Martin Scorsese’s first film was a remarkable debut, pairing a jagged New Wave vibe with second-generation Catholic guilt, and focused more on capturing a particular sensibility and subjectivity than telling a linear story, by immersing us in the lifeworld of J.R., a young Italian-American living in Manhattan, played by Harvey Keitel in his debut role. J.R. is awkward, a bit of a misfit, and only feels really comfortable hanging out with his buddies or talking about movies, which he consumes vocariously. Yet he’s also displaced too, neither fully Italian nor fully American, paving the way for the fractured Italian-American identity that would propel so many of Scorsese’s New York films. We first meet him as he meets “the Girl,” played by Zina Bethune, commenting on a picture of John Wayne in her French magazine, while also admitting that he needs subtitles in Italian films, thereby situating his cinephilia as a way of coming to terms with his own transitional position between American and European culture.
As that might suggest, Who’s That Knocking At My Door is partly a portrait of the film buff before cinephilia as we know had fully come of age. Since Keitel is so unaffected here – he feels like a friend of Scorsese – his film fandom feels completely genuine too, and appears to be emanating from him as an actor as much as from his character. You can see the genesis of Scorsese’s many film documentaries and film tributes in J.D.’s character, as the jaunt of making this particular film seeps into the energy of its characters and scenes – and it looks like a film that was a hell of a lot of fun to make. While this film fandom can be a little speechy at first, it quickly gives way to a series of long musical sequences, with a carefully curated soundtrack. Again, you can really see the origin of Scorsese’s concert films and music docos here, since his musical taste is just as foregrounded as his movie taste. In one especially memorable scene, J.D. realises that the Girl only has a record player, not a television, and thumbs his way through her albums – Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Getz and Gilberto – in the first of many musical quotations and album covers that turn up in Scorsese’s oeuvre.
For the most part, Knocking unfolds as a series of vignettes in J.D.’s life, with only the Girl providing a clear linear throughline. Scorsese appears to be discovering his film language here, from evocative and elliptical close-ups, to abstract and dissonant transitions, to impressionistic flashes of New York that estrange and entice us in equal measure. Drawing on the New Wave cinema gaining popularity at the time, Scorsese’s approach is experimental and visceral in equal measure, full of visual pyrotechnics that never feel gimmicky – more that Scorsese is restless for the huge career ahead of him. At times it’s so immersive that it feels like a docudrama – shot on location with blurry, grainy footage that makes most sequences seem nocturnal, or at least covert, capturing the city, guerrilla-style, when its back is turned.
Unlike most of Scorsese’s subsequent New York films, there’s only the slightest hint of a criminal fringe here, while J.D.’s friends aren’t even all that wayard in their youth either. They’re just drifters, moving through young adulthood with a perennial sense of being slightly displaced – transitional figures who don’t quite fit in anywhere outside their own small circle. Yet Scorsese uses this motley crew to envisage a new kind of cinematic masculinity, starting with a terrific scene where we move from their slo-mo camaraderie to a still shot of John Wayne, and from there to J.D. and the Girl walking out of Rio Bravo for their very first date.
In other words, this is Italian-American neorealism, New York’s answer to I Vitelloni, driven by a restless, roving awareness that the normal avenues of the city aren’t enough to contain J.D.’s expansive energy, eventually propelling him and his friends to a weekend in the country. At this time in New Hollywood, directors were looking for lines of flight out of the city – think The Rain People, or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore a few years later – but Scorsese’s characters are totally out of place in the small Waspy town where they eventually end up. After careening around the town square, and causing havoc in the only bar, they try to expend their energy with a mountain climb, but it exhausts them without satiating them, only clarifying the horizons that they can never quite claim or conquer as their own. This brings us to the core of the film’s sensibility – while its characters may be shot through with New Wave liberalism, they’re still indebted to a traditional Italian-American community that frustrates their self-expression, and relegates them to a marginal lifestyle. The only outlet for their fantasies is film – and this film in particular, which doesn’t just describe their plight, but enacts the film language they seem to be searching for in their Italian-American riffs on John Wayne.
These limitations crystallise around the way they treat women, reviving the age-old virgin-whore dichotomy to draw a distinction between “girls,” who are meant to remain pure, and “broads,” with whom they cavort on a regular basis. At first, J.D. assumes that the Girl is a “girl,” but he puts her in the category of “broad” when she reveals that she was raped by her last boyfriend. Scorsese’s depiction of this assault is still one of the most brutal scenes of his career – raw enough to really throw J.D.’s response into ugly relief, which is first to disbelieve the Girl, and then to blame her for the rape, insisting that “it just doesn’t make any sense” that she wouldn’t recognise her ex as a potential rapist from the outset. As this scene draws to a close, Scorsese intercuts still shots of John Wayne with still shots of the assault, reminding us that J.D.’s cinematic fantasies are inadequate to capture the full diversity of his experience.
After a short interlude, we return to the last scene between the couple, when J.D. tells the Girl that he forgives her, even as she insists that they can’t have a relationship on the basis of her needing to be forgiven for an assault she couldn’t control. It’s quite stunning to watch how eloquently she stands up to J.D. here, especially since this is coming from a male director, and especially since the concept of victim-blaming was still several decades away, meaning she can only somewhat inchoately insist that their relationship “can’t work that way.” In response, J.D. attends confession, but it’s unclear whether he’s seeking atonement for the way he treated the Girl, or seeking atonement for the Girl herself, and so still blaming her for the assault. In the boldest move of the film, however, Scorsese punctures this pathos with a series of zany zooms in the church, pairing them with rock music as we cut to J.D. kissing a crucifix, cementing the link between Catholic guilt, masculine camaraderie and homoerotic anxiety that would percolate out across his next half-century, all the way up to The Irishman.
The film ends as experimentally as it begins, evoking the virgin-whore schism by juxtaposing footage of Scorsese’s mother cooking (which we also saw at the beginning) with the sound of the Girl screaming during the assault, albeit paired with a still shot of her face that questions how the medium of film is itself complicit in the way that J.D. has attempted to erase her trauma. Finally, we pull back to a shot of New York shrouded in darkness, as J.D. heads back into the murky world he emerged from, and Scorsese and Keitel head towards a epic lifetime of collaboration, in one of the most assured, memorable and dynamic debuts ever released.