I had just returned from a year in Vietnam, home on leave for about a month before going to Fort Polk in Louisiana, when I read a review about a film by a young filmmaker I had never heard of before. His name was Martin Scorsese. The film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, was playing at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a theatre located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. What attracted me to the film after reading the review was its Italian-American background, something familiar to me. Scorsese grew up in this environment and knew it well, as did I.
The film is about J.R. (Harvey Keitel), a young Italian-American whose world consists of hanging out most of the day with the guys in his Little Italy neighborhood in New York where he dates girls, sleeps with “broads” and is surrounded in a world full of Catholic guilt. In J.R.’s world you don’t marry “broads,” they whores. You marry girls who you date, go to the movies with and eventually marry. Then you have sex. It’s the Madonna-whore complex, the good girl is put on a pedestal and the whore is put in bed. There is no in-between.
J.R. likes movies, his favorites being Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, both films notably starring macho John Wayne. J.R. stills lives at home with his parents in an apartment filled with religious symbols. He spends most of his time drinking, looking at girlie magazines, hanging with his crew, listening to top 40 radio. He seems to have no job yet never lacks money. Still, J.R. is looking for some kind of direction in his life unlike his friends. He finds it one day on the Staten Island Ferry when he meets a girl (Zina Bethune). She’s different from other girls he has known. A college graduate, she’s an independent, free spirited woman. She lives in her own apartment, reads and watches little, if any, television. She introduces him to a life outside the boundaries of his Little Italy neighborhood. They not only listen to music and watch movies but talk passionately about them.
For the first time in his life, J.R. discovers passion and romance with a woman instead of cheap thrills. One day, they are up in J.R.’s parents’ bedroom. A room filled with religious artifacts. The girl wants to make love but J.R,. consumed by the religious imagery, and his narrow minded philosophy of good girls versus broads refuses to go all the way. He tells her he respects her and they should wait until they marry.
Soon after, the girl (she has no name in the film) reveals to J.R. that she is not a virgin. She tells him how she was raped by a previous boyfriend. J.R. is devastated by this news. He cannot cope with this development. In his mind she is no longer the good girl, she’s just another broad. Unsettled, confused, he goes out for some heavy drinking with his friends. But J.R.’s Catholicism taught him that even Jesus forgave sinners. He shows up at her apartment. Uneasily, he tells her that he forgives her and is still willing to marry her. She tells him to go home. She doesn’t need to be forgiven like she was trash being given a second chance.
Scorsese’s themes are all there in this first film (guilt, obsession, male camaraderie). Even some of his camera trademarks like slow motion are already there as is Scorsese’s mother Catherine in one of many appearances she made in her son’s films.
Who’s That Knocking at my Door was the second in a scheduled trilogy. The first was supposed to be a film called Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which never got passed the script stage, with J.R. in high school at the time. The third film became Mean Streets where the J.R. character morphed into Charlie. Scorsese’s first film had its premiere at the 1967 Chicago Film Festival. At the time, it was called I Call First. Roger Ebert saw it at the festival and praised it highly.
It took a few years before Scorsese was able to get a distribution deal and then it was with a small time distributor of sex films. In order to secure the deal, Marty was forced to add a nude scene to the film. Scorsese and Keitel flew to Amsterdam where they filmed the required scene. Besides the obvious nudity, Keitel, due to the years in between, does look a bit older than he does in the rest of the film.
Though rough around the edges, Who’s That Knocking at My Door is an amazing debut by one our greatest cinematic treasures.
This article is my contribution to the 1967 in Film Blogathon. For more great articles check out the link below.