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Scorsese at 70: The Beginner (1960s)

CBS News/Warner Bros.
CBS News/Warner Bros.
Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune appear in this still from Martin Scorsese's 1967 film "Who's That Knocking at My Door."

WRITER'S NOTE: 2012 marks the 70th birthday of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese. So during the year, the National Classic Cinema Examiner will present a series of articles marking this great milestone. This article focuses on the director's beginnings in the 1960s.

Of all the American directors of his time, Martin Scorsese will likely go down as one of the best. Since the release of his first full-length movie in 1967, the New York-based filmmaker's reputation has grown steadily amongst critics and audiences. He has been nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Director, winning for the 2006 mob-police epic The Departed. His canon has been widely hailed for its looks into the male mind, on violence, on religion, and even on the power of music. His career has involved several different genres - from the rock documentary to the surreal dark comedy and even 19th-century romantic drama. The greatness of what was to come from Scorsese would all begin in his college days on his home turf.

Before Scorsese stepped onto the campus of New York University, he had already created his first film while he was still a teenager. Little information is known about the 1959 short Vesuvius VI, though sources have indicated the storyline was set in Ancient Rome, and may have been a parody of the Jack Webb-produced TV series 77 Sunset Strip. The following year, Scorsese became a student at NYU, where he would earn his Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1964. During his undergraduate studies at the university, Scorsese would direct two short films - 1963's What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and the 1964 work It's Not Just You, Murray!

By the time he received his M.F.A. from New York University, Scorsese would create or work on two projects to be significant in his canon. The first was the short film The Big Shave, also notable for being Scorsese's first color film. The simple plot focused on a young man going in for a shave, but he doesn't stop after getting the hair on his face removed. A clue to the intended meaning of Scorsese's film may have been in its alternate title, Viet '67. The title may have shown the director's feelings towards America's involvement in the Vietnam War, as protests were growing over colleges and towns across the country - and would continue to do so into the early 1970s.

The second project Scorsese worked on was his full-length debut Who's That Knocking at My Door, which he wrote and directed. The slice-of-life tale followed J.R., a young man who falls in love - but finds his relationship challenged when his girlfriend reveals a damaging secret. While Who's That Knocking would easily be overshadowed by later and greater works, there were some significant trends in the Scorsese legacy that began with this film. It showed the religious aspects of a leading figure, as the young man deals with how to respond to his lover's secret. It was also the first film Scorsese worked with actor Harvey Keitel, who would become one of the director's best go-to actors. The film also included cameos by Scorsese and by his mother Catherine, both of whom would return for cameos and/or small roles in later projects. Who's That Knocking also boasted the use of popular music to push Scorsese's storyline, a trademark he would use constantly throughout his career.

By the end of the 1960s, Scorsese would take on the most ambitious project of his young career - getting involved in the filming of an equally-ambitious concert. The concert was the legendary three-day Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, taking place in the late summer of 1969. The festival would feature some of the biggest musical acts of the time - Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Janis Joplin, and Santana among them. Scorsese would be involved on a filmmaking staff led by director Michael Wadleigh, and also feature a future long-time collaborator in editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The cinematic experience of Woodstock would not see release until 1970.

For the directing career of Martin Scorsese, the 1960s served as a mere prologue. He would learn his filmmaking craft at NYU, and along the way, he began partnerships with some of his best long-term collaborators. His work with Harvey Keitel and Thelma Schoonmaker would get better over time, as would his storytelling. In the decade to come, other great collaborators would step in to deliver some of their best work while working alongside Scorsese. The director himself would encounter his first taste of success, but there would also come a time on whether or not he would be able to maintain it.

Special thanks to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) for information crucial to this story.