Martin Scorsese’s Very First Films: Three Imaginative Short Works


Last week we fea­tured the first three films of Stan­ley Kubrick. Today we focus on the first three by Mar­tin Scors­ese. Although the two men were about the same age when they ven­tured into film­mak­ing, and faced sim­i­lar con­straints, their ear­li­est films are strik­ing­ly dif­fer­ent.

Kubrick and Scors­ese had both grown up in New York City and gone to high school in the Bronx, but their cir­cum­stances were worlds apart. Kubrick failed to get into col­lege after high school because of bad grades but, as he put it, “backed into a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly good job at the age of sev­en­teen” work­ing as a staff pho­tog­ra­ph­er for Look mag­a­zine. Scors­ese went to col­lege and stud­ied the his­to­ry and aes­thet­ics of cin­e­ma. When Kubrick decid­ed to try his hand at motion pic­tures he was dri­ven by a sense of eco­nom­ic urgency. His strat­e­gy was to get a foothold in the mar­ket­place by beat­ing the news­reel indus­try at its own game. Scors­ese, on the oth­er hand, was shel­tered from eco­nom­ic wor­ries. He was moved instead by the vivac­i­ty and inven­tive­ness of French New Wave cin­e­ma, among oth­er influ­ences, and want­ed to assert him­self as the next great auteur.

As a severe­ly asth­mat­ic child, Scors­ese went to the movies often. When high school grad­u­a­tion was approach­ing he thought about becom­ing a priest, and briefly con­sid­ered study­ing lit­er­a­ture. But then some­thing caught his eye: a cat­a­log for the New York Uni­ver­si­ty film school. He went to an NYU ori­en­ta­tion ses­sion, where the var­i­ous depart­ment heads took turns describ­ing their pro­grams to a room filled with prospec­tive stu­dents. When the head of the Depart­ment of Tele­vi­sion, Motion Pic­tures and Radio stood up–a man named Haig Manoogian–the young Scors­ese was instant­ly impressed. “He had such ener­gy, such pas­sion,” Scors­ese tells Richard Schick­el in Con­ver­sa­tions with Scors­ese. “I said to myself, That’s where I want to be, with this per­son.”

Manoogian took the art of film very seri­ous­ly. When Scors­ese was a fresh­man in 1960 he attend­ed Manoogian’s once-a-week class on the his­to­ry of film. Each ses­sion includ­ed a lec­ture and the screen­ing of a film. In Con­ver­sa­tions with Scors­ese the film­mak­er remem­bers Manoogian’s ruth­less­ness in deal­ing with stu­dents who attend­ed only to watch movies. “He’d say, okay, you don’t come back, you don’t come back,” says Scors­ese, “ ‘because some of you must think because we’re show­ing movies, it’s fun. Get out.’ ”

As Scors­ese moved through the pro­gram, he grad­u­al­ly began learn­ing a few basic skills in the mechan­ics of mak­ing a movie. By junior year, each stu­dent was expect­ed to col­lab­o­rate in the mak­ing of a short film. So in 1963 Scors­ese took Manoogian’s sum­mer work­shop, where he found that not every stu­dent got to direct. “He’d say, Okay, you’re direc­tor, you’re grip, you’re cam­era, what­ev­er,” Scors­ese tells Schick­el. “So there were a lot of peo­ple who were very unhap­py.” He quick­ly fig­ured out that Manoogian was assign­ing the role of direc­tor to stu­dents who had their own screen­play. “What I did was write a script and get it to him as soon as pos­si­ble, and he okayed it, so I was giv­en a crew, and they all knew that they had to do what I want­ed.”

Scors­ese and his crew took one of the school’s old 16mm Bell & How­ell Fil­mo cam­eras and shot a one-reel com­e­dy in a week. He would lat­er describe the film as “nine min­utes of visu­al non­sense.”  What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, as it is called, (see above) adopts the sur­re­al com­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty Scors­ese admired in the work of Mel Brooks and Ernie Kovaks, along with nar­ra­tive tech­nique he picked up watch­ing French New Wave films, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of François Truf­faut. As he tells Schick­el:

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. And then that led me to doing anoth­er short film in my junior year, the sec­ond semes­ter, and that became It’s Not Just You, Mur­ray!

It’s Not Just You, Mur­ray! part one:

It’s Not Just You, Mur­ray! part two:

It’s Not Just You, Mur­ray! (above), com­plet­ed in 1964, is a much more ambi­tious film. It tells the sto­ry of a pair of Ital­ian-Amer­i­can gansters. “The two char­ac­ters, Mur­ray and Joe,” Scors­ese tells Michael Hen­ry Wil­son in Scors­ese on Scors­ese, “are close friends, but the sort who are con­stant­ly steal­ing from each oth­er, pinch­ing their whisky and their girls. They live the way I myself was liv­ing with my buddies–relationships that con­tain as much hate as love.”

Scors­ese chose not to present Mur­ray as a gang­ster at the begin­ning of the film, because he want­ed to make a wider state­ment about Amer­i­can life. “I grew up in Lit­tle Italy,” he tells Wil­son, “I’ve seen cor­rup­tion up close, I’ve seen it oper­at­ing every day. After that you can’t take the Estab­lish­ment seri­ous­ly. It’s all a fraud.” The two-reel film is like a pre­lim­i­nary sketch for some of Scors­ese’s most famous lat­er films. When Schick­el tells Scors­ese he had nev­er seen It’s Not Just You, Mur­ray!, he is sur­prised by the film­mak­er’s descrip­tion. “It was basi­cal­ly Good­fel­las,” Scors­ese says. “Huh,” says Schick­el?

It’s 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.

The Big Shave:

After Scors­ese received his bach­e­lor’s degree from NYU in 1964, he began work on his first fea­ture film, Who’s That Knock­ing at My Door? It took him over two years to make, and in 1967 he still had­n’t found a dis­trib­u­tor. At that time he received a grant from the Ciné­math­èque de Bel­gique to make a short film. The result was the third film by Scors­ese to be released, and his first in col­or: The Big Shave (above). “In a bath­room that may rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can Psy­che haunt­ed by the Viet­nam war,” writes Wil­son in a syn­op­sis of the film, “the dai­ly rit­u­al of shav­ing turns into a scene of hor­ror.”

As Scors­ese tells Mary Pat Kel­ly in Mar­tin Scors­ese: The First Decade, “It grew out of my feel­ings about Viet­nam. But in real­i­ty some­thing else was going on inside of me, I think, which real­ly had noth­ing to do with the war.” Scors­ese was expe­ri­enc­ing a num­ber of pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al set­backs, and was deeply depressed at the time. “After sep­a­rat­ing from my wife,” he tells Wil­son, “I was camp­ing out in emp­ty, creepy apart­ments.” He con­tin­ues:

When I wrote the script, I was very seri­ous, but while we were shoot­ing it we nev­er stopped laugh­ing. Watch­ing the rush­es, we were dou­bled up. It was only after­wards that I tried to ratio­nal­ize what I had done. I almost con­vinced myself that it was a film against the Viet­nam war, that this guy who shaves so metic­u­lous­ly and ends up cut­ting his throat rep­re­sent­ed the aver­age Amer­i­can of his day. It was because of these polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions that I used Bun­ny Beri­g­an’s orig­i­nal 1939 ver­sion of “I Can’t Get Start­ed” for the sound­track. I even want­ed to end with archival images of Viet­nam, but I did­n’t need them. The Big Shave was real­ly a fan­ta­sy, a strict­ly per­son­al vision of death.

You can find the Scors­ese films men­tioned above in our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

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Comments (3)
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  • film critic says:

    You call that a movie? That was a ridicu­lous waste of time. A guy cuts him­self shav­ing and bleeds a lot. I don’t care if it was made by Scors­ese or DeMille, it is a hor­ren­dous piece of crap. He should be ashamed of him­self. I wish that I could “un-see” that crap.

  • Shaid says:

    You wish you could “un-see”?? Real­ly.. And why don’t you send us some links to your great works…

  • Ranko Kostic says:

    You are ridicu­lous. Even H. Bolt crowled in the erly child­hood.

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