This feature originally ran in January. We’re reposting it in anticipation of Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence.
Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
“He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”
Martin Scorsese recycles these words, which first appear in a 1971 Kris Kristofferson song, in the dialogue of his 1976 vigilante film Taxi Driver. They’re used to describe Travis Bickle, a man for whom “walking contradiction” seems the only apt phrase. Bickle is a loner who doesn’t want to be alone, a man who’s driven to violence by his desire to connect. Those traits might not make a whole lot of sense on paper, but they form the groundwork for Scorsese’s decades-long exploration of the male psyche.
In the 40 years since Taxi Driver’s release, Scorsese has littered his cinematic universe with dozens of Travis Bickles — constellations of masculinity with parts that contradict as often as they coincide. There’s Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, whose appetite for glory is matched only by his penchant for self-destruction. There’s The Aviator’s Howard Hughes, an eccentric billionaire who has everything except a cure for what torments his soul. There’s The Departed’s Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan, both literal contradictions who infiltrate each other’s worlds from opposite sides.
We don’t often think of contradictions when we consider Scorsese’s body of work. The director has established such a unified aesthetic over the years that we simply “know” — or pretend to know — when we’re watching one of his films. Think of Scorsese, and what comes to mind is probably an angry, vaguely Italian man who resembles De Niro or DiCaprio. After that, the mob and the hyper-masculine world of organized crime. And, of course, no portrait of Scorsese would be complete without a background of New York City in the ‘70s — or at least how we imagine New York City to be in the ‘70s: a concrete jungle populated by perps, prostitutes, and psychotic cabbies.
Whether you’re intimately familiar with Scorsese’s films or encountering the director for the first time, it helps to take a broad perspective of his work and see what trends and themes emerge. With this goal in mind, let’s take a trip through five of his most iconic films. Buckle up and prepare to meet one of the undisputed masters of modern cinema. Oh, and don’t forget to tip your taxi driver.
New York Grit
Taxi Driver (1976)
In 1967, one year after graduating from New York University’s film school, Scorsese produced a six-minute short that’s popularly known as The Big Shave. The concept is simple: a young man (Peter Bernuth) shaves away his facial hair and then starts in on his skin, stripping it off in bloody ribbons while observing himself nonchalantly in the bathroom mirror. It’s not easy to watch, but the self-mutilation serves a purpose. Scorsese intended the short to serve as a metaphor for America’s self-destructive involvement in the Vietnam War; he even thought of using the on-the-nose title Viet ‘67 to hammer this point home.
So what does all this have to do with Taxi Driver, a feature-length film that arrived a full nine years later? Let’s start with a better question: “You talkin’ to me?” Scorsese began laying the brickwork for his signature style long before Taxi Driver, which many consider to be his best and most characteristic film.
Parts of this style were established in the 1973 crime film Mean Streets, which took place in a gritty New York City locale and featured a lot of tough-looking guys acting tough. But parts of it showed up even earlier, in shorts like The Big Shave. This was where Scorsese began to employ his unflinching camera in an exploration of the American male’s psyche. The film’s self-mutilating protagonist is a lonely, lost, and damaged soul, traumatized by something unnamable and thus compelled to act out violently. Hmm, sound familiar?
After nearly 50 years of Scorsese films centered on insecure males, it’s safe to say that Travis Bickle (played iconically by Robert De Niro) is the director’s crowning achievement in that regard. An honorably discharged US Marine working as a New York City taxi driver to cope with his insomnia, Bickle embodies all the traits of the prototypical Scorsese protagonist — in fact, he is the prototype. He is isolated, unsure of himself, and driven to violence as a means of confronting what he perceives as corruption.
All of these qualities are extrapolated from that young man we see in The Big Shave, and decades later they would appear in characters as varied as The Departed’s Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Gangs of New York’s William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bickle’s slow descent into madness ends with his plan to publicly assassinate Senator Palantine, but it starts in a place that was crucial to Scorsese’s early career: Vietnam.
It’s fair to say that most of the director’s early films are about war and its effects on the male psyche. Mean Streets simply translates the locale of that war to New York City, but Taxi Driver does something more interesting in making Bickle an actual Vietnam vet. The film’s most iconic scene, in which he stands in front of a mirror and repeats that question — “You talkin’ to me?” — shows that while he may be thousands of miles from the war, it continues to rage inside his head. This mirror scene evokes The Big Shave, and it says something about male self-reflection. Whenever men attempt to confront their emotions in a Scorsese film, it usually ends in an act of bloody violence.
On a more superficial level, Taxi Driver also establishes Scorsese’s tendency to bring the best out of his lead actors — and then hold onto them for decades. The director returned to working with De Niro after Mean Streets and would go on to make seven more films with him after that. DiCaprio, as we all know, is in the midst of a similar run.
The bottom line: if you’re looking for a film that encapsulates pretty much everything that makes Scorsese Scorsese, Taxi Driver is the place to start.
Raging Bull (1980)
John G. Avildsen’s Rocky (1976) was released the same year as Taxi Driver, and it’s hard to imagine two films with more dissimilar temperaments. One is a rags-to-riches story of personal redemption, while the other is a descent into the darkest recesses of the male psyche. Raging Bull, a black-and-white sports drama that tells the story of Italian-American boxer Jake LaMotta, lands somewhere in the middle.
Scorsese’s third outing with Robert De Niro is undoubtedly a tale of redemption, but it’s also an exploration of man’s animalistic rage and appetite for self-destruction. Where Stallone’s Rocky rises above the fray, De Niro’s LaMotta repeatedly lowers himself into it and then tries to punch his way out.
Like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull bears all the essential qualities of a Scorsese film: extreme violence, an emotionally crippled protagonist, and the heavily Christian themes of guilt and redemption. Though Scorsese admittedly had no interest in boxing or sports in general, as a filmmaker he could easily appreciate the metaphors they afforded. Raging Bull is the story of a flawed man fighting to make sense of his place in the world, and as such it’s a far more personal and relatable story than Taxi Driver, which is essentially the story of a psychopath. Scorsese, who had just recovered from a near-fatal drug overdose and was dealing with some demons of his own, saw himself in the character of LaMotta, and the result is a film that feels painstakingly crafted, with more expressionistic touches than almost anything else in his oeuvre.
One such touch is the decision to shoot in black-and-white film, which lends a timeless quality to the action and probably helped Raging Bull secure an R rating (blood is easier to hide when it isn’t red). But others abound. This is probably Scorsese’s most blatantly stylistic film, with its liberal use of slow motion and distortions of perspective.
The extreme lighting effects used during LaMotta’s prison-cell breakdown are a wonderful example of how Scorsese’s style contributes to his storytelling punch. Obscured by thick bars of shadows, De Niro’s character engages in an act of self-mutilation as penance. We are to understand that he has entered the night of the soul, but he’s not quite beyond salvation yet. If there’s a better visual metaphor for the internal struggle between good and evil, I can’t think of it.
In Raging Bull, Scorsese (and De Niro, for that matter) throws everything he has at the screen, and it pays off in one of the richest films of his career. Though he originally intended it to be his final project, the filmmaker also learned that he had a lot more to say about the male psyche and a lot of new avenues with which to explore it. Speaking of revelations, Raging Bull marks the first prominent role for Scorsese regular Joe Pesci, who would go on to shine in the next film on our list.
Contrary to the film’s title, pretty much everyone in Goodfellas is a rotten bastard. This is the film in which Scorsese first openly embraces the seedy world of organized crime, and it turns out to be a more natural pairing than feet and wet cement. Think about it: the mob is male-dominated, comes with an unwavering (and unspoken) moral code, and often resorts to extreme violence to prove a point. Sounds kind of like your typical Scorsese film, doesn’t it?
Though Goodfellas owes an obvious debt to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, it deserves to stand alongside Coppola’s trilogy as an oft-emulated pillar of the genre. It’s also frankly more exciting than any of the Godfather films, a quality which owes to Scorsese’s breakneck editing and dialogue. Whereas The Godfather unfolds at a deliberate and even languid pace, Goodfellas opens with a car speeding down the highway and never really slows down. Within one minute, Joe Pesci is stabbing the shit out of someone, and Ray Liotta is confessing that, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Then the credits zoom by, and already we know that we’re in for a ride.
Goodfellas is also where Scorsese’s penchant for ultra violence comes into full bloom, as is evidenced by the aforementioned stab fest. But it’s not just the violence that makes him an interesting filmmaker; it’s how he chooses to show it. Scorsese turns his camera into a passive observer, refusing to turn away from the carnage or save the worst of it for offscreen. Where other directors show the barrel of the gun, he shows the bullet piercing the body. It may seem like a small distinction to make, but it’s an incredibly important aspect of his legacy. Other than maybe Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, I can’t think of a film that revels so much in its own gore.
Speaking of reveling, Scorsese doesn’t rely entirely on rapid-fire editing to get his point across. Some of the most effective scenes in Goodfellas are the ones that linger and allow the tension to build to almost unbearable levels. A great example of this is the “I’m funny how” scene with Joe Pesci in the restaurant. Scorsese knows that he has a top-notch character actor on his hands here, so he refrains from doing anything cute and simply trains his camera on the action. It pays off with one of the funniest, most palpably dangerous moments in the film, during which we aren’t sure if Pesci’s Tommy DeVito is going to kill somebody or buy another round.
Goodfellas would, of course, be followed by instant crime classics Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). The latter won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but Goodfellas remains the cream of Scorsese’s crime crop and one of the best films to emerge from his long career. The director is absolutely on fire here, and the individual scenes are so good that each one threatens to capsize the entire film. The fact that he somehow holds it all together is a testament to Scorsese’s craft.
Cape Fear (1991)
We’ve taken care to come up with broad categories for the three films discussed thus far, but honestly, those films have more in common than not. At the very least, they all fit neatly within the general trajectory of Scorsese’s career and contain many similar themes and elements. Cape Fear, however, is a different kind of beast.
A remake of the 1962 film of the same name, this psychological thriller follows a convicted rapist named Max Cady (Robert De Niro) as he stalks and violently threatens the family of his former lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). What distinguishes Cape Fear from the previous films on our list is the fact that it doesn’t particularly feel like a Martin Scorsese film — at least on the first viewing. If anything, it feels like a carefully crafted homage to Alfred Hitchcock, one that bears traces of Scorsese’s polished craft but deviates from his traditional tone and subject matter.
One explanation for this is that the filmmaker was simply bored and wanted the chance to experiment with the conventions of a different genre. The film’s heavy debt to Hitchcock backs this up, and the horror master’s influence is apparent in everything from the occasional disorienting camera angle to the creative new ways Scorsese finds to kill people off. One scene in particular, in which Cady strangles private detective Claude Kersek with a piano wire, presents us with a fascinating glimpse at what Hitchcock might have looked like if he shared Scorsese’s fascination with onscreen gore.
With that said, the more times you watch Cape Fear, the more obvious Scorsese’s distinctive style becomes. Christian themes have always bubbled beneath the surface of the director’s films, and they’re especially prevalent here. The film’s dominant themes are guilt, treachery, and accountability for one’s sins, though Cady and Bowden have contradictory ideas about how those themes apply. Cady’s are psychotic but also rooted in Christian mythology; at one point, he quotes the book of Job as a warning to Bowden that the sins of the father will be visited upon his family. Scorsese’s trademark violence is also a key characteristic of Cape Fear, even if the film’s structure seems a bit straightforward for his style.
Then again, that’s kind of the point. If Cape Fear proves anything, it’s that Scorsese’s style can be transferred across genres and still retain its key charms. The film’s impressive box-office returns solidified the notion that the director has real mainstream appeal — something that even Goodfellas had failed to accomplish upon its initial release. As if that weren’t enough, it set a precedent for the criminally underrated 2010 thriller Shutter Island and inspired the classic Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
It seems downright criminal to have come this far and only mentioned Leo in passing (then again, crime is what Scorsese excels at). The final film on our list makes amends by swapping out De Niro for DiCaprio and highlighting another current in Scorsese’s career that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should: his smart, sardonic approach to comedy.
The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Scorsese’s funniest films and certainly one of his most divisive. It follows the adventures of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a wildly corrupt hedonist who made a fortune by defrauding scores of Wall Street investors. Some critics initially took the film to task for implicitly endorsing Belfort’s behavior, and they must not have been aware of the moral standard set decades ago in Scorsese’s previous films.
What we have here is a film that’s flawed in several respects but still indicative — exemplary, even — of the filmmaker’s very best tendencies. Scorsese takes the ridiculous excesses of Wall Street at face value, presenting them in such rapid succession that we don’t know whether to be entertained or exhausted. That’s the paradox that makes The Wolf of Wall Street so interesting — despite its bloated three-hour runtime, the film registers as a slick, lean romp that’s perpetually in control of its own movements.
It also gives Scorsese a somewhat familiar platform (organized crime) on which to plant his darkly comedic vision. The director’s earlier stabs at comedy — most notably 1982’s The King of Comedy and 1985’s After Hours — are admirable in their own way, but they feel less in line with his more powerful work. The Wolf of Wall Street allows him to have it both ways, marrying his fascination with despicable male criminals with his desire to hit more traditionally comic beats.
And if Scorsese refrains from moralizing here, he’s all the better for it. The scene in which Belfort attempts to drive a Lamborghini while stunningly high may strike some as hilarious, but it’s also one of the darkest moments of the film. This is a director who always entertains his audience but doesn’t necessarily hold their hand through the moral thickets in his work. Had this film openly proselytized about the evils of money, it might have still been a fine film. It just wouldn’t have been a Scorsese film.
The Wolf of Wall Street, like many of Scorsese’s best films, is a balancing act. It’s deeply funny, kind of terrifying, and filled with all the messy stuff of human life. It also leaves us more or less at the place where Scorsese finds himself today — a massively accomplished director who can afford to take a few risks. Wherever he goes next, we’ll be sure to follow closely.