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By Daniel Bernardi | July 17, 2005

In an obvious labor of love, Martin Scorsese had the idea to re-create the parallel between his blue collar neighborhood and the educated life just outside that parameter. “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” took years to complete, filming to no strict schedule, only completing little bits at a time according to what money and availability allowed them to do.

The film was highly experimental and some of the testing comes off and some doesn’t, but Scorsese laid the theoretical foundation which he would later go on to perfect in “Mean Streets” (1973).

The story revolves around J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and his band of small time hoods in New York’s Little Italy. J.R. is far from stupid; only his smarts come from street life and of course the movies. He by chance meets a gorgeous blond only known to us as The Girl (Zina Bethune) who is reading a French magazine upon their first encounter. This seems to be a little weird for J.R. and the only type of conversation he can strike up is when he sees a picture of John Wayne inside her French magazine. The film follows J.R. and the dividing of his time between his neighborhood and The Girl, showing how much difference there is between two areas within the one city. Each neighborhood seems to govern itself by its own rules and customs, or so it seems.

Scorsese’s portrayal of these small time hoods from Little Italy is amazing and as realistic as I could imagine. He stresses the point that to these guys, no world exists outside of their small neighborhood. However when J.R. meets a Girl from outside the boundaries of Little Italy it creates a clear contrast of what J.R. may be missing out on.

The Girl can show J.R. her college knowledge and in this unusual relationship, J.R. can offer her the street smarts that are missing from her unofficially impressive cranial CV. They both have missing parts in each other’s lives that they can offer one another, in a story of not knowing what is missing in your life until you find something to compare it to. Clearly both of these characters represent the two sides to Martin Scorsese. Here you have a guy who is a native of working class Little Italy who goes to New York University outside of the neighborhood. He would almost have to morph himself into two different personalities between home and college and in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, he tries to experiment with the notion of merging the two individual sides of himself to see if they can live in harmony, as for a large part of his youth he was caught between two worlds.

The Girl is the grey area in J.R.’s black and white outlook on life. She makes him re-examine his life, neighborhood and friends in an effort to use her as his inspiration to open up his mind. J.R. is almost schizophrenic in his thinking after meeting The Girl because as his mind and heart are pulled between his native environment and the outside world of The Girl’s, ultimately creating confusion and unpredictability in his behavior.

In my opinion, Scorsese created the concept of timing scenes to songs, and he makes a strong effort to try it out in his debut feature and pulls it off brilliantly. Ultimately this was the learning curve for all the skills he would soon possess, and all the signs were showing that Scorsese was going to become one of the best filmmakers of all time. The film is uneven at times but you would expect that to happen if you shot pieces of it over a long time span and like I said earlier, Scorsese had discovered a type of filmmaking that no one had before touched on in that way and he perfected it with time. This is also one of the first films to use a radio disc jockey’s voice throughout and to great effect.

A great character study which I will hail as the first of its type. You watch this film with a cast of then unknowns and you ask the question “what did it feel like to work for such a filmmaking legend?” And then I cut myself off and remember that back then Scorsese was just a broke guy with a camera telling his story. I am always left speechless after watching one of Marty’s films as he wears his heart on his sleeve and it shows that this guy cares about each and every one of his characters and what (no matter how little) they have to say.

This marked a fine feature acting/directing debut in Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese who were the find of the century and in the same film no less. Keitel already had the presence of a veteran actor even in his first film and Zina Bethune is delightful to watch and plays her sophisticated part with a perfect combination of arrogance and sensibility.

Featuring a truly Scorsese style soundtrack of great sounds including “The End” by The Doors and “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker.

The DVD has a wonderful commentary by Scorsese and his directorial assistant and future “Mean Streets” (1973) co-writer Mardik Martin. Unfortunately the commentary ends half way through the picture which is a little disappointing. Also featuring a cool twelve minute short entitled “From the Classroom to the Streets: The Making of Who’s That Knocking at My Door” which talks about the production, how Keitel came to be the lead in the film and what they learned from their mistakes. A DVD for the true Scorsese connoisseur. A brilliant piece of film history and a great cinematic achievement.

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