Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is Martin Scorsese’s 1967 directorial debut. This film marks the first partnership of Harvey Keitel and Scorsese (later they’d work on such cinematic masterpieces as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver). It’s fair to say that Who’s That Knocking at My Door? could be seen as a warm-up to Mean Streets, in which Keitel again plays a character leading a tough life on the streets while struggling with his Catholic upbringing. Both characters secretly have a good heart and have a conscience which keeps them slightly alienated from the company they keep.
My Door began its life years before it was finally distributed for viewing by the wider public. In 1965 it was an NYU student film (Bring on the Dancing Girls), then a romantic plot was introduced and spliced into the scenes which had already been shot to create I Call First.
This second version of the film premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival at the end of 1967 – “a work that is absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere. I have no reservations in describing it as a great moment in American movies” – but it wasn’t until Scorsese was approached by Joseph Brenner that the film was distributed.
Brenner was a distributor who made his business by buying and releasing exploitation films to the public. These films were filled with lurid subject matter, which is why they sold despite often having been filmed on a very low budget. Brenner didn’t think that Scorsese’s film was lurid enough, but told him that he would buy it and distribute it on the condition that he included a sex scene. Scorsese set to work filming the extra scene, which sees J.R. fantasising about sleeping with various prostitutes and, voila, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was born. Scorsese being Scorsese the extra sex scenes were not just afterthoughts. They are beautifully shot with innovative camera techniques and the sound of The Door’s The End playing over the top elevates this scene above mere exploitation.
The film also marks Keitel’s debut as an actor, playing the character of J.R., a street tough kid who is not above having more than a few drinks with his friends and develops a relationship with a girl who he meets on the Staten Island Ferry. It seems Scorsese gave his character J.R. several aspects of his own personality, as they are both Italian-Americans, New York born and raised, who share a passion for cinema. When J.R. and his girlfriend first meet it’s over a film magazine – they strike up a conversation about the films of John Wayne and Lee Marvin. Scorsese grew up watching these films, so it would not be hard to imagine him introducing himself to a girl in this way as well. It’s also a clever way of letting the audience know what his inspirations were.
J.R. finds out that his girlfriend was once date raped, and is revolted and confused by the revelation. J.R. is unable to come to terms with her being romantically involved with someone who could do that to her and splits up with her because of it. This scene marks the first time we the audience see that the girl is not as “innocent” as was previously thought, yet we feel sympathy and compassion for her as she is not the one who was at fault.
Disturbed by the fact that she has already “lost her virginity” and that she didn’t tell him immediately (J.R.’s unsophisticated mind is unable to distinguish sex from rape), he leaves her for an evening with his friends in which they get up to no good. After that evening, he decides that the only way to right the situation is to marry her, but she refuses him and this leaves him to confront his prejudices – brought on by his religion – and struggle with the guilt of his past actions.
From this early stage in Scorsese’s career we can already appreciate his talent for picking terrific music to accompany his scenes. Catchy, energetic songs from the 60s are used effectively to show J.R. on a night out with his friends and to accompany the climactic scene in which J.R. returns to his church and has the blood of Christ land on him.
Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-time editor who worked with him on this film should not be overlooked when examining Who’s That Knocking at My Door?. Through some clever montage sequences we get to feel what it’s like to hang out with J.R. and his friends over the course of an evening. The camera slowly pans back and forth between them while Schoonmaker shows the characters getting more unruly and out of control until one character is in tears. Gunshots are used to end this scene, cut together with still shots from Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo starring John Wayne, which J.R. and the girl have been to see at the pictures.
Her innovative use of editing is noteworthy, particularly in showing the audience scenes of the stark rape scene intercut with J.R. getting drunk and bringing girls around to the apartment. This is the scene that leads up the climax of the film, when J.R. finally tries to make amends.
Anyone with an appreciation for independent cinema should see Who’s That Knocking at My Door? as it shows that Scorsese’s beautiful and artistic vision was there right from his early days as a student at NYU.