In this regular feature we explore the ways in which a director’s early works continue to shape their careers, even years or decades later. To commemorate the release of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Edwin Davies examines the connecting tissue between that 3D spectacular, and Scorsese’s black-and-white debut, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door.
It almost seems trite to say that there is a huge disparity between a director’s first films and their later ones. As a film-maker becomes more experienced, their films will inevitably become more polished and professional, and as they move away from the low-budget experiments they will invariably start working with bigger budgets, bigger names and bigger canvases. It’s a pattern that repeats over and over throughout the history of cinema.
Having said that, it really is quite stunning to consider the difference between Martin Scorsese’s first film and his most recent, since the two could not appear more different. Hugo (formerly Hugo Cabret, formerly The Invention of Hugo Cabret) is an extravagant, 3D family film set in Paris in the 1920s that reportedly cost $140 million to produce. Who’s That Knocking On My Door, meanwhile, is a scruffy, black-and-white film set on the New York streets that Scorsese grew up on and cost about $75,000, which Scorsese and his team scraped together over several years, filming bits and pieces of the film whenever money or actors were available. They are truly two different ends of the spectrum.
Yet for all their differences, both films are rooted in Scorsese’s rapturous love of cinema, and both represent culminations of his obsession with the movies at different points in his life and his career. Hugo, based on the Caldecott Medal-winning young adult novel by Brian Zelsnick, is a celebration of and an homage to the earliest days in cinema. The story of a young boy (Asa Butterfield) living in a Parisian train station whose obsession with an automaton left to him by his father leads him to meet Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). Méliès, for the unintiated, was a pioneering director whose revolutionary silent work more or less invented the idea of cinema as an escapist medium, and Hugo is rife with allusions to the great works of silent cinema, both those by Méliès and others. It marks the truest artistic realisation of Scorsese’s long-standing role as a historian and film-preservationist, since the film is as much a whistle-stop tour through a history of great cinema as it is an adventure story.
Who’s That Knocking At My Door also feels like an expression of Scorsese’s love of cinema, though in a less tangible way. There are overt indications of the cinephile that Scorcese was when he made it – the lead character J.R. (played by Harvey Keitel) is a movie buff who waxes lyrical about The Searchers and takes his new girlfriend (Zina Bethune) to see Rio Bravo – but the film is more concerned with other ideas that fascinated its creator; Catholicism, ideas of masculinity and violence. J.R. is a member of a street gang and the film opens with a scrappy brawl instigated for seemingly no reason, yet he also harbours deeply Catholic ideas about women, and when he discovers that his girlfriend was raped years before, he finds himself unable to deal with the enormity of the situation. It’s a very personal film that sees Scorsese trying to depict life as he knew it from growing up in New York, and whilst Roman Catholicism and the ideas it espouses have shaped Scorsese’s work since, he has rarely addressed it so directly as he does in Who’s That Knocking At My Door.
Scorsese’s love for cinema is not as explicit in Who’s That Knocking At My Door, but it is implicit, since it suffuses the very fabric of the film itself. There’s an inventiveness to the film in its loose visual style, its energetic editing (courtesy of Thelma Schoonmaker, marking the first of twenty-three – and counting – collaborations with Scorsese) that makes the film feel like the work of someone finally getting to realise their dreams and give them form. Who’s That Knocking At My Door is by no means the most technically accomplished of Scorsese’s films, but in his transposition of French New Wave techniques to an American setting you can already see his panoramic love of cinema, as well as the beginnings of his desire to assimilate as many different kinds of cinema into his own distinct, informed vision. Even Scorsese’s embrace of digital effects and 3D can be see as directly analoguous to his use of bracingly modern techniques in the 1960s. At their cores, both films show a reverence for the past, but also a fascination with the future.
If nothing else, that he chose to keeping working on the film for three years, first as a short film entitled Bring On The Dancing Girls, then expanding it to include the love subplot (at which point it was known as I Call First) and filming at odd intervals whenever money became available (the film was eventually released when Joseph Brenner, a producer of exploitation films, agreed to provide funds and release the film if Scorsese included a sex scene) suggests that something was propelling him to do this. Even though that creative process ultimately makes the film seem very uneven, both structurally and visually, there is such an tremendous energy to it that it largely overcomes its flaws. It’s the sort of film that could only have been made by an intensely talented amateur who was able to make up for his lack of money and experience with passion.
It’s clear from that level of obsession that it was a love for cinema and the possibilities of the medium driving Scorsese back in the 1960s, and even though Hugo is drastically different, owing both to the year in which it has been made and the experience of the man who made it, it shares that same sense of wonderment and exhilaration that makes Who’s That Knocking At My Door feel so vital, so alive. The same enthusiastic kid who spent years clawing enough resources together to make his first film is the same man who has directed Hugo, it’s just that the canvas has gotten a lot bigger.
Hugo plays at cinemas nationwide from Friday