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Martin Scorsese: Portrait of an Auteur

Brian Doxtader | Friday, October 13, 2006

The critical consensus on “The Departed” is that Scorsese has returned to the mean streets where he belongs, but even a cursory glance at his filmography proves that he never really left. The director has directed a handful of true classics, many of which rank among the very best films of all time.

Mean Streets (1973, Warners)Scorsese shows off his film school background right off the bat and establishes many of his defining cinematic and thematic tendencies in this, his first major critical success. Taking cues from the French New Wave and boasting a fast-paced dialogue style, “Mean Streets” follows Charlie as he attempts to keep his twisted morals straight. Featuring a young Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy, Scorsese quickly solidified the themes and motifs that would become his calling cards – religion, morality, gangsters, profanity and (ultimately) a sort of redemption.

Taxi Driver (1976, Columbia)A major critical success, “Taxi Driver” helped vault Scorsese into directorial stardom. A terrifying examination of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate paranoia, the film follows Travis Bickle (DeNiro), an unhinged taxi driver as he attempts to save a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her dominating pimp (Harvey Keitel). The most famous scene, in which DeNiro stands in front of a mirror saying, “You talkin’ to me?” is one of the great sequences in cinema history. Scorsese’s energy and cinematic technique is evident throughout, though “Taxi Driver” hasn’t aged quite as well as some of the director’s other films. It is a picture about its time, and as a snapshot “Taxi Driver” is very effective.

Raging Bull (1980, UA)In the late 1970s, Scorsese suffered a drug overdose and nearly died. While in the hospital, he was approached by Robert DeNiro, who asked him to make “Raging Bull” about real-life middeweight boxing Jake LaMotta. Scorsese eventually agreed and used filmmaking as an emotional and artistic outlet. The final product is, without doubt, Scorsese’s finest film, which in turn makes it one of the finest films of all time. DeNiro gives the performance of his life as LaMotta, first sparring over 1,000 rounds with the real-life boxer, then gaining nearly 60 pounds to play the former champion as a washed-up, middle-age schmuck. Scorsese is DeNiro’s equal every step of the way, crafting a picture to match the actor’s stunning performance. The most famous scenes are the boxing sequences, which are both impressionistic and artistic. “Raging Bull” was nominated for several Oscars and won Best Actor and Best Editing.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1987, Universal)Oddly one of Scorsese’s most personal films, “The Last Temptation of Christ” is a controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzaki’s equally controversial novel of the same name. Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as a street-tough Judas, the picture follows the life of Christ up to his crucifixion and death. Scorsese brings his Catholic upbringing into the film, giving a surprisingly pro-religious bent to the proceedings. “The Last Temptation of Christ” was poorly received due to its departure from scripture, though Scorsese received a Best Director Oscar nomination for his work.

Goodfellas (1990, Warners)A wild exploration of “three decades of life in the mob,” “Goodfellas” may be the director’s most fast-paced and frenetic film. Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, a low-level gangster whose rise and fall is documented over the course of a driving 150 minutes. Every Scorsese trick in the book is pulled out, from long tracking shots to freeze frames. The best shot may be a long, 181-second tracking shot through the underbelly of the Copacabana that ends onstage. This fantastic shot literally takes the viewer through the privileged life of a small-time gangster. Like most Scorsese films, “Goodfellas” features great acting, especially by Joe Pesci, whose Tommy DeVito is as terrifying as they come – it won the diminutive actor a Best Supporting Actor.

From the sacred to the profane, Scorsese’s films have run the gamut, but his themes and stylistic tendencies have remained largely the same. As a director and filmmaker, he has grown and evolved over the years, which makes the sacred profanity of “The Departed” seem at once effortless and familiar. Yet there is a freshness to his latest film that proves that, despite his age, Scorsese remains one of the best filmmakers in the world and one of the few remaining auteurist cornerstones of his generation.