He doesn’t have a definitive “style”. Mostly, his work seems stuck in an aesthetic no man’s land, lost between Golden era Hollywood acumen and post-modern revisionist rebellion. He strives for art and almost always succeeds. Yet his mainstream profile is often pitted with complaints of high brow brazenness and an addiction to cursing, crime, and violence. Both may be true, but not completely illustrative of this amazing American auteur. Instead, he reinvents himself with every film, following his own unique ideals while constantly staying cemented in the language of the artform.
Now, with his latest film Shutter Island set to be released after a seemingly unnecessary six month delay, SE&L looks back on ten terrific films by Martin Scorsese, arguing that in almost every one of his many movies, there’s a pivotal point of clear cinematic polish (sometimes, more than one - many more). While not nearly all encompassing, it highlights how, often, one singular scene can redefine what appears to be a standard genre offering. In Scorsese’s case, it happens so regularly that it’s almost ridiculous to point them out. We begin with one of his most underrated masterworks:
Rupert “Rehearses” His Talk Show [The King of Comedy (1982)]
Geeks of the world, rejoice - here is your real deal role model in all his bad suit and wry moustached mannerism. As a basement dwelling fame whore desperate to connect with his favorite late night host, Rupert Pupkin represents the soon to be omnipresent nerd, the obsessive given over to cardboard recreations of his possible panel time, as well as dreams that wander dangerously over into dementia. While comedienne Sandra Bernhard would illustrates the price one pays for taking such passions to extremes, DeNiro’s star stalker savant gets perilously close as well.
Christ “Succumbs” to the Last Temptation [The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)]
While many argued over its blasphemous nature, the truth is that Scorsese’s illustration of Nikos Kazantzakis primary hypothesis - that Christ’s death was a mandatory “good” for the world - remains as holy and sacred as any Gospel. Indeed, had the writers of the Bible understood the very nature of the myths they were creating, they would have included something like this amazing epiphany as well. Forget all the Fundamentalist naysayers who struggle to find fault with what is basically proof of Jesus’ destiny. Simply sit back and enjoy a deeply religious man’s take on the faith that has formed so much of his creative spark.
Tommy Hyatt Tries to Tell a Joke [Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
In a wonderful, warm scene between mother and son, runaway widow Alice Hyatt tries to connect with her rock and roll riddled offspring. The shortcut to such a bond becomes a bad joke about hunters, a trained hound, and a man’s testicles. As our underage stand-up tries over and over again to convince his mother of the story’s humor, he finally lets out an exasperated query. “You do know what balls are, right?” “Yeah, nuts…” says Alice, establishing a link that will last throughout the remaining ups and downs of this feminist journey of self-discovery.
Travis Takes Down Sport [Taxi Driver (1976)]
Moral incongruity as bloodsport. A Messiah with a mohawk, a hand gun, and an ethical death wish. When Robert DeNiro’s self-proclaimed savior of the New York streets takes on the pimp pushing a teenage Jodie Foster further and further into an irredeemable future, he does so with weapons literally blazing. For mid ‘70s audiences it was shocking in its graphic nature. Thirty plus years later, it’s still startling, but also argues for the mixed message meaning of the era. Travis Bickle remains the most enigmatic anti-hero in the history of cinema, so his actions aren’t unexpected. But even in victory, his gore-drenched designs defy easy description.
Lionel Dobie Paints a Masterpiece [New York Stories: “Life Lessons” (1989)]
As Bob Dylan literally growls out a guttural rave-up version of his classic “Like a Rolling Stone”, Nick Nolte grabs a paintbrush, an aluminum pie pan filled with colors, and attacks a massive canvas with creative abandon in what is, without doubt, the best sequence in a trio of short films that are more ambition than actual payoff. Still, no one has captured the skill and magic of making art better than Scorsese, who uses washes of tint and blending mediums to argue for the intrinsic talent in some people, and the problem they often face in getting it to translate to the masses.
Dylan Goes “Electric” [No Direction Home (2005)]
In this brilliant documentary on the rise of the ‘60s iconic folk singer, Scorsese flawlessly illustrates the exact moment when one Robert Zimmerman went from protest insider to rock and roll outsider. Using expert stock footage and varying viewpoints from those in attendance, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival becomes the turning point of the decade, a moment where innocence twisted to irresponsibility, when a search for peace and humanity morphed into a headlong leap into hedonism. Dylan’s intent may have been pure, but his feedback laden performance redirected the course of US history.
The Elevator Double-Cross [The Departed (2006)]
It’s one of those twists that come out of left field, a Hitchcockian turn where a star sees his fortunes turn in the flash of a gun muzzle. Up until this point, it looks like Leonardo DiCaprio’s undercover cop is going to get away with his informant ruse. Simultaneously, Matt Damon’s corrupt officer appears ripe for exposure. It all seems to be falling into place - and then an unexpected stop on the second floor leads to one of the most shocking gunshots ever offered in a Scorsese film. It’s a moment that resonates with multiple layers of betrayal…that is, until Mark Wahlberg shows up to set things right.
Nicky Santoro Gets “Interrupted” [Casino (1995)]
For nearly three hours, it’s been a battle of conflicting narrations. On the one side is professional gambler (and mafia front) Sam “Ace” Rothstein. On the other is a Las Vegas mob enforcer and all around incarnation of evil. As he spirals out of control, Nicky defends himself over and over again, complaining of his treatment at the hands of the bosses and his backstabbing buddy Sam. Then suddenly - WHAM! - a baseball bat clips the crook behind the knees. Without warning, Nicky is set up: first, to watch his brother almost beaten to death; the next, to bear witness to his own date with a buried alive destiny.
Jimmy Wants Karen to “Pick Out Some Dresses” [Goodfellas (1990)]
In a film overflowing with cinematic perfection, it’s hard to single out a solitary seminal moment. That being said, the tension in this exchange between DeNiro’s suspicious mobster and Lorraine Bracco’s scared moll is enough to make every last hair stand up on the nape of your neck. What exactly where Jimmy’s motives, and what fate awaited Karen if she did wander down that deserted street and into that sinister shop doorway. We’ll never know - and that’s what makes this sequence so special.
Jake Has a Question [Raging Bull (1980)]
“Did you f*ck my wife?” He asks it over and over again. His brother won’t “legitimize” such a “sick question” with a response, only making matters worse. Of all the great moments between DeNiro (as fallen boxer Jake LaMotta) and Joe Pesci (as his befuddled brother Joey), this one is the most electrifying. That Scorsese would trump the moment to amplify it in a similarly styled clash between LaMotta and his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) argues for his brilliance as a filmmaker.