big band singer (Liza Minnelli) – doesn’t mean it isn’t brutal. De Niro is nobody’s idea of a charismatic romantic lead, and he brings the same psychotic intensity to New York, New York’s saxophonist Jimmy Doyle as he did in earlier roles for Scorsese in Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. His pursuit of Minnelli’s Francine Evans in the film’s opening scene set during New York’s celebration of V-J Day in 1945 is closer to stalking than courting, and later, when the couple elope to a local Justice of the Peace's house in the dead of night it’s more like Francine has been kidnapped than swept off her feet.

When they do perform together, however, they make sweet, sweet music. Her warm tones soften his jagged jazz edges while his forceful sax playing gives her pop sound some grit. They’re a match made in heaven on stage; off it they’re a nightmare. Scorsese’s dazzling but disquieting film is constructed from similar contradictions. It’s a paean to the classic Hollywood musical, full of nostalgia for those films’ glamour, which New York, New York radiates from its opening frame, but it’s also concerned with the complexities and hardships of life those films often gloss over.

While Fred and Ginger gave us cheeky banter, De Niro and Minnelli deal almost exclusively in hostility, jealousy and self-loathing. But Scorsese shows us that through suffering great art can be achieved, and there’s no cocktail of pleasure and pain in 1970s cinema quite so exquisite as Minnelli’s tremulous performance of the title number near the end of the movie. The song has become overfamiliar from a million karaoke impressions of Sinatra’s swaggering swing version, but so knockout is Minnelli’s original that each time you hear it it feels like the first time. [Jamie Dunn]


BFI's Martin Scorsese season runs at BFI Southbank until 28 Feb – more details at whatson.bfi.org.uk

Taxi Diver is rereleased 10 Feb by Park Circus