#21 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Martin Scorsese’s first film was made in three distinct blocks. The first was when he set out to make a short film about the character J.R. played by Harvey Keitel titled Bring on the Dancing Girls. A couple of years later it was expanded with the story of J.R. courting The Girl and the title was changed to I Call First. A major scene, the fantastical sex sequence, was added at the insistence of the film’s purchasing producer, Joseph Brenner, in order to help market the film as a sexploitation film. Considering that fractured production history, it’s amazing at how the very young Scorsese found a way to interweave all of it in the editing bay to tell a cohesive story. It helped that the was heavily influenced by the episodic storytelling mode of Federico Fellini, especially his early great film I Vitelloni, which informs Scorsese’s movie. Scorsese essentially made I Vitelloni set on Elizabeth Street on the Lower East Side.
J.R. is a jobless young man living in the Italian part of Manhattan who spends most of his time hanging out with his friends. One owns a little bar of total insignificance, but the rest are do-nothings who get into fights and drink. The movie’s introduction to these guys is a wordless fight on the street that’s filmed rather amazingly. It centers on Joey hitting an unnamed gangster with a stick and the camera pulls backwards along the sidewalk following the gangster as he rolls away from Joey and his weapon. There’s such energy in the sequence and such an embrace of camera movement that goes along perfectly with the action that it’s obvious we’re in the hands of a talented young filmmaker from the very beginning.
One of the things that Scorsese does in stitching together the different elements together is a heavy use of flashbacks. Essentially, J.R.’s times with his friends rabblerousing is in the present and everything about his relationship with the Girl, save the very end, is in the past. He uses a quiet moment of J.R. looking off in Joey’s bar to jump back to introduce the beginning of his relationship with the Girl when they met on the Staten Island Ferry. They connect initially over a French cinema magazine that prominently features John Wayne in The Searchers. J.R. loves the movies, and his connection with the Girl ends up being based on that mass media at first. I get the sense that there’s a lot of Scorsese in J.R.
The story around the Girl is that J.R. grows to love her and he classifies her as a “nice girl” rather than a “broad”. So, he won’t have sex with her until after they’re married since she’s not the kind of girl he would just sleep with. She, though, has a secret. A previous boyfriend took her to a remote stretch of road and raped her. When she reveals this to J.R. he can’t process it, accuses her of lying, and she storms out. When he goes back to apologize, trying to keep the relationship going, he says that he forgives her, which pisses her off and she ends it completely.
Intercut with this story is the more day to day meanderings of J.R. and his friends as they rabblerouse, take a day trip to Copake, a small town in New York where J.R. and Joey climb a hill and look out over the horizon, and have a party where two girls come over and the boys terrorize them. Now, one of the small faults in this film is that the intercut footage doesn’t always naturally feel like they go together. For instance, the party scene (which was probably at least partially inspired by La Dolce Vita) ends with J.R. having an absolute blast after giving the two girls a good scare with his buddies, and then it cuts to him showing up at the Girl’s apartment to apologize for his outburst at her revelation. It doesn’t really follow, but you can imagine the intent. The party was empty emotionally for him, much like the final party in La Dolce Vita, and so he goes to the person who gave his life meaning. However the party wasn’t filmed that way, so there’s a certain disconnect there that, had the whole thing been thought out from the beginning, would have been addressed.
The sex fantasy comes at an interesting point. J.R. and the Girl have exited a screening of Rio Bravo and J.R. is talking about his theory of women, nice girls versus broads. In the middle of this explanation we get the entirety of the scene with J.R. playing around with several naked women, one at a time. It implies that he loves broads as much as he looks down on them. It’s there purely for exploitative reasons, for sure, but the young Scorsese found a way to integrate it intelligently and in a way that helped to highlight something about J.R.’s character at the same time.
It’s a rough picture, made piecemeal over years, but it also is obviously the work of a talented and hungry young filmmaker. Using many tools from montage, inserts, freeze frames, and long shots depending on the situation and applied intelligently, Scorsese showed that he had a surprising command of the medium at such a young age and with such little experience. Even sound design has a great amount of thought behind it with the song playing during the rape scene breaking down as the scene goes on and becomes more horrifying. There was real intelligence to this film, but it’s roughness and fractured production did the film no favors. With a more cohesive production process, this Scorsese guy could turn into something special.