“A filmmaker shows what his career will be in his first 150 feet of film,” François Truffaut once wrote. He was talking about Jean Vigo at the time, but he might as well have been talking about Martin Scorsese, whose early short films—from the narrative works of his student years at New York University and immediately afterward to the midlength documentaries he made as his feature-filmmaking career was getting underway—reveal the energy, eclecticism, and invention that would make him one of the most exciting American directors of the seventies and, eventually, one of the great artists of our time.
Scorsese’s preternatural command of the medium—including his ability, from the beginning, to make heavily referential work that nonetheless steers clear of seeming derivative—is nowhere better demonstrated than in 1967’s five-minute The Big Shave, not his first film (and so technically outside the limits set by Truffaut) but one he made soon after finishing at NYU. The luminous static shots of a bare bathroom that kick off the movie—gleaming chrome faucets, a porcelain sink so spotless it’d be a sin to touch it—recall the fetishized images of engines, gears, bolts, and steel surfaces that open Scorpio Rising (1963) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), both by avant-garde legend Kenneth Anger, whose influence Scorsese has often cited. The surreal, increasingly chaotic action that follows also harks back to Anger’s work—particularly Scorpio Rising, which starts in solemn reverie before accelerating into rapid-fire mayhem—and certainly owes a debt to Luis Buñuel, that high priest of international cinematic surrealism, who had entered a late-career resurgence in the sixties. But it’s also pure Scorsese, in the nonchalance with which a young man (Peter Bernuth) enters the bathroom, rubs on some shaving cream, and calmly cuts his face to ribbons. What we first think may be mishaps—an errant slice below the ear here, an upper-lip gash there—are soon revealed to be . . . well, something else, as the man carries on shaving and cutting himself, the blood streaming from his face, filling the once-immaculate white sink, and dribbling onto the clean tile floor.
Scorsese intended for The Big Shave to be a comment on U.S. involvement in Vietnam—the film ends with the gnomic credit “Viet ’67”—the war being very much on every young person’s mind at the time (the director’s heroes in the French New Wave had also begun tackling the issue). And certainly, we can sense in this portrait of a man blankly inflicting violence on himself a metaphoric anger at a nation engaged in slaughter and tearing itself apart while its ostensible leaders proceeded as if everything were normal. But there’s also more to The Big Shave than that. The twenty-four-year-old Scorsese, full of ambition, had been struggling to finish and find a distributor for his debut feature, eventually called Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). A promised internship with Paramount—his prize for winning the Screen Producers Guild award for best student film of 1964, for his junior-year project It’s Not Just You, Murray!—had been scuttled after the studio changed leadership. “Consciously, [The Big Shave] was an angry outcry against the war,” Scorsese reflected years later. “But in reality, something else was going on inside of me, I think, which really had nothing to do with the war. It was just a very bad period, a very bad period.” The music that plays over the film, Bunny Berigan’s classic 1937 recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” may have been a popular love song, but it also speaks to emotional paralysis, an inability to move forward.
Did audiences take the film as an expression of rage or simply as a cosmic, surreal joke? The film had been made for and financed by an avant-garde film festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium. Scorsese wasn’t present at the premiere there but later recalled the journalist and programmer Amos Vogel telling him that, as Scorsese put it, “the reaction was amazing. People were angry. People were laughing, and I think laughing out of the horror of it, maybe.” But according to the director, when The Big Shave screened alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend at the New York Film Festival in 1968, “the reaction was hilarity. And I said, Hmm, I guess it’s funny.”
“Scoresese’s fascination with slaughter has always been that of an anthropologist—he is calm in its face but cannot turn away.”
Scorsese had managed to make a picture that processed his influences into something very much his while also pointing a way forward for him thematically: the treatment of violence with a seemingly paradoxical mixture of absurdism and studied indifference would, of course, become a hallmark of the director’s career. Although he spent much of his childhood in the gritty, working-class Manhattan neighborhood of Little Italy, Scorsese himself was a shy, asthmatic movie obsessive, not a budding tough guy. His fascination with slaughter has always been that of an anthropologist—he is calm in its face but cannot turn away. And The Big Shave certainly feels like a harbinger of those later Scorsese films in which violence (or the promise of violence) is just a monstrous part of the fabric of everyday life, somehow both routine and unpredictable. As in that scene in Goodfellas (1990) where Joe Pesci’s character casually tells his mom one morning that he needs to borrow a large knife—and we know that it’s so he can slice up a body he needs to hide.
By the time he made The Big Shave, Scorsese had already established himself as a promising young filmmaker, with deft narrative skills, an inventive sense of style, and a freewheeling allusiveness. All of these elements are present in the ten-minute What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), the first solo film he made at NYU, as part of a summer workshop taught by his beloved mentor Haig Manoogian. In it, an aspiring writer (played by Zeph Michaelis, who also narrates) moves into his first New York City apartment and promptly becomes obsessed with a seemingly unremarkable photo of a man in a boat. Struggling to free himself from the image’s grip, he throws a party, where he meets a beautiful painter, whom he marries. She then proceeds to paint pictures of an empty body of water, with which our hero also becomes enraptured, and into which he eventually (literally) disappears.
Maybe in this tale of a man consumed by a picture, Scorsese saw an echo of his own all-consuming passion for cinema, his desire to disappear into the images on-screen. What makes Nice Girl so watchable, though, isn’t its underlying meaning but rather the frantic, fractured, contrapuntal fashion in which it unfolds: scenes are often presented in quick freeze-frames; eyes and mouths and other body parts are isolated and intercut; a stone-faced pal regularly interjects to repeat whatever cliché the narrator just uttered. “It’s more influenced by Ernie Kovacs and Mel Brooks than anything else,” Scorsese has observed, but one can find references in it to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, to the films of Ingmar Bergman and the fiction of Algernon Blackwood. And although Nice Girl introduces serious themes that the director has regularly returned to—obsession, alienation, delusion—a playfulness and resourcefulness temper the story here, turning it into a fleet-footed lark.
A similar confidence runs through Scorsese’s next student effort, the far more ambitious It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964), an epic tale of a small-time hoodlum and his controlling, duplicitous best friend, told in sixteen quick minutes. (“It was basically Goodfellas,” the director said to Richard Schickel years later, presumably with a chuckle.) It opens with a delightful bit of character exposition, as the protagonist, Murray (Ira Rubin), shows off what he is wearing to the camera. “See this tie? Twenty dollars. See these shoes? Fifty dollars. See this suit? Two hundred dollars,” he preens, before realizing that he has forgotten to introduce himself. Scorsese would have recognized this type of wiseguy from the Italian American community in which he grew up. As Scorsese biographer Vincent LoBrutto describes it, “The Big Shot is all about pseudosuperiority. A fresh razor haircut, an imported cigar, flashy clothes, and a big American gas-guzzling car were prize attributes . . . His eyes were always focused upward, not to the heavens but above the peons.”
But for all Murray’s pride, the film lays him low, as Scorsese has gone
on to do with the protagonists of so many of his gangster narratives. It
briskly recounts his life, showing his (somewhat homoerotic) friendship
with the handsome and more successful Joe (Sam DeFazio), their foray
into bootlegging bathtub gin, Murray’s stint in prison (during which Joe
tells him not to talk to anybody), Murray’s wedding to his nurse (who
clearly has eyes for Joe), Murray’s growing family (even though his kids
are clearly Joe’s), even a brief detour into the two men’s career
producing musical theater, perhaps in an attempt to go legit (but really
so Scorsese could stage a dime-store Busby Berkeley number). Along the
way, the narration switches from Murray to Joe and back to Murray again,
a device that Scorsese would use again a quarter century later, to
electric effect, in Goodfellas. And it all concludes with an extended homage to the ending of 8½,
with Murray the proto-auteur, decked out like Marcello Mastroianni’s
director character from the Federico Fellini film, marching the figures
from his life past the camera.
Again, Scorsese’s frenetic sense of movement and narrative helps make the movie, but we also see him deepening and complicating his characters. Though Murray’s ignorance of the fact that his best friend and his wife are getting it on is funny, there’s also a poignancy to his loyalty to Joe. One might even be reminded of Frank Sheeran’s self-destructive devotion to Russell Bufalino in the director’s 2019 film The Irishman. In these early narrative shorts, Scorsese finds the kinds of characters he would continue to gravitate toward: ambitious but weak men, big talkers and dreamers who also happen to be deeply self-destructive.
By the time Scorsese returned to short-form filmmaking, he had established himself as a feature director of some repute. The independently financed, promising half-amateur effort of Who’s That Knocking at My Door would lead to a chance to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972) for B-movie impresario Roger Corman, and then the director’s very personal breakthrough picture, Mean Streets (1973); the Oscar-winning Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore followed in 1974. Scorsese’s shorts from the mid- to late seventies are a far cry from the student-film experimentalism and youthful verve of the earlier works. Indeed, the two medium-length sit-down documentaries that Scorsese made during this period—Italianamerican (1974), a visit with his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese; and American Boy (1978), an interview with Steven Prince, a formerly drug-addicted friend of the director’s who had made a memorable appearance as a fast-talking gun dealer in 1976’s Taxi Driver—offer nuanced, human portraits that stand as something of a contrast to the dark energies of Scorsese’s narrative features from this period. We could even think of these two films as complements to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver: Produced for a television series about immigrants called A Storm of Strangers and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Italianamerican functions as a loving evocation of Italian American experience in New York—an affectionate flip side of the brutal milieu of Mean Streets. Meanwhile, American Boy offers a look at how a sweet suburban kid got sucked into a life of drugs and violence and lived to tell the tale, offering an understated real-world corollary to Travis Bickle’s polite rube turned deranged vigilante.
“When we hear Scorsese’s parents, we realize that the now-iconic cadences of Scorsese’s characters are not fanciful movieland creations but reflections of a real American subculture.”
The early moments of Italianamerican demonstrate Scorsese’s skill in establishing the warmth of his settings. The director includes himself on-screen, sitting across from his parents in their living room. Catherine strolls over to the kitchen to make pasta sauce, as a camera follows her. Charles remains on the couch, talking about his own mom’s cooking. It’s the kind of split interaction one rarely sees in documentaries, yet it carries the rhythms of real life, as if we’re at an actual party where different conversations are happening in different rooms. The easygoing familiarity of the film is further enhanced by Scorsese’s own participation, as he asks questions, answers some tossed his way, and has wine and pasta with his parents, as much a beloved son as an inquisitive director.
As the rambling conversation with his parents delves into the past—touching on his grandparents’ respective cooking skills, the finer points of homemade wine, life in the old country—the director intersperses family photos, archival footage of other immigrants, and images of Little Italy present and past. The cutaways are quick, giving these moments the cadence of fleeting thoughts. They also contrast with the specificity of his parents’ memories, prompting the viewer to wonder at all the many individual stories contained within those black-and-white images of anonymous human faces. (It is an idea that returns in The Age of Innocence, Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel of romance among the upper echelons of nineteenth-century New York society, in which the director briefly cuts to a shot of his parents as newly arrived immigrants, alluding to a whole other side of the city that we don’t otherwise see in the film.)
It is intriguing to see the jovial, chatty Catherine—whose appearance in The Age of Innocence is but one of a number of memorable cameos in her son’s films, the most notable being that of the aforementioned knife-lending, unsuspecting mom in Goodfellas—alongside the far more reticent, even tense Charles. Each could be a different Scorsese archetype: the chatterbox hustler and the somber figure of authority. Watching (and listening to) Italianamerican, we can hear where Scorsese’s characters get their intonations, particularly that rat-a-tat repetitiveness that has become synonymous with gangster-speak. Consider this early exchange between the director and his mother, which is the kind of who’s-on-first back-and-forth that one can easily imagine Robert De Niro and Pesci or Harvey Keitel engaging in during a later film:
MARTIN: You were gonna tell us about the sauce. You were gonna show us how to do the sauce.
CATHERINE: What should I say?
MARTIN: Well, you’re gonna get up and show it to us. But I wanted to know who— How’d you learn it?
CATHERINE: Well, what are you asking me?
MARTIN: About the sauce. How did you learn how to make sauce?
CATHERINE: I’m supposed to be talking to you?
MARTIN: You can talk to me, them, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be over here.
CATHERINE: Should I mention your name?
MARTIN: It doesn’t matter. Yeah, mention my name.
CATHERINE: Do you want me to tell you how I learned to make sauce? Why don’t you ask me the question? Don’t you hear that, then? I mean, if you were to ask me a question, I would answer.
In such delightfully rambling, no-bullshit exchanges, we can hear what the film historian Robert Kolker, writing about the dialogue of Mean Streets, has described as a “community of shared verbal rhythms and expressions.” When we hear Scorsese’s parents, we realize that the now-iconic cadences of Scorsese’s characters are not fanciful movieland creations but reflections of a real American subculture.
American Boy has a similarly garrulous atmosphere, but this time it’s not the warm, inviting world of the Scorsese family but the strung-out, unpredictable realm of Hollywood hedonism. The first shot, in fact, is of Scorsese and Prince in a hot tub, though the rest of the film takes place entirely in the living room of actor George Memmoli’s Los Angeles bungalow. Prince isn’t even present at first: when he arrives, he gleefully lunges at Memmoli, and the two proceed to wrestle on the floor for an extended period of time. They’re clearly horsing around, but they do so with commitment and intensity. The heavyset Memmoli’s shirt winds up hiked above his chest, his glasses knocked off his face, while Scorsese and others show their amusement at the chaos.
The various stories that Prince subsequently tells—about growing up in Great Neck, New York; selling bagels to Jewish suburbanites there at a premium; getting out of serving in Vietnam by saying he’d had homosexual experiences; and having to give an adrenaline shot to a woman who had overdosed on heroin (an incident that Quentin Tarantino borrowed wholesale for Pulp Fiction)—are given chapter headings that are superimposed on home movies of Prince as a happy, fresh-faced kid, providing an ironic contrast.
Scorsese’s framing of Prince initially privileges setting and a casual sense of community. A woman looks on and smiles in the background as he speaks. People drift in and out of the shot. Equipment is sometimes visible. But Prince also has an erratic, theatrical grandiosity. He recreates certain moments with real dramatic force: witness the way he relates the story of coming across a nine-hundred-pound silverback gorilla living in a pothead friend’s apartment, or that of a wild, dangerous Fourth of July boat trip on the Long Island Sound with a drunk sailor friend and his wife. We realize that part of the reason why Scorsese is so fascinated by this person is that it’s not entirely clear what he will do or say next.
As the picture proceeds, however, Prince seems lonelier within the frame, and the environment becomes quieter. The stories get darker too. He tells us about watching a young man accidentally electrocute himself in Tompkins Square Park. He recalls Neil Diamond’s attempts to get him to quit drugs, which he rebuffed. In the most dramatic of his tales, he reenacts (with an actual pistol) unloading a .44 Magnum into a man who attacked him during a gas-station robbery. As is the case with so many Scorsese characters, we sense that underneath Prince’s confidence lies a darker, more melancholy streak. This becomes clear right at the end, as he recalls a conversation he had with his dying father, who asked him if he was enjoying his life. Prince replies that he told his father that he was. But then, the most remarkable thing happens (at least, for a documentary). Scorsese interrupts and reminds Prince that his demeanor was different when he related the story to him earlier—that there was “a little more sincerity to it.” So he makes Prince do it all over again, two more times—each time working toward a more earnest place. Pushed and prodded by Scorsese, Prince finally gets to the heart of the exchange with his father, and it winds up being the last line of the film: “He said to me, ‘I know you’re a survivor, and you can do well in whatever you do, but are you happy?’ And I told him, yeah, I was happy.” It is a telling moment, not because it breaks a documentary fourth wall (something that these films constantly do) but because it acknowledges that this ostensible record of reality may all along have been constructed, even staged.
And there’s a deeper resonance here too. Made in the period following the success of Taxi Driver and during a time when Scorsese was working on the epic musical homage New York, New York (1977) and the concert film The Last Waltz (1978)—at one point, he was reportedly cutting all three pictures simultaneously—American Boy coincides with an increasingly out-of-control period in the director’s own life, full of depression and drugs. He had become entangled in Hollywood nightlife, and his marriage was falling apart. Scorsese has been open about this period, though not necessarily specific. (We do know that, sometime in 1978, he wound up in the hospital for ten days, near death, and that a fateful visit from De Niro led to their making Raging Bull together the following year.) So maybe in having Prince recount the reconciliation with his father multiple times, Scorsese was, in part, expressing a hope for his own moment of redemption.
Scorsese would, of course, continue to make nonfiction films after American Boy and The Last Waltz: epic documentaries on Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, and Italian and American cinema would become a key part of his output from the nineties on. And he has occasionally revisited the world of the short-form narrative as well, most notably in Life Lessons, his deliriously stylized episode of the 1989 omnibus film New York Stories, a mini-masterpiece about art, muses, and obsession in its own right. But the greatest legacy of Scorsese’s early shorts—narrative and documentary alike—is evident across his entire filmography: in his continued willingness to take stylistic risks, to play with narrative structure, and to examine his characters through and through, the director has never lost the spirit of restless experimentation that defined his student work, or the personal intimacy of his early nonfiction portraiture.