J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is a young man who is feeling directionless in life, hanging out with his friends is the most he can aspire to, and that sometimes leads to trouble - and violence. As a devout Catholic, as are everyone in the Italian-American district of New York City he has grown up in, he can suffer tremendous guilt about what should be perfectly reasonable impulses and thoughts, especially concerning those of the opposite sex, but one day he meets a nice girl (Zina Bethune) from outside his neighbourhood when he is at the station. He strikes up a conversation with her as they wait for their train to arrive, and before he knows it they are getting on famously, making plans to meet later...
But that dreaded guilt and religious strictness are not going to allow J.R. to be happy, in what was the debut feature for writer and director Martin Scorsese, already worrying at his spiritual and social obsessions in bringing those to the screen. As many observed with the benefit of hindsight, Who's That Knocking at My Door (no question mark, it should be noted) was essentially a dry run for his breakthrough Mean Streets, and as far as that went it paved the way for some classic cinema, and if not otherwise classic then other works that were just as interesting thanks to the rich psychology Scorsese delivered in almost everything he conjured up. The other aspect that was pointed out were all those allusions to the filmmakers he admired.
The most obvious influence was the French New Wave, and the woman who would become Scorsese's great collaborator on editing, Thelma Schoonmaker, was present here as well in an extremely well put together effort which followed on from the style of what was happening in Europe (and not only in France). Indeed, while the actual plot was on the underdeveloped side, the presentation was highly impressive, with some deep contrast black and white cinematography lending a newsreel look to the proceedings, well-chosen pop and rock on the soundtrack and the cast performing as naturalistically as possible to render a sense of truth and veracity to what was obviously very personal. At the heart of it were Scorsese and Keitel.
This was the first film they worked on, and Keitel actually auditioned for the director whereupon they hit it off and reunited many times over the course of their respectively flourishing careers. On paper, it might seem unlikely that a Polish-American Jewish actor would inhabit the role so fixated on the Italian-American Catholic experience, yet seeing this you can understand Scorsese was absolutely right to cast his new star as he had the talent and outlook to bring something special to the part, something you can see his co-stars not quite reaching. There was even a future echo of their combined forces on The Last Temptation of Christ, where a cathedral montage gave us a glimpse at a statue of Christ literally baring his heart, just as Willem Dafoe would take out the organ in question in that controversial work.
This was Scorsese's local place of worship, as well: the more you know... But why was this affirmation of the oppressive qualities of a religious upbringing included at the end at all? It was to do with a revelation the girl (she doesn't get a name) lands on J.R. after he is thinking about getting serious with her, in spite of her not being from his neighbourhood, which exposed her as not a virgin, though through no fault of her own: she was raped. Nevertheless, he cannot get past that item of faith that a woman should be in possession of her maidenhead on her wedding night, and the implication is that the relationship is ruined thanks to that unbending set of beliefs drummed into him from an early age, no matter that they would have been very happy together otherwise. Still, J.R. is a hypocrite when he thinks it's perfectly all right for himself to be with other girls, or broads as he describes them; Scorsese was ordered to include a sexual fantasy sequence where Keitel canoodles naked with a bunch of females to make this more commercial, which while well-depicted stands out like a sore thumb. It was a rather shapeless piece, with more enthusiasm that skill, but for fans it was vital.
[The BFI DVD release has a gleaming print and the following features:
Partial audio commentary with Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin
From the Classroom to the Streets: The Making of Who's That Knocking at My Door (13 mins)
Illustrated booklet featuring full credits and an essay by Christina Newland.]
American writer and director who emerged as one of the brightest and most vital of the generation of filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1970s with his heartfelt, vivid and at times lurid works. After deciding against joining the priesthood, he turned to his other passion - movies - and started with short efforts at film school until Roger Corman hired him to direct Boxcar Bertha.
However, it was New York drama Mean Streets that really made Scorsese's name as a talent to watch, and his succeeding films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar and is the only Scorsese movie to be made into a sitcom) and the cult classic Taxi Driver (starring Robert De Niro, forever associated with the director's work) only confirmed this.
In the nineties, Scorsese began with the searing gangster saga Goodfellas, and continued with the over-the-top remake of Cape Fear before a change of pace with quietly emotional period piece The Age of Innocence. Casino saw a return to gangsters, and Kundun was a visually ravishing story of the Dalai Lama. Bringing Out the Dead returned to New York for a medical tale of redemption, and Gangs of New York was a muddled historical epic.
Still the Best Director Oscar eluded him, but the 2000s gave what many saw as his best chance at winning. Slick Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator didn't make it, but remake of Infernal AffairsThe Departed finally won him the prize. Outlandish thriller Shutter Island then provided him with the biggest hit of his career after which he surprised everyone by making family film Hugo - another huge hit.
This was followed by an even bigger success with extreme broker takedown The Wolf of Wall Street, and a return to his religious origins with the austere, redemption through torture drama Silence. He also directed Michael Jackson's Bad music video.