What do Madonnas, whores, John Wayne flicks, and a naked Harvey Keitel have in common? Read Judge Dan Mancini's review of Martin Scorsese's debut feature to find out.
"There are girls, and then there are broads."—J.R.
Near the beginning of Who's That Knocking at My Door, our young protagonist, J.R. (Harvey Keitel, The Piano), meets a girl (Zina Bethune, The Nurses) on the Staten Island ferry and they fall into a discussion of John Ford's 1956 Western, The Searchers. It's our first clue that the young Martin Scorsese behind the camera was already wrestling with the themes that would make him famous in later pictures. Scorsese would look to The Searchers over and over again for inspiration—its themes of insular communities, clashing moral worldviews, the human tendency to distrust or hate outsiders, and male dread of female sexual power. Taxi Driver, Scorsese's collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader, would be his most explicit homage to Ford's classic Western—it's essentially a dark, urban remake—but the seeds of his fascination are on full display in his first attempt at feature filmmaking.
Facts of the Case
Who's That Knocking at My Door is the coming-of-age story of J.R., a kid from Elizabeth Street in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York's east side. He's content to hang out with his rudderless buddies (shades of Fellini's I Vitelloni) until he meets a beautiful girl from the west side whose background and mores are radically different from his own. His attempts to find common ground with the girl while making sense of the larger world outside of Little Italy are complicated when she reveals she's not a virgin but was a victim of rape.
J.R.'s hostile and accusatory reaction to the girl's revelation is a function of a Madonna/whore complex—the idealization and restraint of female sexuality in order to spare the male ego the trauma of cuckoldry—rooted in his Catholic upbringing. Scorsese reinforces the point by juxtaposing images of his own mother preparing food for prim and well-behaved children with the nudie pin-ups that adorn the walls at the hang-out of J.R. and his pals. He adds an intellectual veneer by drawing a loose connection between J.R.'s disgust that the girl has been known by another man with The Searchers's Ethan Edwards's repulsion over his niece Debbie having assimilated into Indian culture after being kidnapped as a child and raised amongst a tribe. The whole thing would feel absurdly clichéd and heavy-handed absent the raw vitality, innate talent, and earnestness of a young filmmaker exploring and learning his craft. His fluid use of the camera (just check out the handheld shots looking down from rooftops at Elizabeth Street that open the film) signal the young Scorsese's talent despite the hackneyed story. From the vantage-point of 2004, we're also gifted with the insight that J.R.'s floundering romance and moral anguish is a stand-in for the culture shock Scorsese experienced when he left Little Italy for the larger world of NYU. Who's That Knocking at My Door may be a simple story told without much elegance, but there's a sense its emotion and psychology are true to the young man who told it.
The picture isn't the homerun of a debut feature that Welles's Citizen Kane, or Truffaut's The 400 Blows were, but that probably has as much to do with the piecemeal way in which it was made as it does with limitations in the young Scorsese's artistic vision. The movie began in 1965 as a student short film about J.R. and his do-nothing friends called Bring on the Dancing Girls. In 1967, the romance with Zina Bethune was added and the title was changed to I Call First. Finally, in 1968, exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner offered to buy the picture on the condition that a sex scene be added for marketing purposes. Scorsese shot and edited a technically beautiful but largely gratuitous montage of Keitel bedding a series of women and the film became Who's That Knocking at My Door. The sex scene is mostly interesting because it marries exploitation to Scorsese's anti-narrative art film aspirations, a divide the young filmmaker straddled and agonized over in the early days of his career. His business relationship with Brenner led to his making Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman in 1972. At that point he seemed to be on his way toward a career in exploitation until John Cassavetes (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence) took him aside and urged him to quit wasting his time and talent. The result of that chat was 1973's Mean Streets, the first real Martin Scorsese picture.
Because of its scattershot production, Who's That Knocking at My Door was shot on a combination of 16- and 35-mm black-and-white stocks, using Eclair handheld and massive Mitchell BNC cameras for the most part. As a result, the image quality on this DVD release varies quite a bit from shot to shot. Some scenes are muddy and soft, while others are crisp and luminous. The folks at Warner have done a fine job with available sources. Dirt, damage, and other flaws are minimal. The one-channel audio source is similarly limited by its micro-budget origins, but is presented as cleanly as possible.
Supplements include an audio commentary by Martin Scorsese and directorial assistant Mardik Martin for select scenes from the film, and a 13-minute featurette that is billed as a making-of but is really an interview segment with Martin. The featurette is unnecessary as it offers few insights not covered in the commentary, which, at 48 minutes, is only about half as long as the feature. Despite the brevity of the talk track, Scorsese says about everything he can or wants to about the film (it's not a picture he's fond of), sparing us the tedium of repeating himself or simply describing what's happening onscreen.
The appeal of Who's That Knocking at My Door doesn't extend much beyond Scorsese fanatics. It's a mediocre film notable mostly for a couple visually dynamic scenes (in addition to the sex montage set to The Doors's "The End," there's a beautiful slow-motion sequence of J.R. and his crew goofing around with a pistol, set to Ray Barretto's "El Watusi"), and a juvenile presentation of the themes and sensibilities that would establish an older, more experienced Martin Scorsese as one of the most important voices in Vietnam-era American cinema.
Warner has done a fine job delivering the film on DVD. Though the supplemental material is light, it's enough for any viewer to get a sense of the film's place in Scorsese's oeuvre, and about as much as the film itself deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin
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