Martin Scorsese, legendary director, writer, producer (and occasional actor) shows no signs of slowing down. With one historical drama in pre-production (Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio) and another hot on its heels (a biopic of Teddy Roosevelt starring DiCaprio), Scorsese’s phenomenal cinematic legacy is set to extend its reach into an incredible seventh decade.
To celebrate the great man and his passionately cinematic storytelling on the event of his 78th birthday (17 November if you want to send a card) we’ve curated six iconic scenes from six outstanding Scorsese movies. Here’s to Marty, one of the finest and most thrilling directors in the history of film.
Mean Streets (1973) – Pool hall fight
Flawed, self-destructive protagonists, themes of amorality, guilt and redemption played out in close-knit communities, and a gift for using stylised filmmaking techniques to heighten, not dilute unflinching realism – it’s remarkable to think that the elements Martin Scorsese has explored and refined over the years were there right from the beginning.
Starring a very fresh-faced Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel as volatile hoodlum Johnny Boy and his well-connected friend Charlie Cappa, Mean Streets’ story of faith and the damage that misguided loyalty can invite was a startlingly visceral experience in 1973 and remains so today.
De Niro and Keitel’s performances are terrific, with the threat of violence never more than a misjudged comment away, but it's Scorsese’s dynamic use of the camera within scenes like this memorably chaotic and brutal pool hall fight that makes Mean Streets the classic it is.
Johnny Boy’s entry into a bar to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an extraordinary scene. Music, slo-mo and that blood-red lighting combine to tell you everything you need to know about the trouble heading Charlie’s way.
Taxi Driver (1976) – “All the animals come out at night.”
Many filmmakers consider voiceovers to be a narrative copout – show don’t tell! – but Scorsese never denies himself (and his audience) a technique if its payoff is powerful and effective. In this scene, young insomniac Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle sets out on one of his night time shifts driving a taxi around New York City.
With NYC at night captured beautifully by cinematographer Michael Chapman and soundtracked by Bernard ‘Psycho’ Herrmann’s sultry jazz score, Travis reveals his detached contempt for the human ‘scum’ he sees and ferries around the morally rotten Big Apple. The dissonance between Bickle’s disdain and the camera’s voyeuristic gaze is palpable. And all this in a sequence that lasts under three minutes.
Robert De Niro’s ‘you lookin’ at me?’ monologue, delivered as Travis Bickle squares off against imagined enemies in the mirror, is the stuff of legend, but we love the scene in which Travis buys guns from ‘Easy Andy’. The matter-of-fact salesman patter about the various weapons, and Travis taking aim at unsuspecting people on the street below – chilling.
Raging Bull (1980) – “You never got me down, Ray.”
Given how artistic Raging Bull’s filmmaking is, it’s all too easy to forget that it’s actually a biopic (inspired by boxer Jake LaMotta’s 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story). But then, with a story that explores how self-destructive impulses and the wrong connections can undo a life, Raging Bull could scarcely be more of a Scorsese story if he’d concocted it himself.
Of course, storytelling and execution can’t be separated, but the mostly black and white Raging Bull is often singled out for its mesmerisingly well-constructed boxing sequences. Exquisitely choreographed, they created a visceral sense of being in the ring by employing a variety of stylistic techniques. Some, such as Scorsese’s beloved handheld camera are easy to spot, but he also used different-sized boxing rings to reflect the fighters’ states of mind, animal noises to amplify the bestial savagery of the fights and even flames positioned below cameras to create a hellish shimmer to the air in certain shots.
Combine this with masterful editing by longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, and the results – as seen in this punishing defeat of LaMotta by Sugar Ray Robinson in their final fight – are unforgettable.
Robert De Niro famously gained 5 stone (27kg) to play an ageing LaMotta in scenes that bookend the Raging Bull. His recitation of the “I coulda been a contender.” speech from On The Waterfront before heading on stage to perform a comedy routine is played by De Niro brilliantly – the former beast of the ring has become a soft shadow of his former self.
The King of Comedy (1982) – Rupert Pupkin’s big night
Martin Scorsese’s pitch-black comedy was a financial flop on its release. It’s likely that the presence of Robert De Niro’s co-star – Jerry Lewis, a true king of comedy – led audiences to believe they were in for a rib-tickling the film steadfastly refuses to give. However, 38 years on and The King of Comedy is justly regarded as one of Scorsese’s finest films – a super relevant story of fame, fandom and a fantasist wannabe who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to claw his way into the limelight.
We won’t spoil the surprise of how it comes to pass but – with the consequences of his obsession waiting in the wings – delusional comic Rupert Pupkin’s TV debut plays on the tension between the surface we see and the ugly reality behind the scenes.
As seen in the TV frame, removed from reality, Pupkin’s standup is a success. But, in the real world, his triumph doesn’t even extend to the credits. Still, as Rupert says, “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.”
The sequence in which Rupert Pupkin records his audition tape in his room for comedy hero, Jerry Langford is terrifically uncomfortable. It begins with a laugh at Rupert’s expense – his mum yells upstairs to tell him to keep the sound down – and ends with a wonderfully chilling shot as we enter Pupkin’s fantasy to see him performing in front of a sea of frozen smiles and echoing laughter.
Goodfellas (1990) – The Lufthansa heist cleanup
Hitting an artistic and commercial sweet spot with the bravado of a Mafioso, Goodfellas is arguably Scorsese’s most satisfying film. Voiceovers, freeze frames, spectacularly choreographed long tracking shots, diegetic (in-film) music that swells into the soundtrack, dramatic zooms and quick cuts – inspired by the reckless lifestyles of his Mafia characters, Scorsese let loose with everything he had. The resulting saga of real-life gangster Henry Hill’s rise and fall is absolutely thrilling.
Goodfellas is full to bursting with standout moments but one of the most indelible (and quintessentially Scorsese) is the sequence in which we see the brutal results of Jimmy Conway’s (Robert De Niro) paranoid attempts to clean house after a heist.
Soundtracked with unlikely perfection by the uplifting instrumental second half of Layla by Derek & the Dominoes, a series of leisurely shots reveals the bodies of members of Jimmy’s crew being discovered in different locations around New York. Add in Ray Liotta’s distinctive voiceover as Henry Hill and you have a flawless bit of cinematic storytelling.
At three minutes long, Goodfella’s famous Copacabana steadicam shot is a thing of beauty, following a young Henry Hill (Liotta) and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they enter the popular nightclub through the rear of the building. Apparently, this incredible shot came about because Scorsese and crew were not allowed to shoot the pair entering the club by the front entrance. And so, what began as a logistical problem became a brilliantly executed three-minute journey into Hill’s glamorous and unconventional gangster lifestyle.
The Departed (2006) – Dignam debrief
Trust Martin Scorsese to turn the Hollywood remake of a 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller (Infernal Affairs) into something special. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga and Martin Sheen (among others), The Departed’s violent, kinetic tale of undercover cops and mob moles is characteristically stylish and hard-hitting.
As he has throughout his career, Scorsese is masterful at switching from high tension to humour on a dime. He does it here with a short scene in which Boston PD Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam – a role for which Mark Whalberg received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination – barrels through a briefing on an upcoming sale of stolen microchips alongside Alec Baldwin’s Captain Ellerby.
Filled with swears, withering put downs (to the assembled cops and Ellerby) and some well-placed zooms and stock-photo- style cutaways, this scene is a rapid-fire joy that also conveys a ton of information about the characters involved.
The characters in Martin Scorsese’s best movies are intimately acquainted with explosive violence. In one memorable scene, aware that he needs to prove himself to the Irish mob he needs to infiltrate, deep- cover cop Billy Costigan Jr. (DiCaprio) turns a bar fly’s wisecrack about his order of Cranberry Juice (“What, you got your period?”) into an instantaneous beatdown that banishes doubts about his usefulness to the crew.