We recently took in Martin Scorsese's first full-length film, Who's That Knocking at My Door? Originally conceived in 1965 under several different names, it was released in 1969, won a few awards (Chicago Film Fest) and opened the door for this iconic director to have greater opportunities. A truncated version of the film is known as I Call First. Scorsese had to gather funds over the years to complete this shorter version of the film and when it was completed it received distribution. Following his documentary Street Scenes in 1970, Roger Corman hired him to direct his first studio feature Boxcar Bertha, starring David Carridine.
The rest, of course, is history. What I gathered from Who's That Knocking, supports the belief I've always had that Marti's best pictures are the smaller, personal, gritty films based around the same stock of characters he's always had. The guys in Who's That Knocking? can easily be transplanted to films like Mean Street who in turn are like the characters in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.
Scorsese is an incredibly ambitious director, going beyond the small and gritty limitations of those who inspired him. Sam Fuller and John Cassavetes are the directors he reminds me of most. They were certainly influential to him. The difference is, of course, Scorsese's epic vision surpassed these directors. Not always, but he sometimes lost himself when making huge films as Kundun, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, etc. I could never imagine Cassavetes directing something like The Age of Innocence.
Looking at Who's That Knocking? is looking at the roots of his best characters; his personality. All that he absorbed growing up in New York, all the thugs he knew and the violence he'd seen. Who's That Knocking? starts out with a brawling fight scene that would not be out of place in Goodfellas or Casino. As stated above, it points the way to all the great violence and humor that would show up in his later films. The character of J.R. is often discussing films with the girl he is in love with (Zina Bathune) which leaves the movie open for Scorsese to make other (more subtle) film references. I am reminded of Bergman in the sex scene (I am also reminded of Swedish sex films and Performance, which Scorsese wouldn't have seen at this point). The scenes at the Staten Island Ferry terminal and in the car remind me of Godard. Some of the overlapping editing and camera work remind me of French New Wave, etc.
The scene when Harvey Keitel is in bed was later was echoed (albeit with a higher budget) in Mean Streets.
Unlike Brian DePalma (a contemporary of Scorsese's who went on to independently pave his own career while systematically destroying it) Who's That Knocking at My Door? was the beginning Scorsese needed to break into the mainstream and helped to shape a career that has given us 40 years of great films.