Director Martin Scorsese's feature-film debut chronicles a brief time in the life of Keitel, an Italian-American who lives in New York's Little Italy. Keitel suffers under the contradictions of a strict Catholic upbringing, while forced to grow up in the harsh realities of New York City.
In his early twenties, Keitel spends most of his time "hanging out" with his male buddies and getting into trouble. To satisfy their sexual urges, the young men simply pick up a couple of "broads" (women who are willing to have premarital sex) and take turns. "Broads" are never to be confused with
the "nice girls" (virgins), whom the boys will someday marry and have children with. One day, while riding the Staten Island Ferry, Keitel meets a young blonde woman, Bethune, unlike anyone he has ever met. She is an art student, reads literature, speaks French, and is fascinated by European art
films directed by people like Jean-Luc Godard. He is also stunned to learn that she lives alone and doesn't even own a television set. She is equally fascinated by him. His ethnic, urban demeanor, street smarts, and love of John Ford westerns hold her attention. During the next few days Keitel and
Bethune grow close, and she attempts to initiate intimate relations with him. Horrified that a woman he has been considering marrying would offer herself to him before marriage, Keitel declines. Still tied to his male friends, Keitel goes off on a short trip to the country with them. The urban
boys are intimidated by the openness of the country and become terrified when climbing what they consider a "mountain" (it's barely a hill). Back in New York Keitel is shocked to hear Bethune confess that she was once raped by an old boy friend. Outraged that his nice girl is in reality a broad
and was lying to him, Keitel breaks off the relationship and returns to the safety of the neighborhood. He reasserts himself into his old lifestyle with a vengeance and, after much carousing, begins to feel lonely and disgusted with himself. He attempts to return to Bethune, saying that he
forgives her and will try to ignore the fact that she is not a virgin. Amazed and disappointed by Keitel's blind devotion to the codes of his upbringing, Bethune realizes that they can never maintain such a warped relationship, and she breaks it off. Totally confused and angry over the rejection,
Keitel wanders back to church, the place with all the answers, and finds it has none.
This is the ultimate student film. The young Martin Scorsese began the film, under the title I CALL FIRST, while a student at New York University under the guidance of professor Haig Manoogian. With the exception of a few scenes, the resulting 58-minute film was deemed awful by most observers at
the NYU film festival. Scorsese and Manoogian decided that the script would be rewritten to incorporate the scenes that played well, and then reshot as a feature. The story is part of a trilogy that chronicles the lives of a group of teenage boys who live in New York's Little Italy. Scorsese had
originally envisioned beginning the trilogy with a film to be called "Jerusalem, Jerusalem?" which would have shown 18-year-old kids out on a church-sponsored religious retreat at a monastery in the woods. While reacting to the trees, space, and light of the forest, they would ponder the
hypocrisy, contradiction, and guilt inherent in their Catholic upbringing. The weekend serving its purpose, the boys of the mean streets would effectively be infused with the fear of God. Because no one at NYU really wanted to see such a personal film dealing directly with Catholicism, "Jerusalem,
Jerusalem?" was never shot. WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? was to be the second installment, with MEAN STREETS being the third and final chapter. Because "Jerusalem, Jerusalem?" was never filmed, Scorsese borrowed some aspects from it and inserted them into both WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?
and MEAN STREETS. To film the feature version of WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, Scorsese and Manoogian raised $35,000 and recalled Keitel (the only actor from the original who returned for the feature) to continue his role as J.R. Three years had passed since the original shooting, which posed
some problems. Careful viewing can pinpoint shots and scenes from the original student film intercut with the new footage by looking for changes in Keitel's hair style. All the scenes between Keitel and the girl were reshot. The film is a creative, ultra-low-budget effort with a good sense of
place and character. Scorsese presents a detailed look at the lives of these confused boys struggling to become men in an oppressive environment. The trip to the country is truly telling, for the brief change of scenery and taste of the "outside" scare most of the boys, all of whom prefer the
streets. It's what they know. While the writer-director has a good handle on his male characters, the women in the film are given scant attention. Bethune, although given plenty of screen time, is basically a plot device used to explore Keitel's character. While Scorsese's sense of character and
environment is mostly precise, his experiments with visuals (some of the film was shot by Michael Wadleigh, who would later direct WOODSTOCK and WOLFEN) and homages to the movies he loves betray his film school roots and date the film badly. The scenes where characters refer to Godard, John Ford,
THE SEARCHERS, and RIO BRAVO are blatant, clumsily handled, and gratuitous. Scorsese and Manoogian sent their movie to the Venice Film Festival to be considered for competition but after several weeks heard nothing from the judges. When a friend returned to New York from a trip to Rome, he asked
Manoogian if he had worked on a film called I CALL FIRST (still under the original title). The professor said yes and was informed by the man that he had seen the cans of film just sitting in the Rome airport. Manoogian called Joseph Weiler, an attorney who helped raise money for the film, and
sent him to Rome. Weiler found the cans of film, still sitting unattended at the Rome airport, and brought them to the festival judges. The film was never shown at the Venice Film Festival, but it was screened at the Chicago Film Festival and got a rave review from critic Roger Ebert. Despite good
press, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? had trouble getting distributed. As a concession to potential distributor Joseph Brenner, Scorsese inserted a lengthy nude love scene between Keitel and Colette. The young director agreed to shoot the scene while he was filming commercials in Amsterdam, and
Keitel was flown over to participate. Colette had appeared in Godard's short film ALL THE BOYS ARE CALLED PATRICK, making the scene another homage to the French New Wave. By Scorsese's own admission, the scene is the worst part of the film. Unmotivated and practically slapped into the middle of
the story, its overactive camerawork and editing are out of place and annoying. Problems aside, this film is a fascinating look at the creative development of one of the new American cinema's most important directors and well worth a look.
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