Martin Scorsese in retrospect: Analyzing his lesser-known works

A few years ago, Miramax’s decision to front the money for Martin Scorsese’s dream project took Hollywood by surprise. Miramax had slowly been shedding the independent image that brought it success throughout the ’90s, but no one expected it to put up a $100 million budget for Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s epic about street life in the city in the 19th century.

Tension soon developed between Scorsese and Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein, both significant figures in the film world. Scorsese’s artistic desires clashed with Weinstein’s cutthroat business sense, probably due to the pressure of a $100 million budget, Miramax and Scorsese’s largest ever by far.

The height of the arguments climaxed when Scorsese turned in his version of Gangs of New York in 2001, and Weinstein demanded several changes. It’s not difficult to see why Scorsese, considered by many to be the best living American director, was taken aback by Weinstein’s desire to have the film shortened and narration added from lead star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Gangs of New York was finally released in December of 2002, a year after the expected date. The film is vintage Scorsese – violent, unflinching, and realistically detailed. The opening scene features a cold, snowy battle in 1840s New York between opposing gangs, and it’s hard to look at the blood-soaked scene and envision a camera crew and director behind the metal-clanging action.

Scorsese actually created 19th century New York at a massive studio in Rome. Instead of filming action in front of green screens and using computer effects, Scorsese had some of the largest sets ever constructed, and the result is astonishing. Gangs of New York is an intensely hyper look at the gang confrontations that sprouted up in red spurts across tense territories and city squares. Scorsese’s directing, combined with one of the best performances in recent memory from Daniel Day-Lewis, makes Gangs of New York one of the year’s best movies. Scorsese simply is the country’s top filmmaker.

He began his career in 1970 with Who’s That Knocking At My Door, and has made over 20 films since. Not surprisingly, his name has become synonymous with violent gangster movies like Goodfellas and Casino, but Scorsese is actually a versatile director.

The interest in gangster films surfaced with his third directing effort, Mean Streets. Not only did the film put Robert De Niro and his persona on the map, it also invented countless techniques still thanklessly recycled in gangster movies today. Scorsese’s tough guy characters, gritty locations and rock music scores have become his trademark, and Mean Streets was the birth. It’s the story of an up-and-coming gangster named Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who strives to get his friend Johnny Boy (DeNiro) out of severe gambling debts, all the while battling religious visions and an obsession with Johnny’s cousin. Mean Streets is a classic because of the Scorsese’s style is mixed with excellent acting courtesy of Keitel and De Niro.

His next film, the PG-rated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was a departure from his violent ways. It’s a fairly plain story about a single woman and her young son, and her attempts to get a job, meet a man and take care of her son. The role of Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), was an Oscar-winning performance, and Alfred Lutter’s role as her son is equally commendable. The best thing about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is the dynamic between Burstyn and Lutter.

Unlike most ’70s movies that portray children as paper-thin stereotypes, Lutter’s character is smart and likable, often two steps ahead of his mother. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not a masterpiece by any means, but a rather boring screenplay is saved by great acting from the two leads and strong supporting performances from Keitel, Kris Kristofferson, and a young Jodie Foster.

Taxi Driver was next. The film left an indelible mark on American cinema, and critics still debate whether it’s Scorsese’s best. Over the next 25 years, Scorsese made numerous films that landed within the top 100 films of all time, specifically Goodfellas and Raging Bull. He never failed to experiment and take risks with varying types of movies. The 1978 documentary The Last Waltz recorded The Band (a ’70s band) in their last performance, as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and other notable musicians visit them. In 1988, Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ, a low-budget, controversial depiction of Jesus Christ as he contemplates his sacrifice on the cross.

After 1995’s Casino, another contribution to the violent Scorsese tradition, came Kundun. Released in 1997, Kundun is a political-aspiring film about the Dalai Lama’s life during the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the mid 1900s. The movie is fascinating as it shows the Dalai Lama (Kundun) dealing with alarming responsibility throughout his teenage years. It seems unusual for Scorsese, who prefers actors/friends like De Niro and Joe Pesci, to helm a film where the most recognizable actor is Uncle Benny from Lethal Weapon 4.

Still, Kundun is an accomplishment filled with beautiful scenery and colors that greatly enhance the mystic ambience. The acting is excellent, which can be said of almost any Scorsese movie. Kundun was not a box office hit, and neither was his next film, Bringing Out the Dead, which starred Nicolas Cage. The time was right for Scorsese to return to his violent roots.

Gangs of New York is unlike any other epic battle movie, in that it seems to leap from the screen. It will likely be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, with Day-Lewis up for Best Actor and Scorsese for Best Director – an award he has never won.

Up next for Scorsese is The Aviator, starring DiCaprio as legendary billionaire Howard Hughes. Now 60, Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the best directors ever, and until anyone proves otherwise, is unmatched among his peers.

Shawn Wines can be reached at