Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Film Review - Who's That Knocking At My Door

Film #42 of 2010 - Who's That Knocking At My Door

J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is your typical unambitious young guy in New York in the late 1960's; he carouses with his friends, drinking and getting into physical scrapes with other guys from the neighborhood, he is between jobs, and lives at home with his mom. His life truly revolves around his friends until he meets "the girl" (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island ferry. Though the initial conversation is slightly awkward, the two begin to make a connection, and the majority of the rest of the film alternates between his burgeoning romance with her, and his "normal" life with his friends. He is respectful and gentle around the girl, even going so far as to not sleep with her because he wants to keep her "chaste", which is in contrast to his behavior around his friends: though he seems to be one of the more reserved and quiet members of his group, he still enjoys the carousing. When the girl decides to share the fact that she is not a virgin because she was raped by a boyfriend a couple of years prior, J.R. responds with disdain, blaming her for getting herself into the situation in the first place. In his eyes, she is tainted, and she's no longer good enough for him. Later, he decides that he can "forgive" her, but she has to decide whether her self-respect will allow herself to take him back.

*Spoilers from here on out, but nothing that should deter you from watching the film*

Who's That Knocking At My Door started out as Scorsese's final project at NYU film school, generally consisting of scenes with J.R. and his friends. The film began to evolve into his first feature film when Scorsese added in the romantic plot between J.R. and the girl, and after a couple of years of filming as money came in, he found a distributor who offered to buy and release the film under the condition that Scorsese turn it into a sexploitation film. The end result is a really well fleshed out film that includes a fantasy sex scene with a couple of hookers that is actually stunning and beautifully filmed (with male and female frontal nudity to boot!).

The film is black and white, and the cinematography vacillates between crispness and dark and shadowy, which may be a result of the age and quality of the film or simply a stylistic decision. Regardless, the photography is fantastic and I felt like I was looking at the work of street photographers of the 1940's and 1950's most of the time. Scorsese's camera work is astonishing; though there were a number of fantastic overhead shots, the scene in which J.R. and the girl meet and converse for the first time is great. Instead of having a potentially boring one, two or three camera shot facing the subjects, he moves the camera, creating fluidity and movement that not only engages the audience but make the scene much more intimate. It helps that the lead actors were as natural as they were, considering their relative inexperience. Zina Bethune was the most experienced of the group, with a few soap opera roles under her belt, but when filming began back in 1965, Harvey Keitel had answered an ad for actors and filming had to be done around his day job as a court reporter.

One of Scorsese's strengths has been his use of music in his films, and Who's That Knocking At My Door shows that this was a strength from the beginning. Loud, energetic songs from the 1960's permeate the soundtrack and punctuate scenes with uncanny expertise. There is a scene in the middle of the film where the guys are carousing in an apartment when someone pulls out a gun as a joke. Scorsese uses slow motion in the scene, and the composition is exquisite: contorted bodies doubled over in laughter, the look of terror on the guy that has had the gun pulled on him. Throughout the scene, there is an energetic song playing, and he segues this scene and the next with a bunch of shotgun sounds, closeups of classic western film posters and then a shot of J.R. and the girl walking out of the film Rio Bravo to the song "Shotgun". It may sound obvious on paper, but it's exquisite in execution.

The entire feel of the film was that of New Wave and Neo-Realist films of mid-century Europe that have had a huge impact and influence on Scorsese's life and career, and I'm sure that was no accident. If Who's That Knocking At My Door was merely independent cinema eye candy it would still be fulfilling, but Scorsese also wrote a really simple but good love story that starts out sweet but goes bad. Considering how much the love story had to compete with the rest of the film for screen time, it was really well mapped out and compelling. The end of the film was disturbing and breathtaking, with J.R. returning to the girl, who is so grateful to see him again because they are in love. His words to her are, "I understand now and I forgive you. I'm going to marry you anyway." The look on her face is unforgettable, she is completely stunned. He, of course thinking that he is being chivalrous, can't believe that she wouldn't thank him, and when she doesn't, he completely breaks character, screaming at her, "Who is going to marry you, you whore?" before she inevitably throws him out. What follows is a sequence of shots with the song, "Who's That Knocking At My Door?" playing in the background: J.R. going to confession, various shots of religious iconography, then suddenly a closeup of the girl's face with her blood curdling scream during her rape and then J.R. just moving on with his life, laughing with friends. I was actually left breathless (probably because I was so startled by the closeup and the scream) but that feeling really extends to the movie in general.

Watching Who's That Knocking At My Door was such a wonderful experience, and the film nerd in me went into overdrive because I couldn't help thinking about how exciting it was that I was watching Scorsese's first film and that it was actually really good. I also really enjoyed seeing his influences come to life in his own work, knowing what films have been influential to him from seeing his documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. But what I truly loved was that, despite the high polish of his films made since the 1970's, his independent spirit was there from the beginning; when he was told to sex up the film in order for people to see it, he did, but he did it beautifully and artistically. He used relatives' apartments and his neighborhood haunts (including its church) for locations. Having covered an international film festival for five years, after seeing the "Official Selection" badge from the Chicago International Film Festival before the main titles, I also really envied those people sitting in the audience who were able to experience this film at that time, for the first time. I don't know if anyone who doesn't have a love for independent cinema is going to appreciate Who's That Knocking At My Door, but I would highly recommend giving it a shot.

4 stars out of 5

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