Martin Scorsese Introduces Classic Movies: From Citizen Kane and Vertigo to Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind

In today’s cin­e­ma cul­ture, there’s only one thing as reli­ably enter­tain­ing as watch­ing a Mar­tin Scors­ese movie: watch­ing Mar­tin Scors­ese talk about the movies of his pre­de­ces­sors. Before becom­ing a direc­tor, one must under­stand what a direc­tor does, an edu­ca­tion deliv­ered to the young Scors­ese prac­ti­cal­ly at a stroke by Cit­i­zen Kane. Watch­ing Orson Welles’ mas­ter­piece (in the orig­i­nal sense), Scors­ese also “began to become aware of edit­ing and cam­era posi­tions,” as he recalls in the clip above.

It comes from an inter­view con­duct­ed by the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute, which also col­lect­ed the ultra-cinephile New Hol­ly­wood icon’s takes on a series of oth­er clas­sic pic­tures includ­ing John Ford’s The Searchers and Alfred Hitch­cock­’s Rear Win­dow.

In dis­cussing Cit­i­zen Kane these days, of course, a dif­fer­ent Hitch­cock film tends to rush into the dis­cus­sion: Ver­ti­go, which dis­placed Cit­i­zen Kane on the top spot of the lat­est Sight & Sound Crit­ics Poll in 2012. What­ev­er his feel­ings about the com­par­a­tive mer­its of Welles and Hitch­cock, Scors­ese would sure­ly be unlike­ly to balk at this chang­ing of the guard.

When he first saw Ver­ti­go with his friends, as he puts it in the clip just above, “we thought it was good; we did­n’t know why.” Re-watch­ing it in the inter­ven­ing decades, he found its beat­ing heart in “the obses­sion of the char­ac­ter,” James Stew­art’s trau­ma­tized ex-cop bent on re-cre­at­ing the object of his infat­u­a­tion. “The sto­ry does­n’t mat­ter. You watch that film repeat­ed­ly and repeat­ed­ly because of the way he takes you through his obses­sion.”

The late 1950s and ear­ly 60s must have been a fine time for a bud­ding cinephile. Not only could you enter and leave the the­ater at any time, stay­ing as long as you liked — a cus­tom whose plea­sures he empha­sizes more than once — you could walk in on these works of sur­pris­ing cin­e­mat­ic art. But step­ping into David Lean’s Lawrence of Ara­bia, the twen­ty-year-old Scors­ese had to have an inkling of what he was in for. “There it is, up on the screen in 70 mil­lime­ter,” he remem­bers. “The main char­ac­ter is not Ben-Hur, it’s not a saint, it’s not a man strug­gling to come to terms with God and his soul and his heart; it’s a char­ac­ter that real­ly, in a way, comes out of a B movie.” No doubt this por­tray­al of Lawrence as a “self-destruc­tive” and “self-loathing” pro­tag­o­nist at an epic scale did its part to influ­ence what would become Scors­ese’s own cin­e­ma.

Scors­ese also finds much to admire, and even use, in films from before his time. “It’s melo­dra­mat­ic, it’s stereo­types — racial stereo­types — and yet, you know, those char­ac­ters,” he says of Vic­tor Flem­ing’s Gone with the Wind. “There’s com­plex­i­ty to them.” Though its pro­duc­tion “smacks of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry” (with which Scors­ese him­self has exhib­it­ed his own fas­ci­na­tion in The Age of Inno­cence and Gangs of New York), it stands along­side Casablan­ca as one of “the two high points of the stu­dio sys­tem.” Few expe­ri­ences so forth­right­ly deliv­er “that mag­ic of old Hol­ly­wood,” one vari­ety of the pow­er of cin­e­ma that Scors­ese knows well. But as his remarks on every­thing from Michael Pow­ell and Emer­ic Press­burg­er’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to Tho­rald Dick­in­son’s The Queen of Spades to Nicholas Ray’s John­ny Gui­tar show us, he’s more than acquaint­ed with many oth­er vari­eties besides.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Decay of Cin­e­ma: Susan Son­tag, Mar­tin Scors­ese & Their Lamen­ta­tions on the Decline of Cin­e­ma Explored in a New Video Essay

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names His Top 10 Films in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

Mar­tin Scors­ese Intro­duces Film­mak­er Hong Sang­soo, “The Woody Allen of Korea”

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of 39 Essen­tial For­eign Films for a Young Film­mak­er

What Makes Cit­i­zen Kane a Great Film: 4 Video Essays Revis­it Orson Welles’ Mas­ter­piece on the 80th Anniver­sary of Its Pre­miere

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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