Since directing his first feature film, Martin Scorsese’s films have been nominated for 75 Oscars and have won 20. But how did this great American auteur get his start? In the “First Films” series, we’ll explore early works by masters of modern cinema that foreshadow the iconic careers that followed.
In the late 1950s, Scorsese attended a seminar at NYU and was enamored by the Head of the Department of Film and Television. He enrolled and started classes in 1960. One of his first films, which he describes as “nine minutes of visual nonsense,” was shot over the course of a week.
My little film had all the tricks and fun of just putting pictures together in slow motion and fast motion and stills, and intercutting with mattes the way Truffaut would do in Jules and Jim. It had no depth at all, but it was a lot of fun. And it won me a scholarship, so my father was able to use it for the tuition for the next year.
Watch What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This here.
In his junior year, Scorsese directed another short film titled, It’s Not Just You, Murray!
It’s basically Goodfellas. I did it in 1964. Murray was a big epic, as much as I could manage, of two guys who were friends in the underworld, from my old neighborhood. but I did it with very New Wave techniques. It was also a cross with The Roaring Twenties, an attempt at that sort of scale which led eventually to Mean Streets, which led ultimately to Goodfellas, and to Casino and Gangs of New York–the scale of it, the excessive nature of it. I mean, in Murray there’s just a hint of it. We didn’t have the money.
In graduate school, Scorsese made his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, starring a young Harvey Keitel. Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 1967 at the Chicago Film Festival saying, “I found it a marvelous evocation of American city life, announcing the arrival of an important new director.”
Watch the first minute of Who’s That Knocking at My Door below.
Later Scorsese films, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Gangs of New York share similar themes, defining social class by violently enforcing strict street borders. Watch a Gangs of New York street fight below.
Read more about Scorsese’s first short films at Open Culture.