The interesting thing about going through a director’s filmography is that if they have any sort of recurring themes they immediately jump to the forefront. Things that would be buried and slowly evolve in a longer, more natural span of film making seem glaringly obvious. If you want to know where a director’s head keeps returning to, mainlining their films is a good way to do it.
The first and most important theme in Scorsese’s work stems directly from his upbringing. Raised Catholic, Scorsese’s films are riddled with characters who are tormented by the demons of traditional old-school Catholic guilt.
This is never more apparent than in how his main characters relate to the women they encounter. From the opening of his first movie, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Scorsese paints a character (in this case Harvey Keitel’s J.R.) paints a main character who suffers from his own upbringing and baggage, unable to let go of what he learned.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is the story of J.R., who meets an unnamed Girl who he falls for. But when she reveals that she was previously raped, he finds himself at odds with his desires for her and his hang ups that she’s unclean.
It’s a simple story, two people dealing with one issue, with an incredibly young Keitel seemingly crushing under the weight of this traditionally Catholic ideal that women are either virgins or whores. In the end, he’s unable to reconcile the idea that he could love and desire her despite what he perceives as a fall from grace that she has in his eyes, and walks away from the whole thing. It’s small scale tragedy, a man unable to pull away from his own undoing.
This idea crops up again in 1973’s Mean Streets, again starring Keitel as a character named Charlie. This character might as well be an evolution of J.R. Charlie is small time mafia, with ambitions for more. But he’s dealing with a volatile childhood friend Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro) and his relationship with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin.
This is the beginning of the idea that these guilt-ridden characters come to violence and crime by the same guilt and ambitions that create their broken relationships with women. Charlie is drawn to Johnny Boy’s cousin because of her frailty and unapproachability. But their relationship brings her lower in his eyes through sheer association with him, and that sense of guilt and sin drive him deeper into the life of crime, turning his sense of unworth into ambition that unstabilizes his entire life.
The same idea shows up in Raging Bull, with De Niro playing real-life boxer Jake LaMotta. LaMotta is little more than a thug at times, but he’s a thug with charisma, who woos an underage girlfriend through charm and presence. Scorsese lingers on her when she’s introduced, a teenager in the glory of youth, a blonde beauty that lingers in the camera in slow motion. Scorsese is as smitten as LaMotta, in that moment. But like other Scorsese protagonists, LaMotta’s nature eventually poisons his relationship and later lands him in jail when an older LaMotta tries the same thing again with other girls two decades later and this time gets nabbed for it.
The 90s brought Goodfellas and Casino, which are surprisingly similar in that they’re ‘mob stories’ about the rise and fall of mobsters who never quite fit in with the world of big time criminals and real dangerous thugs. In Goodfellas Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill falls for a Jewish girl who remains ignorant of his criminal activities through a large part of the film, but when she becomes a part of that world he sets up a mistress to replace her, seemingly needing something Other, a place where he can retreat from his demons into the arms of a woman apart from it.
The same compulsion drives De Niro’s Sam Rothstein in Casino, in this case himself the Jewish man who runs a casino for the mob. In what is probably the best example of self-destructive longing, he finds himself falling for a con woman played by Sharon Stone. Stone’s character is flighty and demanding, at first the only woman who seems to call Rothstein out on his bullshit, but eventually devolving into the same greed-driven hustlers who its his job to thwart.
This desire for women who prove to drive the protagonist deeper into their problems exists even in modern Scorsese, as recently as 2004’s The Aviator. In The Aviator, Howard Hughes continually goes after younger and younger actresses, but then becomes increasingly paranoid when jealousy over their fame and beauty overcome him (addressed later when I’ll go over The Aviator in greater length).
Even in the more obscure depths of Scorsese, such as The Age of Innocence, the plot always seems to pivot along that one woman that our hero wants but cannot or should not have. In The Age of Innocence it becomes the driving force of the plot, a man obsessed with a woman society deems unavailable to him. He yearns his entire life, even as he takes a wife and has children of his own. Even under all the manners and costume of a period piece, the anguish is fully Scorsese. Few other directors could find their home in such an odd genre of film.
In most of his filmography, Scorsese’s protagonists long for the woman they either can’t have, shouldn’t have, or undoes them. It’s arch tragedy, to be sure, but it is so fundamental to his plots that it becomes obsession. From beginning to end, the men idealize women only to discover they are flesh and blood and are driven into deep, dark, isolated nights of the soul by their discoveries. Humanization is inevitable, but rarely are they able to deal with it.
What I find most interesting about these broken relationships with women is how quickly they drive the protagonists to violence. These are always decent men, men with principle and character, but who are driven into settings with men who are more dangerous than them (often played by Joe Pesci in a series of great supporting roles). The mob seems to be forever linked in Scorsese’s mind with this Catholic guilt, certainly an influence of his Italian-American background where organized crime and religious upbringing were two foundations of his childhood.
Where does guilt come to a head in violence and crime? How does it drive ambitions? Scorsese never really provides an answer to the salvation of many of his protagonists. They suffer because it’s an indelible part of who they are. It’s not a problem to be solved, but a character trait to be (potentially) overcome. But more often than not, it serves more to drive the ambitions of the protagonists than it does to explore an idea of ‘growing’ or ‘overcoming.’
But there are exceptions. Next time, I’ll be talking about the concept of potential and ambition, what it means to wrestle with guilt and suffering, and the array of issues that come with addressing these problems. Come back for an examination of more tortured souls, including two of the most notable religious figures.