FILM (1968)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am

Who's That Knocking at My Door
Harvey Keitel, Zina Bethune
Director: Martin Scorsese

'Without Who's That Knocking there would have been no Mean Streets,' so said Martin Scorsese of his debut feature, an energetic slice-of-life piece, full of foretastes of the director's better-known work.

The story is slight. Young J.R. (Harvey Keitel) hangs around with his buddies in New York's Little Italy. They idle away their time drinking, fooling around, arguing, sometimes getting into fights. J.R. starts a relationship with a girl (Zina Bethune) from the other side of the tracks and feels pulled in two different directions. He and the unnamed girl split when J.R.'s old-country sexual mores prove an insurmountable hurdle.

Scorsese does not prioritise linear narrative here, preferring to build a sense of character and place through unconnected scenes, moments and images. He utilises a battery of stylistic tricks from rapid cuts to freeze frames, extreme close-ups, dissolves, slow motion, unusual camera angles and lively camera movement.

The film, shot in black and white, started as Scorsese's graduate project at New York University and took him three years to complete. Along the way the romantic subplot was added along with a fantasy sex scene in which J.R. beds several prostitutes.

As for themes, plenty of Scorsese's preoccupations are apparent: New York Italian culture; Catholicism; sexual repression; street banter; macho posturing; direct referencing of other films (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo); and regressive male attitudes to women.

The latter, an ugly staple of many Scorsese films, is mitigated somewhat by a surprising tenderness shown in how the romance develops. J.R. and the girl's first encounter on the Staten Island ferry is beautifully played by Keitel (above) and Bethune, as are subsequent rendezvous on a rooftop and at a cinema showing Rio Bravo.

The sensitivity of these scenes and the likeability of the protagonist is quite different from the largely unsympathetic gallery of hoodlums who populate most of Scorsese's mature works. At least, that is, until the lovey-dovey train hits the buffers as J.R.'s chauvinism is revealed. He has already mentioned how he sees women as either 'broads' or 'girls'.

'A broad isn't exactly a virgin, you know what I mean?' he says. 'You play around with them. You don't marry a broad.'

Things go awry when the girl reveals that she was a victim of date rape years before. J.R.'s reaction is toxic. He imagines the rape in vivid detail and reveals the depths of his Madonna/whore concept of the opposite sex. 'How can I believe that story? You let him take you out on a goddamn road and you don't even mind it.' Later, at an attempted reconciliation gone wrong - the night after he and the boys come perilously close to gang raping two 'broads' - J.R. spits out: 'Who do you think you are, the Virgin Mary? Leading me on and letting me in here at this time of morning. Who else is gonna marry you, you whore.'

Scorsese's protagonists demonstrate such misogynistic tendencies throughout his body of work so in this regard, too, Who's That Knocking at My Door (the question mark was omitted from the title for superstitious reasons) is a prototype.