That Familiar Scorsese Touch in "Who's That Knocking at My Door?"

(image via IFC Center)

Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a film made by someone who loves films. This is no news to anyone today, but it is impossible to believe that anyone watching this directorial debut even back in 1968 could have mistaken this for anything else but the product of a man born and bred on film stock. The film itself is a minor effort in the grand scheme of Scorsese’s filmography, eclipsed by many later films that are more distinctly “Scorsese” and less broadly influenced by other filmmakers. However, it evidences the great confidence inherent in the works of this first generation of filmmakers who grew up going to the cinema, and it also begins to explore thematic material that would later become iconic in Scorsese’s distinct breed of filmmaking.

            Shot in black-and-white at the time when color photography was widely being adopted, the film offers an appealing sense of nostalgia; it is a love letter to a style of filmmaking that was quickly disappearing in 1968, and would never be seen again in Hollywood. The film is brightly lit and the result is an intensely white, low-contrast image that evokes the visual style of the French New Wave. This influence is further evident in the scene where J.R. first meets the girl on a ferry, and as they carry out a physically static conversation the camera flits back and forth between two-shot long takes and a series of shots taken at odd angles, including one of the couple from above. There is also a jump-cut during an emotional climax occurring near the end of the film, although whether this was an intentional choice or something necessitated by insufficient or missing footage is unclear; there is certainly something charming about a first-time director being able to, quite legitimately, use his film buff background to pass off amateur mistakes as stylistic homages, as the shot cuts while holding on the face of J.R. as he chastises his girlfriend.

            Narratively, the film plays out like a series of vignettes. The connecting narrative thread is J.R.’s budding romance with a mystery woman, which is intercut with extended flashback sequences and scenes of J.R. with his friends. The passage of time is ambiguous, and many scenes appear only tangentially related to the main story; however, each one plays out like a short film in and of itself, and the film finds an offbeat sense of rhythm in this loose structure of self-contained events. In terms of its story, this a film about sex, and the way that sexual ideologies, particularly those regressive ones taught by the Catholic church, impact relationships. There are two flashback sequences, the first depicting J.R. in a past sexual encounter, and the second showing his girlfriend in a past sexual encounter of her own. The former is long and graphic, showing what appears to be a weekend of ecstasy between J.R. and an unnamed woman. There is no sense of love or romance, only unbridled lust as the two no sooner get off the bed before they are falling back onto it together, ready to start all over again. The girlfriend’s memory stands in stark contrast to these images of lustful bliss, in a scene that is extended and graphic in a completely different sense: we see her ex-boyfriend driving her to an isolated location in the woods, and subsequently raping her. This scene foreshadows Scorsese’s reputation for shocking violence, depicting a rape that is animalistic in its brutality. Where many cinematic rape scenes have the man easily overpower the woman, this scene shows the woman attacking him like an animal fighting for its life, clawing and writhing as she struggles to get away. What is particularly disturbing about the scene is the choice of music: it is diegetic music, a song playing on the radio in the car, and it is a crooning love song in the 1950s style. The juxtaposition is shocking, but also incredibly important in unpacking the complicated ideas about sex and gender present in the film. 

            Critically, the only stereotypical sex scene depicted is between J.R. and the woman, and even this one is atypical both formally and narratively. The entire scene is filmed in an extreme close-up, with the camera inches away from the characters’ faces and hands. The scene is incredibly intimate and sensuous, every subtle facial movement caught by the camera as they kiss and touch each other. Despite the incredible sense of intimacy that is established in these shots, the scene ends without the couple actually having sex, as J.R. chooses to abstain under the assumption that the woman is a virgin. Because of his Catholic upbringing, he feels guilt over the idea of deflowering a woman he is in love with; he feels that he must marry her first. This scene possesses all of the romantic sensuality that is absent in the flashback sequences, emphasizing the compatibility of J.R. and the woman, yet it is cut short by his antiquated views on sex.

            It is these views on sex that drive the primary conflict of the film. J.R. is ultimately unable to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend was raped, treating the event as though it was her fault and has somehow left her damaged—a viewpoint that would be misogynistic even if the sex had been consensual, which it clearly was not. His belief that women should abstain from sex until marriage was not an unusual one in 1968 and remains unfortunately prevalent even today—as does the double standard of it being acceptable for men to acquire long and storied sexual histories before getting married—yet within the film his views are presented as relics even of the time period the film is set in. The woman is portrayed sympathetically, and while she is still prepared to take J.R. back even after he berates her for being sexually assaulted, she refuses to marry him when she realizes that he will always blame her for her rape. The scene of her assault—bits and pieces of which are intercut throughout the ending of the film—ultimately serves as a juxtaposition not merely of 1950s kitsch and brutal violence, but also of 1950s perceptions of sex with objective reality. Within the worldview espoused by crooners of the 1950s, a girl who gets in a car alone with a man and lets him drive her to the middle of nowhere is expecting just one thing, and has no one but herself to blame when she gets it; the reality is the shocking violence of the scene the song plays over. Even as J.R. gets drunk and tries to forget about his girlfriend, images of the scene flash in his mind; he seems to understand the reality of what occurred, yet he cannot reconcile it with his puritanical sexual ideology. Ultimately, he loses the girl he was meant to be with because he cannot overcome the harmful views about sex that his Catholic upbringing has instilled in him; like many of Scorsese's later protagonists, he faces a religious and moral crisis, and unlike those that would come after him, he fails to reconcile his worldview with the actual reality of the world.

            Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a bold, confident debut that may be more homage than original product, yet it remains a fascinating look into the burgeoning of a master filmmaker. Infused with a number of creative formal techniques and built around a pair of characters and a moral conflict that remains compelling to this day, this is a film that succeeds both as a product of a devoted cinephile’s passion for filmmaking and as worthwhile viewing for all of the cinephiles that have followed in his footsteps.


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