Who’s That Knocking At My Door, Martin Scorsese’s black and white debut feature film from 1968, originally started out life as his NYU graduation project some three years earlier. Aged just 23, armed with a miniscule budget and relying on numerous favours, Scorsese took to the familiar streets of his native Little Italy to tell the tale of a bunch of young turks drinking, carousing, getting up to mischief and some minor criminality. The 26-year-old budding actor and court stenographer Harvey Keitel answered a newspaper ad and secured the lead role of JR in the film, which was initially called ‘Bring on the Dancing Girls’. Little did Keitel know that what he had signed up for was a project that would take three years to complete and would go through several changes in title and significant changes plot before its eventual release. Nor could he have predicted the special collaborative relationship he was about to undertake with his director, giving us some of the most enduring classics of ’70s cinema.
It was the addition of a second, more central plotline that ultimately marked Who’s That Knocking At My Door as something more than a graduation project and the eventual calling card to the New Hollywood of the 1970s it became. In incorporating a doomed love story to the slice of life shenanigans of JR and his pals, Scorsese explores the uneasy, contradictory crossroads at which the permissive society of the late sixties existed alongside the staunch Catholic morals of Italian-American men, and the misogynistic mindset these young men possess regarding women. To JR and his slickly pomaded, sharp suited pals, there are two types of women; Madonnas and whores. ‘Broads’ you can fool around with, and girls you can marry. And never the twain shall meet.
When JR meets ‘The Girl’ (Zina Bethune, her character is never named) he is taken by her physical attractiveness, and the fact that she’s reading a French magazine impresses him into thinking that she is both sophisticated and a cut above the broads. They fall into a charming, hesitant conversation about the magazine’s photo-star John Wayne, whose films and screen persona JR openly admires. Initially innocent, this perhaps serves as a subtle indicator of the ‘macho’ attitude that comes to the fore much later in their relationship when ‘The Girl’, realising they are both moving onto a serious level in their relationship, confesses to him that she is a victim of rape. Hearing this JR is far from sympathetic, in fact he is aghast to learn that his beloved is not as ‘pure’ as he initially imagined, and their previous mildly intimate moments take on a disturbing resonance in his mind from that moment on. Her prior willingness to give herself sexually to him leads him now to chauvinistically presume that the rape was somehow her fault. Like in those westerns he admires, an incident of sexual assault is more of a crisis for the man than it is for the woman.
Thankfully, Scorsese knows to separate himself and his film from the prejudiced, knuckle-headed and ignorant mindset of JR. Both the rape, which is partially shown in striking flashback and grainy, photo-like freeze-frame editing, and its subsequent psychological and emotional scarring upon The Girl, are treated with the sincerity, respect and seriousness that such an act and its aftermath warrants. It’s the effect it has on JR that is the most enlightening, taking a previously likeable character and showing us the backward, hypocritical and misogynistic facets that lie just beneath the surface of his personality. Once known by the audience, it places a greater emphasis on the immaturity displayed in those scenes that show JR out with his friends. These scenes feel improvised (though they weren’t; Scorsese methodically storyboarded and scripted each scene) and somewhat directionless, and perhaps that’s intentional; without women, these young men are truly stunted and will remain so for as long as their attitudes stay so ugly. Only one scene stands out above the juvenile clowning and petty hoodlum antics; out of town in rural Copake, JR is convinced to climb a steep hill. Finding himself at the top, he stands in awe at the unspoiled sight before him. Metaphorically the vista has a similar effect on him as perhaps The Girl does, but he’s bound to return to the ground, and his negative thinking.
Whilst the pacing is somewhat disjointed and the intermittent nature of the filming is evident in the finished product (just look at Keitel’s changing hair length between scenes) it doesn’t really detract in any way. What does jar however is the fantasy sequence that sees JR bed a series of willing prostitutes. Scorsese’s intentions here were simple and, above all, commercial; to attract a distributor, he needed nudity. Though it’s technically efficient and, remains one of the most accomplished and memorable ‘set-to-music’ sequences in the film (The Doors’ ‘The End’ plays over the arty, woozy, lust fuelled scenes) it adds nothing to the overall film other than the opportunity to showcase JR’s hypocrisy and sexual immaturity – but it’s the filmic equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a wallnut, and the sticking point here is that you cannot really criticise a character’s sexual immaturity when you’re potentially pandering to audiences and studios of a similar mindset.
“This movie is as good as Citizen Kane. No, it’s better than Citizen Kane, it’s got more heart” so said John Cassavetes at the 1968 New York Film Festival, much to Scorsese’s surprise and delight. It’s a good film, and it’s certainly got heart, but it also not without its flaws. But what isn’t in doubt is how strong a debut and how much of a remarkable achievement that is despite the shoestring budget, disruptions and on-the-hoof location shoots. Right from the off, Scorsese proved himself to be very special. Who’s That Knocking At My Door – why, Hollywood, it’s Marty Scorsese, and he’s about to change the world of cinema forever.