U is for Underrated Films: So, we all know the Raging Bulls (1980) and the Taxi Drivers and the Goodfellas. But as we wind down the alphabet, what are some of Martin Scorsese’s other films that no one talks about nearly as much as they should? Well, my favorite is The King of Comedy, but even more overlooked is After Hours (1985). There’s also Bringing out the Dead (1999), which stars Nicolas Cage as a haggard Manhattan ambulance paramedic plagued by the patients he couldn’t save. Some of Scorsese’s earlier films that are oft forgotten include Boxcar Bertha (1972) and New York, New York (1977), a classic in its own way. So, with a filmography as bountiful and varied as Scorsese’s—a filmography which I’m admittedly still working my way through—it’s easy to lose sight of some really great gems that simply never reached the status of his other films.
V is for Voice-Overs: Voice-overs are often considered a crutch in many films, a ham-fisted way of delivering already apparent information or exposition. But, they are used with purpose in Scorsese’s filmography, adding shades of likeability to unlikeable characters and creating a closer relationship between the character and the audience (this is part of what makes Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, such a terrifying figure). The voice-overs also contribute largely to an aspect of Scorsese’s films that is often over-looked: humor. Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street make excellent use of their title character’s voice-overs and as a result Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort are two of Scorsese’s most personable and comedic characters. As audience members, we can recognize that from a moral standpoint they are terrible people, and yet there is something relatable in the words they speak to us: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” or “Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty.” Scorsese’s voice-overs work so well because they are reminders that his characters are a reflection of American ideals and values. Voice-overs are a mirror for Scorsese to utilize and yeah, he’s talking to us.
W is for Writers: Whenever I read trivia about Scorsese movies on IMDB (note: I read IMDB trivia so much it should be my career) there is usually a mention of improvisation. The ‘Funny how?’ speech from Goodfellas was improvised on the day by Pesci and Liotta with the extras having no clue what would happen next, an awful lot of Wolf of Wall Street was apparently improvised, and the ‘You talking to me?’ scene from Taxi Driver was made up on the spot. It speaks of a vast confidence in his actors that he lets them have a go at something a bit wild that isn’t in the script (most screenwriters could cut off their own hands to write something as purely unnerving as the ‘Funny how?’ scene.)
A look at Scorsese’s career shows a few names popping up over and over. Paul Schrader worked with him on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Last Temptation of Christ. Jay Cocks seems to be his historical go-to man, writing Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. And more recently he has had John Logan writing both The Aviator and Hugo. He has names he can trust, or maybe these writers, and others I haven’t mentioned, are the ones who are willing to hand in a script and trust Scorsese to get the job done, to find the golden moments in the story that have eluded them. At the end of the day, Scorsese likes to, as Roger Ebert puts it in Scorsese by Ebert, do “his own writing with his camera”.
X is for X’s = Death in The Departed: In 1932’s Scarface directed by Howard Hawks, whenever an X appears on screen it usually means curtains for the character standing near it, under it, or in front of it. Scorsese homages this in The Departed by doing the same thing. Doomed characters spend the run time of the movie constantly surrounded by crosses formed by metal beams, the pattern of a fence, X’s spray painted on walls, X’s written on pieces of paper, crosses made from shadows, and crosses made from tape on the wall of an elevator where a certain death occurs that caused one viewer (me) to exclaim holy shit! even though I had already seen Infernal Affairs, the movie that The Departed is a remake of. And a better version of (come get me Infernal Affairs purists!)
Y is for Youthful Ambition: Many of Scorsese’s characters are driven by naïve ambition or the sense that their youth affords them some level of immortality. Ambition, similar to Scorsese’s take on excess, has the power to build and to destroy. The ambition we typically see in Scorsese’s work is associated with crime and either the desire to become a powerful gangster or become obscenely rich. These desires usually stem from childhood or young adulthood. We’ve also seen the danger (or perhaps reward) of ambition when it is separated from youth in characters like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy or even Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ whose age forces them to confront the reality of their morality and make a defining choice. But Scorsese’s best look at the ambition of the young comes in the form of The Aviator, which offers a different look at the theme than Scorsese’s other films. At age 22, Howard Hughes became a pioneer of both aviation and filmmaking. His efforts nearly destroy him several times over, and his OCD eventually does undo him, but Scorsese’s portrait of Hughes is one of the few instances of one of his characters gaining a certain level of immortality not through their misdeeds, but through honest effort. Scorsese’s films often follow central characters over many years of their life, exploring where their ambition takes them in their increasing age. Interestingly enough, for someone who started as an ambitious young director, Scorsese rarely allows his characters’ ambitions to take them anywhere great in the end.
Z is for Zoom: Scorsese’s masterful use of cinematography has already been discussed so I will focus on one scene in my favourite Scorsese movie, Goodfellas. The scene involves a dolly zoom (aka a Vertigo Zoom aka a Jaws Zoom). It is that effect when it seems as though we are zooming into the action while at the same time zooming out. Background and foreground are both moving and changing focus and size, and the effect is unsettling and weird. The effect is achieved by having the camera lens zooming in while the camera is moved away from the action (or vice versa). In Goodfellas the effect is used for a particularly tense and paranoid meeting between Liotta and De Niro and the effect lasts for half a minute. I can only assume Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas’ DOP) was zooming in while his camera was dollying away into another state for how long the effect lasts. It creates a feeling of unsettled nausea that is perfect for this scene.