Richard Schickel's Top 5 Martin Scorsese Scenes

Slate's Culture Blog
March 21 2011 10:49 AM

Richard Schickel's Top 5 Martin Scorsese Scenes

Richard Schickel's new book, Conversationswith Scorsese , has just beenpublished by Alfred A. Knopf. It transcribes a series of talks the critic hadwith master director Martin Scorsese over the past several years. At Slate 'sinvitation, Schickel has chosen five sequences from the director's vast body ofwork that are not only personal favorites of his, but also have particularsignificance in the director's development as, perhaps, the nation's leadingfilm author.

"The Long Walk" ( Goodfellas ,1990)


Henry Hill's long walk into theCopacabana night club is probably the most famous certainly the most discussed shotMarty ever made: down the street, through a basement entrance, into the clubwhere Henny Youngman is doing his act. It is a virtuoso piece around a minutelong, all in one, no cuts or changes in angle. It symbolizes the height of theyoung gangster's career, with the confidence of the shot matching theconfidence of his stride. It is also something of a rarity in Marty's manner,in that he did not, as he customarily does, draw the shot out on paperbeforehand. He and his assistants improvised it on location and Marty isparticularly proud of the fact that it took them less than a day to plan it,rehearse it and finish their take.


"You Talking to Me?" ( TaxiDriver , 1976)

Robert De Niro stares into a mirrorand, as he rehearses some business with a hidden gun, starts talking to hisdarker self. It's weirdly funny, darkly terrifying and a total improv. Theyknew they needed this scene to motivate Travis Bickle's subsequent descent intoviolence, but they didn't know quite what he'd say until he started saying it.It was shot in an apartment building on New York's West 89 th St.,which was about to be torn down, when the picture was five days over schedule,with the assistant director outside the door, begging them to finishimmediately. But De Niro was finding his rhythms and getting on a great roll,as Marty, crouching on the floor, watched in largely silent awe. The actor hadto repeat a few lines that were covered by outside noise, but it was, in fact,quite a simple scene to shoot, as so many great movie sequences often turn outto be.


"Ruling the Air" ( TheAviator , 2004)

Howard Hughes, at the top of hisgame, long before madness claimed him, directs an aerial combat sequence for Hell'sAngels *, his epic aviation picture released in 1930. Leonardo DiCaprio isairborne, in a camera plane, the stunt flyers angrily buzzing by him as heregisters joy, terror and all the emotions in-between while creating whatremains perhaps the seminal sequence of men at war in the air. Technically, itis as brilliant (and difficult) as anything Marty has ever attempted, while atthe same time revealing Hughes at a moment when his peculiar genius was as yetunclouded by the obsessions that finally undid him.


"The Deadly Streets" ( Gangsof New York , 2002)

This is a film that took too longto make. Its conception was, I think, clouded by the many choices it presentedto Marty and, of course, getting the money together for it was very difficult.In the end, it perhaps contains too much in the way of undigested material andtoo little that would grant it emotional coherence. Marty just ran out of moneybefore he could shoot the sequences that would have granted Gangs that quality. Even so, it flirtsconstantly with greatness never more so than in the great, tribal riot thatopens the film and sets its anarchic terms. It is not like anything else thatMarty ever shot; violence in his films tends to the intimate, not the massive.But here he mobilizes vast forces in ferociously bloody combat. The result is ashocking, brilliant statement of the heedlessness of men engaged in dubiousbattle and, just possibly, the most virtuosic piece of filmmaking Marty hasever created.


"I'm Not an Animal" ( RagingBull , 1980)

Jake LaMotta has losteverything his money, his wife, above all his power in the ring. Now, at last,he is thrown into jail where he must confront himself and the utter failure ofhis life. He begins to abuse himself, brutally banging his head against thewalls while insisting over and over to himself that he is not an animal, that, afterall, he is a human being with at least a primitive sense of consciousness andconscience. He becomes, as Marty puts it, "more accepting of himself," by whichhe means, "He's more gentle to himself and to the people around him. If he getsthat far in his life that would be good....God is not a torturer; he wants us tobe merciful with ourselves...And Jake kind of gets there." I think that, for allthe violence of Marty's films, the compassionate essence of what he wants mostto say is contained in this heartbreaking sequence. We're not talkingtriumphant redemption here, only a limited and realistic one a sort of candleflickering in the darkness of the cinematic world Scorsese has created in hisdistinguished and prolific career.

* Correction Mar. 21: In the original version of this post, the film's title was given as Hell's Angel .

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