Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
What the reviewers have said about BangtheDrumSlowly avoiding the overwrought sentimentalism of a Brian’sSong or a LoveStory is only partly true. But the film does offer honest schmaltz as a viable alternative to the tasteless kitsch of previous films about dying young. The story concerns a major-league catcher, Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro), who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease, and the efforts of his roommate, pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), to look after Pearson’s best interests during what they both feel will be the catcher’s last season. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are purported to be not about baseball, but rather about friendship, the baseball setting being incidental. As far as I can tell, this contention was created for the blurbs, in order not to lose the audience of people who don’t know or don’t like baseball. The novel in fact may not be about baseball, but it most certainly is about a baseball team. The meat of Harris’s novel is the behavior of a given group of baseball players and the way in which that behavior is altered, in individuals and in the team as a whole, by the knowledge that one of their number is dying. This is where the film version goes awry. In trying too hard not to be “about baseball,” it plays down the supporting characters, the ballplayers themselves, to the point where the whole impact of the novel is lost. The team concept which is central to the novel is give mere lip service in some voiceover narration from the pages of the book. The tension about the outcome of the season, which underlies every word of the novel, is nonexistent in the film. Instead we have the well-acted interplay among the pitcher, the catcher, a coach, the manager, and a whore who attempts to swindle the catcher out of his insurance money. All of this was present in the novel, of course; but it supported the larger theme of the behavior of human beings as they watch someone die, and the effect the experience has on their own, unthreatened lives.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”
The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On theWaterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.
Once Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.
The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
Back in February, Marty Scorsese privately screened a rough cut of New York, New Yorkthat lasted four-and-a-half hours. The film as finally released is little more than half that length. We can assume that Scorsese knew he’d never get a four-hour movie released commercially. We can also assume that he knew what was happening while he was shooting and that he didn’t intentionally include failed material in the first rough cut. So how does it happen that half a movie winds up on the cutting-room floor?
The question is not just a matter of curiosity. New York, New Yorkis a maddening, fascinating congeries of good and bad bits and angles, the sum of whose parts far exceeds the value of the whole, and that extraordinary difference between first rough cut and final cut may be the key to what went wrong.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Terry Curtis Fox, writing in Film Comment, seems to have been the only one to point out the rather obvious fact that The Deer Hunterisnâ€™t really about the Vietnam War. Director Michael Cimino is much more interested in how change comes to the safe, closed world that protects and justifies both the commonest and the most eccentric behavior of its inhabitants. Indeed, how these people face change, and whether or not it really succeeds in taking over their world, are questions the film asks much more readily than the obvious moral and psychological questions about the Vietnam War that shallow reviewers have attributed to the film. The closed community, with whose solidarity and survival Cimino is concerned, is built on the foundation of ethnic pride. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Godfatherin its epic length and pace, and its focus on an ethnic subculture. It is Ciminoâ€™s debt to Coppolaâ€™s debt to Ford that the structural burden of this parable of a closed society is borne by the recurrence of rituals that lend a sense of continuity to the story as well as to the lives of its characters: drinks at the tavern, the hunting trip, the wedding and reception, the funeral, and that most disturbing ritual of all, Russian roulette.