[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
In Mean Streets Scorsese used a relatively unknown but near-perfectly cast group of actors to play out his sort-of-autobiographical story of smalltime gangsters enmeshed in the violence, death, and deadendedness of a grotto in the New York underworld. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore he has peopled the screen with a warm little community of transient characters whose slightly better-known faces communicate a greater sense of familiarity. Long before Kris Kristofferson edges his way almost imperceptibly into the corner of a frame, we’ve already been treated to a number of vivid character portrayals and bit-part niceties including Billy Green Bush’s role as Alice’s first husband, Harvey Keitel’s as Ben, Harry Northup’s brief appearance as the gosh-and-golly yokel bartender in Joe and Jim’s Café, to name but a few. No one’s around for very long—just long enough—and of course transience is one of the things with which Alice is concerned, just as Mean Streets was preoccupied with identity, fear, and mortality.
Alice is a different kind of film from Mean Streets, and not just in the sense that it’s about another kind of people doing different kinds of things in a different kind of place than the Little Italy of Scorsese’s recollection, but also in a more cinematic sense of partaking of a kind of self-aware movieness, of being inhabited by screen presences the likes of Burstyn and Kristofferson, and of creating a more carefully controlled stylistic world informed by some of the most suggestively dreamlike and possibility-laden camera motions I’ve ever seen. Scorsese’s camera techniques may index change, perhaps illusion, but never, it seems, delusion; and if all those pans and tracks and swoops and circles are not downright logical within the context of a scene’s visual demands, or pertinent to some recognizable motif, they are always somehow poetically justified, whether it be the slowly wafting, semi-circular drift around Alice playing the piano in her house before striking out on the road with Tommy, the stark jut of an angular pan that sweeps down from a bridge and cuts in towards the smashed-up cab of a Coca-Cola truck where Alice’s husband leans dead against the steering wheel, or the soft encompassing movement around Kristofferson and Burstyn as they stand out next to a barbed-wire fence while clouds gather in the sky and the smell of ripe grass before a thundershower is almost palpable.
Scorsese’s camera, in fact, virtually never stops moving, sometimes on a more profound level than mere spatial motion; the movie opens with a multi-leveled image of motion and impermanence in which a quaint Monterrey farmhouse complete with Technicolor sunset is sucked away like a picture of a lost world into a fulcrum of time, space, and darkness as we’re suddenly launched into the real and cinematic, conventional-screen-ratio’d present, the camera no longer panning sweetly at eye level as though on a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, but shooting past the tops of windblown palm trees to the blare of raunchy Mott the Hoople. While a byproduct of the “flashback” may be a sort of homage to a bygone era of filmmaking (Scorsese’s set designer is a veteran of Citizen Kane, and the scene which was the last one in the movie to be shot also marked the last time a camera would be found on the destruction-bound Columbia set), Scorsese elsewhere devotes attention to his own evolving world of movie reality. One of Alice’s key players is none other than Harvey Keitel, who played Charlie in Mean Streets, and who now takes on the role of Ben, a character whose volatile irrationality distinctly recalls the self-destructiveness of Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s earlier film. There is a sense of Scorsese’s own cinematic self-awareness at work here that is important, or at least worthy of mention. It calls to mind all sorts of interesting resonances: compulsive Johnny Boy comes to Alice in the person of Charlie, Mean Streets‘ thoughtful, conscience- and consciousness-ridden protagonist, the parallel taken to the extent of a roughly matched pair of handheld shots: Johnny Boy running down the street, senselessly beating up a passer-by; Ben kicking his wife out of Alice’s motel room while brandishing a switchblade.
We are also reminded that Mean Streets is still a part of Martin Scorsese. He’s still mainly concerned with human problems and the way people are, and what has been taken as Alice‘s optimism is reflected in his directorial generosity, his way of giving everyone a role and letting him leave his mark. Indeed, Scorsese’s way of looking at his people—or perhaps more precisely, the way he looks at people looking at themselves—becomes, stylistically, a sustaining quality of the film. The scene of Alice’s audition in the piano bar employs a circular camera movement that seems to float around Alice and lends a deliberately glamorous quality to her performance; it’s as though we were seeing her as she might want to see herself, as she might have wanted to see herself in the earlier scene at the piano in Socorro, preened by the soft sweep of some benevolent eye. This collusion of directorial style and illusions of style within the film provides a subtle interplay between layers of filmic reality that finally seem indistinguishable, merging in a single cohesive surface. If the most memorable moments in Alice often occur at such junctures of visual style and the lives it defines and encompasses, it is Scorsese’s sensitivity of perception which makes for such a smooth confluence of his own and his characters’ sensibilities.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE
Direction: Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Robert Getchell. Cinematography: Kent L. Wakeford. Production design: Toby Carr Rafelson. Editing: Marcia Lucas.
The players: Ellen Burstyn, Alfred Lutter, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd, Vic Tayback, Lelia Goldoni, Billy Green Bush, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann