Review: Martin Scorsese’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”

The opening moments of Scorsese’s first feature (1967) encapsulate the iconography/obsessions that would inform the rest of his career. Over sharp booming sounds that reverberate like the hand of God, these images occur: a set of Catholic figures adorning a mantle; a mother (Scorsese’s own mother Catherine, of course) bakes and serves food to her children; and over a burst of 60’s pop music, a gang fight is shot with a restless camera. The associative, free-form editing, derived from the French New Wave that broke just a few years before, binds these images in an iron bond. The mother figure, which doesn’t appear again until a brief shot at the end of the film, exists outside of time – it is unclear whether this is a flashback or present scene – and becomes a vision of ideal, pure womanhood, which in the mind of the film’s protagonist J.R. (a baby-faced Harvey Keitel), is unattainable for any other mortal woman, including to his disappointment his girlfriend (Zina Bethune, standing in for the Hitchcock blonde epitomized most memorably by Kim Novak), known here as simply “The Girl.” That the main female character isn’t even given a name epitomizes the film’s sexual politics in a nutshell, a rather crude Madonna/whore dichotomy that would resurface again and again in Scorsese’s subsequent films. Arguably, he’s never fully transcended this rubric; he’s simply dressed it up in ever more sophisticated cinematic technique.
The film’s original title was I Call First, referencing a scene in which J.R. and his pals argue over who will be the next to bed two women they have lured to an apartment. J.R.’s childish and unsophisticated relationships with women make him a very distasteful character and keep us at a distance from him, most disturbingly in the way he reacts to The Girl’s tale of rape, first blaming her for it, then obsessively replaying it in his mind, and finally, after telling her “I forgive you, and I’ll marry you anyway,” and after she rebuffs him, calling her a whore. All of which is to say that such details will hardly please feminists. But beyond this, the film exhibits an infectious energy that retains its freshness, which its stylistic lapses (including an awkwardly inserted sex scene included at the behest of the film’s distributor) only serve to enhance. The roving camera, as it would do so often in Scorsese’s other films, is a prominent co-star, and the film contains rehearsals of movement that would culminate in such later celebrated set pieces as Ray Liotta’s nightclub trip in Goodfellas and the camera literally following the money in Casino. The movie-madness of Scorsese is also in full force: J.R. and the Girl meet-cute in a lengthy scene of dialogue while waiting for the Staten Island ferry, which includes J.R. excitedly discussing John Wayne and The Searchers; later he takes her to see Rio Bravo. Of course, it is no accident that these are both films revered by the famous gang of Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers. As Roger Ebert famously foresaw, Who’s That Knocking at My Door was not only a significant film in its own right, but a harbinger of greater things to come.