When one describes the work of a given filmmaker, it’s often easy enough to explain what movies within that filmography are going to entail. A Federico Fellini film is circus. An Ingmar Bergman film is a dour exploration of deep meaning. A Terry Gilliam film is a fantastical movie with great production design. A Stanley Kubrick movie is a coolly calculating film of exact precision. A Christopher Nolan movie is a Stanley Kubrick movie but with wider mass appeal. An Alfred Hitchcock movie is a tension filled mystery.
But what is a Martin Scorsese movie?
It’s Goodfellas. If you were to ask most people what a Martin Scorsese movie was, you’d get a description that matches Goodfellas and little else. It would be a rip-roaring look at the underworld of gangsters with an awesome rock and roll soundtrack and Robert de Niro starring. The irony is for all of the filmmakers above, while most of them have exceptions to the rule (Fellini’s early films were neo-realist, Bergman had the delightful The Magic Flute among others, Gilliam’s The Fisher King is surprisingly grounded, etc.), their public perception rather closely matches a very large bulk of their output. However, when it comes to Scorsese, the perception is off. No, it’s outright wrong.
Martin Scorsese has made twenty-five movies since he began work in the nascent independent scene in New York in the late 60s. Of those twenty-five, three are like Goodfellas, and one of those is Goodfellas, the other two being Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street, as many movies about religious figures that he’s made. All three are the stories of men working in a certain element of the underworld (gangsters for the first two, and Wall Street for the third), rising and falling while edited together to give a relentless pace and set to a great soundtrack. The other twenty-two movies he’s made aren’t that similar in style, but that’s not to say that Scorsese doesn’t have attributes that weave through all of his work or that these three films are missing those elements. What weaves through his work just isn’t what defines his work to the mass audience.
What ties all of Scorsese’s films together isn’t gangsters, or a raucous pacing, or even Robert de Niro. Having just gone through his entire body of work, I’ve come up with three major elements that define a Scorsese movie, that make his films instantly recognizable as his and no one else’s. They are a central theme of identity, a vigorous and active use of the camera to help tell the story, and the totality of his soundtrack. There are other smaller elements, one could call them motifs, but they don’t arise frequently enough to define him. For instance, New York is a very common setting in his films, but only twelve of his twenty-five films take place there.
From his very first picture, Who’s That Knocking at My Door through his most recent, The Irishman, almost every film in Scorsese’s body of work has the central character concerned with who they are, specifically in relation to the world around them. JR, the main character of Knocking, falls in love with a girl but can’t commit to her because she becomes unclean in his eyes after he tells her a former boyfriend raped her. She no longer fits what he imagines to be the model of a marrying girl, and it has to do with his Catholic upbringing. He can mess around with one type of girl, but he can’t marry her. When the girl becomes that other type of girl, he has to struggle with himself to accept her, but he ends up doing it in a way that just angers her ending everything about the relationship.
In Mean Streets, Charlie struggles to find a way to behave in a way that he finds good in between the Church, his uncle, a figure in the local mob, and his childhood friend Johnny Boy, and he ultimately chooses wrong. Goodfellas‘s Henry Hill has to find a way to survive in a mob life, living up to it in the beginning and working against it in the end. In Kundun, the Dalai Lama struggles with his place as the living embodiment of Tibetan religion in the face of Chinese aggression. The splashiest version of this comes with The Departed where the two main characters live lives in opposition to their natures, one a mob kid who becomes a cop and the other a cop who becomes a mobster. In nearly every film, even some you may not expect, this question is just under the surface.
From the very beginning of his very first movie, Scorsese has been playing with his camera, flying it around in order to help provide energy and help tell the story. Below is the opening of Who’s That Knocking at My Door with an impossibly young Harvey Keitel:
Here is the ending gunfight from his second movie, the Roger Corman production Boxcar Bertha. He throws his camera around with every gunshot to provide some of the movie’s sole charm, an embrace of exploitation that the rest of the movie can’t really replicate or rise above:
In a more refined aspect, here is Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy giving his jokes to a wall display of an audience as the camera steadily pulls back to help reveal the inner madness of the character:
Most famously is, of course, Goodfellas when Henry Hill takes his date and future wife, Karen, to the Copacabana Club through the back entrance. Going down through the kitchen and out into the floor where he gets a primo seat instantly provided for him, along with a bottle of champagne, it’s a microcosm of the life he leads: consequence free and expensive, and you can see Karen loving every second this guy in construction is doing it.
He didn’t stop there with notable examples in The Aviator, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and The Irishman. Scorsese understands how to use his camera, flowingly, to help tell the story of who people are, their relationships to each other, and even to simply thrill.
The soundtrack is much more than just musical selections, but I’m going to focus on both the music and Scorsese’s use of voiceover to tell his stories. Voiceover is a tool of storytelling, and like any tool it can be used well and it can be used poorly. It mostly gets used poorly to explain things that should have been shown in other ways in the script or with the camera, however the way that Scorsese mainly uses it comes to a different point. It’s about setting the scene originally (similarly to how Billy Wilder used voiceover extensively at the beginning of his movies) and then painting in the edges.
Look at Taxi Driver, for instance. In that film, Travis Bickle has a certain kind of narration through recitation of the character’s journal entries and letters back to his parents. If you were to completely cut the voiceover from the film, it’d still be eminently possible to understand Bickle’s descent into madness brought on by loneliness and rejection as well as the filth of 1970s New York that surrounds him. It comes out through his interactions with other characters and, of course, how the camera treats him like when it pulls away from him as he’s being rejected by his idol of a woman, Betsy. What the voiceover does is provide greater detail into the character’s mind through such things as his outright lies to his parents about what he’s doing and who he’s working for. His journal entries underline his obsession with Betsy, emphasizing how no one should ever be able to touch her, elevating her above being a woman into being some sort of goddess (perhaps a Madonna, even). It helps to frame the action, never defining it.
In The Irishman, Frank Sheeran narrates his life from a retirement home where he mostly sits alone, providing his personal perspective on events we see occurring on screen. His softening of his own image as we watch him perform terrible things helps to illustrate his own blindness to his faults in his character. His opinions of Russell Bufalino, the mobster, are at odds with the man we see, especially as we can tell from the perspective of Frank’s daughter, the nearly silent Peggy. His voiceover acts as an ironic counterpoint to the life we’re seeing play out, highlighting for the audience the choices that Frank made that led him to being left alone by his family instead of surrounded by them in his final days.
Music is the other side of this equation, and Scorsese is widely renowned for his ability to needle drop rock and roll music into scenes to help frame them in particular, and often, unexpected ways. “Jumping Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones is our introduction to Robert de Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. It’s told from Harvey Keitel’s Charlie’s perspective, and it’s a demonstration of just how damn cool Charlie sees this complete screw up of a person, despite Charlie’s efforts to help him straighten out:
In Shutter Island Scorsese and his musical collaborator Robbie Robertson of The Band chose to use Gustav Mahler’s “Quartet for Strings and Piano in A Minor” in a key scene. The action moves back and forth in time as the main character, Teddy, speaks with a German psychologist and Teddy recalls events from the Second World War where Teddy helped liberate Dachau. The Romantic composer’s work, which was banned by the Nazi regime but played by the death camp’s commandant in preparation for his suicide, creates a link between past and present with a haunting movement of an abandoned piece that helps illuminate the fractured nature of the main character’s experiences. Warning, this contains some gore.
Even when he doesn’t use sourced or diagetic music, instead using a composer, the music isn’t just window dressing to fill auditory space. There’s a specific intent at play. Howard Shore’s score for Hugo feels very much of the movie, feeling like it belongs in 1930s Paris. It also helps underscore the emotional aspect of the film, like in the below scene where Georges, the owner of the toy shop at the train station, flips through a notebook that has connections to his past (“ghosts”, as he says). The music crescendos with mysterious anticipation and then ends conclusively when the image of the automaton in the book stares directly at him. It enhances the moment in a specific way, giving us the same kind of pause that Georges has in that moment.
The Martin Scorsese Film
Is it that Goodfellas is missing any of these elements? No, not in the least. Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street contain them all. The thing is that they contain elements that the rest of his movies don’t share in such great amount that they become unrepresentative of the rest of the body of work. They fully occupy one pocket of the filmography, and because he has such a varied filmography there are many pockets. There’s the religious pocket, the gangster pocket, the Goodfellas pocket, the movies about movies pocket, a feminist film pocket, and even a children’s movie pocket.
So, looking through his entire filmography what movie exemplifies his greatest qualities as a director? The one movie that you could boil his entire filmography down to? I think that’s easy.
It’s The Age of Innocence.
Every major elements that makes a Scorsese movie a Scorsese movie is here. Adapted from the Edith Wharton novel, it’s about a man and a woman striving to be together against the wishes of the society around them. She is a married woman, married to a count an ocean away that treats her horribly, and he’s engaged to her cousin. His heart wants to advise her to divorce her husband so that they can be together, but he works against his own wishes and helps convince her to stay, ultimately remaining in a marriage he knows is less happy than the one he could have had. Scorsese has called it his most violent film, not because there is gore but because the emotional violence is so acute and powerful that it transcends the physical harm visited in others of his films.
Look at the clip below. It exemplifies both of the other two elements perfectly. First, watch it with the sound off, and you see a roving camera over a party scene in late 19th century New York City’s high society. We see Winona Ryder’s May way to the camera, Newland Archer’s perspective, but the camera moves away from her instantly to try and follow the conversation of Countess Olenska, his wished to be lover, before following the others in the room and then suddenly focusing back on May. There’s a story being told simply by whom the camera is looking at.
Turning the sound on, we hear the voiceover providing the context that we can gather from watching the whole movie but provides the emotional punch in the scene specifically. The whole room is not talking about Newland and the Countess, meaning that they all know about the love affair that has never even been consummated, including May, Newland’s wife. Everything gains a new aspect, and the punch is real.
Is The Age of Innocence Scorsese’s best movie? I don’t think so, but I do consider it one of his best. However I do think it is the most perfect example of Scorsese’s strengths as a filmmaker in one package. This, more so than Goodfellas, is what I think of when I think of a Scorsese film.