Warner Home Video's six-disc, five-title Martin Scorsese Collection isn't comprehensive, since it's limited to movies the director made for Warner Bros. Yet even though the selection jumps from three of his earliest features (1967's Who's That Knocking At My Door, 1973's Mean Streets and 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), to one from his mid-career "dark" period (1985's After Hours) and one from his renaissance (1990's Goodfellas), the story the set tells about Scorsese's career is surprisingly coherent. The first three films mark his development as a director and his desire to blend the naturalism of Cassavetes with the expressionism of Ophuls, while After Hours and Goodfellas are both New York stories that double as exercises in style, with the latter offering a broader, better contextualized perspective on the characters from Who's That Knocking and Mean Streets.
Of the five, Who's That Knocking is the weakest, and the most welcome. Outside of big-city retrospectives and specialty video houses, Scorsese's feature debut has been little seen since its limited initial distribution. It's amateurish and flat at times, but the filmmaking is frequently vigorous. Scorsese plays with superimpositions and slow-mo, making stirring use of primitive rock music and religious imagery to tell the story of a aimless young man (played by novice actor Harvey Keitel) trying to figure out women and deal with the demands of his thuggish friends. It's Fellini's I Vitelloni with brutishness supplanting the provincial pageantry.
Mean Streets essentially repeats Who's That Knocking with more detail, more characters, and more frankness about the nature of Scorsese's Little Italy upbringing. Like a low-to-the-ground shadow of The Godfather, Mean Streets brings back Keitel as well-meaning Charlie, a mobster-by-relation who wants to leave "the life" but can't resist the easy payoffs or the debt he feels he owes to his best friend, the reckless Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro).
As with the later Goodfellas, Scorsese's first real crime film pushes genre trappings up against gritty neorealism. Both also rely on impeccably choreographed, rock-scored set pieces and a fundamental pessimism about the human character. Charlie's Catholic guilt leads him to do penance by helping Johnny Boy, but his actions are selfish, since they're cued to his own salvation. As Scorsese makes plain throughout, faith doesn't supersede worksand a crooked man can't go straight.
In retrospect, the domestic drama Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore looks like an aberration for a director more interested in violence and social disorder than earthy melodrama. But from the Sirkian opening credits to the loose, Altman-esque interaction, Alice offers fully exuberant filmmaking. The quasi-comedy's overt feminist touches are tinged with truththe titular heroine, a single mother played by Ellen Burstyn, finds that even "dream man" Kris Kristofferson expects to push his woman around a littlebut it's obvious that Scorsese's heart is more in photographing faces and spaces than any social message. Still, Alice suggests a path Scorsese has periodically followed as a gifted journeyman able to work in any genre, like the 1950s auteurs he reveres.
The DVDs in the Scorsese Collection come with partial commentary tracks by the director and his cohorts, and some reviewers have complained that they aren't strictly scene-specific. True enough. But strung together, Scorsese's comments work like Elvis Costello's liner notes for his Rhino Records reissues, serving as a roundabout bio of an artist who prefers not to talk about himself. Scorsese has rarely been this frank about the gangsters he grew up with, or the way film school was a respite from a hardscrabble home life (not unlike the early experiences of the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski, as detailed in Facets' excellent new DVD box set)or how he made some major mistakes early on, sparked by arrogance.
The Scorsese tracks are also filled with loving tributes to friends and heroes like De Palma, Kenneth Anger, Fellini and Bertolucci, as well as the forgotten craftsmen of Hollywood Bs, British "angry young man" films and Abbott & Costello comedies. It's a miniature history of what early '70s Hollywood was all aboutmerging classic entertainment with counterculture righteousness.
Those heady days had dead-ended by the time Scorsese tackled After Hours, during the thick of the blockbuster '80s when he couldn't get his calls returned. He turned to a darkly funny low-budget comedy of paranoia about a New York yuppie (played by Griffin Dunne) trapped in a hipster Soho neighborhood during a date gone wrong. Scorsese has often confronted his fears and failings in pulpy stories, but never before or since have his concerns been so delightfully mundane: the director makes After Hours into the story of a man put out because everyone seems to know what's going on but him. The undercurrent of sexual frustration typifies the coked-out, available-but-aloof mood of NYC in the mid-'80s, as well as the burgeoning indie spirit bursting out of the city's film schools via Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers. (After Hours resembles a Coens version of a Nagel painting.) The movie is too much about too little, but it's funny and oddly historic.
After After Hours, Scorsese did his gun-for-hire studio film (The Color Of Money) and his flawed pet project (The Last Temptation Of Christ) before returning to the New York art world for the short film "Life Lessons," a punchy little character piece from the anthology New York Stories. It was a fair indication that he was about to get back on his game in a major way, and he did. Goodfellas wasn't exactly a sensation when it was released in 1990, though it was well reviewed and well attended. Because it was so entertaining, and because it seemed to circle back to ground Scorsese had already covered, many of his devotees treated the movie as a kind of guilty pleasure. As director Richard Linklater says in one of the new DVD's featurettes, "You don't recognize a masterpiece the first time you see it."
Indeed, though strong arguments can be made for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (or even his later The Age Of Innocence and Kundun), Goodfellas seems destined to be remembered as Scorsese's defining film. The film's restless visual style had as much influence on indie film in the '90s as Quentin Tarantino's criminal coolso much so that Scorsese has claimed to be hesitant to use that style as relentlessly ever again. And the way the movie careens from the mob's familial warmth to utter violent chaos remains, Sopranos aside, the best explication of why a life of crime can seem intermittently fun and ridiculousat least until the bodies start falling out of garbage trucks.
But what often gets forgotten about Goodfellas is how remarkably the performances are managed. Robert De Niro allows himself to fade into the backdrop until his menace is most needed, while Joe Pesci is both adorable and annoying, and Ray Liotta falls so deeply into the spirit of his in-over-his-head character that he can make even a throwaway line like "Every time I come here...every time, you two" into a sublime statement of insecurity.
Scorsese's post-Goodfellas work has been undervalued, and crackling near-misses like Casino and Bringing Out The Dead are due for reconsideration someday. Until then, fans will keep returning to Goodfellas, with its magnetic narrative pull and encyclopedic references to the kind of filmmaking Scorsese admires. It pushes the audience, just as Scorsese has always intended his films to do, but it also rewards them with showmanship comparable to any of the director's old Hollywood favorites. Jon Favreau gets it exactly right on the DVD when he says, "If you turn on cable, and Goodfellas is on, you watch it."