A native of New York City, Martin Scorsese (born 1942) was raised in the Italian-American community, and his work often deals with violence, as well as Roman Catholic notions of guilt and redemption. From an early age, he loved both Hollywood studio movies and European art films. Also, he has long been interested in music, and he's a genius at matching it to visual images. As for actors, he's had a particularly productive relationship with Robert De Niro, who appears in five of the movies described below. Ordered by date of theatrical release, here's my list of Scorsese's top films available on DVD:
A personal film of raw intensity, Mean Streets
is about young guys in Little Italy, where Scorsese grew up. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Feast of San Gennaro, a street festival. The main character is 20-something Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), who feels a deep need to seek atonement. The other important character is the foolish Johnny Boy Civello (Robert De Niro), who is introduced to The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Johnny Boy is behind on his payments to a loan shark, and Charlie must help him because "You don't make up for your sins in church — you do it in the streets."
"I'm God's lonely man," says the emotionally disturbed Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), cruising nighttime Manhattan, his meter clicking while through the window he sees impressionistic images of red and green traffic lights and garish neon. On the soundtrack an alto sax plays a lament of romantic yearning. But his attempt to date an office worker (Cybill Shepherd) ends in debacle, and he begins thinking he can "rescue" a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster). Bickle fixates on the notion he must perform some meaningful act, and as he rehearses with guns in front of a mirror, he asks, "You talkin' to me?"
Scorsese was going through a troubled period in his life both personally and professionally when he made The Last Waltz
, but that may have helped him capture an end-of-an-era feeling in the documentary. The film focuses on the farewell concert of The Band, a five-man Canadian-American rock group breaking up after 16 years of touring. The Band is famous for "The Weight," done here with The Staple Singers. Other guest performers include Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Muddy Waters. The Band's guitarist Robbie Robertson later collaborated with Scorsese on some of his movies.
Arguably Scorsese's greatest film, Raging Bull
is inspired by real-life professional boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), who was once middleweight champion. But Scorsese brought to the movie his knowledge of everyday Italian-American life and put the "Intermezzo" from Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana
on the soundtrack. The film is a subtle character study of an unlikable man who relates to the world by giving and taking punishment. Late in the movie, there's an indication that as La Motta languishes in jail, he may be beginning to come to terms with his demons when he wails, "I'm not an animal."
As a teenager, Scorsese began studies to become a priest, and he later made a movie about the life of Jesus. But he chose Kazantzakis' novel as source material, and the film's version of the story differs markedly from tradition. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) builds crosses for the Romans, while Judas (Harvey Keitel) is a righteous man, not a traitor. The tattooed Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) is shown as a prostitute at work, her waiting room filled with customers. The film explores the Christian mystery that although Jesus was fully divine, he was nevertheless fully human. Peter Gabriel's soundtrack music won a Grammy.
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," narrates Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), reminiscing from the safety of the witness protection program about his years as a Mafia foot soldier. Based on a true crime book by Nicholas Pileggi, GoodFellas
is filmmaking at its most dazzling and exuberant. Who but Scorsese would put the song "Layla" over a montage of corpses of people who had been whacked? Also, there's the tour-de-force sequence where Henry takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copa. And Joe Pesci is genuinely scary as the psychotic Tommy demanding, "Whatta ya mean, I'm funny?"
"He knew that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife. He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp," says the narrator about Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), the protagonist in The Age of Innocence
. The story is adapted from Edith Wharton's novel, and the tribe consists of 1870s New York aristocrats for whom observing rituals and a rigid social code means everything. Archer's marriage is perfect from his society's point of view, but he falls hard for a woman who threatens the tribal order. This is one of Scorsese's best films, and its beauty reflects his admiration for Visconti's The Leopard
Scorsese brilliantly captures the tacky glamour of 1970s Las Vegas in Casino
. The protagonist is Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), who runs the fictional Tangiers so the Mafia can skim its profits. When a customer is caught cheating, they take a hammer and break his fingers. Joe Pesci portrays a psychopathic made man, and when Ace becomes smitten with a great-looking hustler (Sharon Stone), Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" plays on the soundtrack. At the end Ace says wistfully, "The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland."
Scorsese was in his late teens when 20-year-old Bob Dylan began performing in Greenwich Village, and decades later, the filmmaker made a documentary about the early part of the singer-songwriter's career. Dylan first achieved fame doing counterculture folk songs, and his "Blowin' in the Wind" became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. But he later transitioned to more commercial material, and when a concert-goer screamed "Judas!" at him, he responded with an electrified rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone." Perhaps what drew Scorsese's interest here was the relationship between artist and audience.
"I don't wanna be a product of my environment — I want my environment to be a product of me," says crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Soon Costello is shown recruiting young Colin Sullivan as The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is heard. Later the grownup Sullivan (Matt Damon) joins the Massachusetts State Police, where he works to protect Costello's interests. But in an effort to bring down Costello, the staties give trooper Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) an elaborate cover, and he infiltrates the mobster's inner circle. The Departed
is a meticulously plotted tale of loyalty and betrayal.