Martin Scorsese comes knocking with a BFI re-release of what is perhaps his most personal and autobiographical film. Shot for pennies over the duration of four years (1964-68), the film stars Harvey Keitel as a Marty alter-ego college dropout who falls terribly in love with a middle-class blonde girl, played by Zina Bethune. Keitel’s character is confused by his feelings and spends the entire picture in turmoil over his ethnic and Catholic background versus the liberation involved in riding up to Greenwich village and making-love in a bedroom instead of mating meaninglessly with “broads” on the streets.
In part, the film acts as a prequel to Mean Streets, where Scorsese would again realise his incipient vision of a protagonist brought together by two opposing forces of sainthood and recklessness. It is the image of a man whose core values are pure, but who relies on audacious behaviours to get from A to B. And thematically, there is no hiding from the fact that Scorsese’s young male protagonists from the 60s and 70s are rooted in chauvinism and psychosexual tension; rape is viewed as a male crisis etc. The main storyline in Who’s That Knocking At My Door surprisingly has nothing to do with a crime narrative, it is simply about man’s dilemma as to whether or not a woman can love him who is no longer a virgin, as she is therefore able to sleep with any man she pleases, but here it is the case of a woman who has also been raped, an additional dilemma for the character.
It is shot in the landmark locations of Little Italy and tiny local clubs where unemployed youths play poker and act out on the fringes of society. Every scene bleeds with the vision of a filmmaker learning his craft and exploring inventive camera-work and blocking. The scene where Keitel meets the girl is spectacularly shot with a single camera turning a two-shot dialogue sequence into an entirely spherical playing field. The dialogue is also on fire – it feels improvised and yet is actually carefully scripted and the shots even storyboarded (as per Scorsese’s commentary). No doubt, the film has many imperfections, but with Scorsese, stylistic error manages to equate with innovation and poetry. A lack of professionalism does not mean the film lacks orchestration in mind of a cohesive whole. The hallmarks of the great auteur are there, in detail and in subject matter. His talent is fledging. It is definitely a debut “picture” worth revisiting.