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Martin Scorsese’s Early Films Were Freakin’ Weird – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

Martin Scorsese’s Early Films Were Freakin’ Weird



Every great filmmaker has a unique origin story. Some hit success early on, while others take time to develop their own style of storytelling. For Martin Scorsese, his journey began with films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets, which explored themes of Catholic guilt and crime that would become central to his filmography. These early works showcased Scorsese’s love for film, promising talent, and distinctive vision that would continue to evolve throughout his career.

His latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, has received critical acclaim and is considered one of his most accomplished works to date. This period of his career, which began with Silence and continued with The Irishman, represents the pinnacle of his artistic maturity. Scorsese’s cinematic journey has influenced countless artists and filmmakers, and his early short films as a student at NYU are a testament to his creativity and originality.

Scorsese’s early shorts – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964), and The Big Shave (1967) – are characterized by gritty realism, inventive narratives, and an idiosyncratic approach to humor. They also explore themes of guilt and redemption, and feature dynamic camera movements, innovative editing techniques, and a fearless exploration of society’s darker shades.

These shorts introduced two elements that would become a constant in Scorsese’s work: the study and questioning of the Italian American identity, and the use of sound and music as a central part of his films. Despite being rough around the edges, these early efforts showcase Scorsese’s passion for filmmaking and his unique style.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is the first of Scorsese’s student films. Shot using 16mm film, the film features jump cuts, associative editing, and freeze frames. It tells the story of a writer obsessed with a photograph he buys, exploring Scorsese’s fascination with character obsessions and showcasing his offbeat humor and innovative editing techniques.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! is a longer work that explores Scorsese’s relationship with crime and identity. The film follows the life of a self-proclaimed successful gangster with a blend of comedic undertones and mafia references. The film received acclaim for its unreliable narration and was shot mostly in Scorsese’s apartment.

The Big Shave is the most famous of Scorsese’s early works and marked the first time he used genre to his advantage. Shot on color film, the film presents a man obsessively shaving until he mutilates his face, serving as a metaphorical criticism of the Vietnam War. The film is notorious for its use of violence and its combination of music and montage, which would become a trademark of Scorsese’s style.

Overall, Scorsese’s early short films showcase his creativity and originality, and offer a glimpse into his evolution as a pioneering filmmaker. They also serve as the starting point of one of cinema’s most fruitful collaborations, that of Scorsese with his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Every cinematic genius has an origin story. Some hit gold in their first endeavors, others take a while to finally find their own way of telling stories. Films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets are thought of as the starting point of Martin Scorsese’s career. These works not only began the exploration of themes such as Catholic guilt and crime, which would go on to be a central part of his filmography but displayed his love for film, his promising talent, and a distinct vision that would be developed further in a career that seems to only be getting better to this day.


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His latest, a long-in-the-works mega-production, Killers of the Flower Moonis receiving some of the best reviews of his already lauded career, considering just how acclaimed his body of work is, this is something massive. Many critics have said that this period of his life, starting with the contemplative and mildly underrated Silencefollowed by The Irishmancontains his most mature and accomplished works of his legendary career.

Scorsese’s cinematic journey has influenced thousands of artists and filmmakers, and its beginning dates even before the priorly mentioned ’70s films. His early short films as a student at NYU, are a testament to his originality and, indeed, an embodiment of a certain captivating weirdness. These films not only mark the beginnings of an illustrious career but also offer a glimpse into Scorsese’s evolution as a pioneering filmmaker. The three shorts he made in the sixties were What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964), and The Big Shave (1967).


What Characterized These Early Shorts?

whats a nice girl like you
Criterion Collection

The overall style of these shorts is characterized by gritty realism, inventive narratives, an idiosyncratic approach to humor, dynamic camera movements, innovative editing techniques, an inspection of guilt and redemption, and a fearless exploration of society’s darker shades. In terms of form and content, Scorsese introduced two elements that would be a constant in his work. The first was the studying and questioning of the Italian American identity, as a very personal and close topic. The second would be the formal element of sound and musicwhich would go on to be a central part of his films.

Related: Martin Scorsese’s Funniest Movies, Ranked

Despite these films being coarse and a bit undercooked, they were honest efforts that distill passion through every frame, even from such an early stage, Scorsese showed his one and true love is film.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963)

whats a nice girl like you 2
Criterion Collection

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is the first of Scorsese’s student films. He shot it using 16mm film, featuring jump cuts, associative editing, and freeze frames among other innovative stylistic resources. He crafted the story after watching Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, and it follows a writer obsessed with a photograph he buys, effectively encapsulating Scorsese’s knack for exploring character obsessions.

The film’s offbeat humor and innovative editing techniques hint at Scorsese’s future stylistic preferences. With a run-time of just ten minutes, the film sets the stage for the director’s enduring fascination with the human psyche, a theme that resonates throughout his career. Some critics have noted that some themes explored in this short film are seen once again in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street.

This short is also important for marking the starting point of one of cinema’s most fruitful collaborations, which is none other than that of Scorsese’s with his long-time editor and legend in her own right, Thelma Schoonmaker.

It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964)

its just not you murray
Criterion Collection

Scorsese’s relationship with crime and identity would begin in this short. Peculiar humor and eccentric storytelling are present here as well, with the added layer of the passing of time which would be amplified and explored to depth in his sprawling epics.

This short is longer work, at around 15 minutes. The film narrates the life of a self-proclaimed successful gangster, Murray, with an intriguing blend of comedic undertones and mafia references. The film received acclaim for the priorly mentioned virtues, and for its unreliable narration which comedically is contradicted by what is seen on the screen.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Bringing Out The Dead is Martin Scorsese’s Most Underrated Movie

He shot most of the film in his apartment in black and white 16mm film. He based the main character and story on his uncle’s life, it also marked the debut performance of his mother, Catherine Scorsese who would go on to appear in more of his films, most notably as herself in the documentary Italianamerican.

The Big Shave (1967)

The Big Shave short film still
The Criterion Channel

The last of the short films which compromises this period saw the director go on a different route which made this film stand out among his early works, and is to date the most famous of his early works. This was also the first time Scorsese approached genre and used it to his advantage.

Most people wouldn’t believe that Scorsese went into body horror, but he did, and the results are strikingly weird and fascinating. This darker short was ironically shot on color film and serves as a metaphorical criticism of the Vietnam War. The film presents a man obsessively shaving until he mutilates his face.

The Big Shave is notorious for its use of violence, which would go on to be a component of a lot of Scorsese’s films. It is notable for its combination of music and montage, as a formalistic way to amplify the plot. Iconic scenes which incorporate music such as the murder montage in Goodfellas while ‘Layla’ by Derek and Dominoes plays, or ‘Gimme Shelter’ right at the start of The Departed are examples of how Scorsese has made this resource a trademark of his style. The film is also the first time he confronted societal issues head-on, which he would do again in some of his most underrated movies like in the dark satire of entertainment and media, The King of Comedyand the highly idiosyncratic psychological drama, Bringing Out The Dead.

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