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10 Underappreciated Movies of Martin Scorsese That Are Worth Seeing

22 February 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by James Davidson

underappreciated Scorsese movies

Over the last 15 years, director Martin Scorsese has become the ultimate cinematic success story. Films such as Gangs of New York, The Departed, Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street have been successful with both audiences and critics alike, garnering good reviews while pulling in big box office bucks. But it wasn’t always such smooth sailing for the director who emerged from New York University in the mid 1960’s and burst on the scene during the heyday of the ‘New Hollywood’ era.

Scorsese sometimes struggled to find an audience for his films, particularly during the 1980’s and 90’s, while critics were sometimes quite harsh to his efforts to expand his stylistic range.

Here then are 10 films that were, in some ways, overlooked or underrated on their original release that should now be reconsidered in light of the fact that Martin Scorsese is regarded as one of today’s greatest cinematic masters. While all these films fall short in some way, they are all definitely worth seeing if you get a chance.

 

1. Mean Streets (1973)

mean streets

After emerging from film school, Scorsese found work on his own documentaries and on on films such as Woodstock (1970), as well as work for low budget master Roger Corman. His first studio feature was Mean Streets, released in the fall of 1973.

The film failed miserably at the box office, however, putting the career of the young director in jeopardy despite some critical praise for the movie.

Mean Streets centers around the character of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small time hood working for his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) on the streets of New York’s Little Italy, the neighborhood from which Scorsese himself hailed.

Charlie is secretly seeing Teresa (Amy Robinson), a girl his uncle disapproves of, while he also tries to protect Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), Teresa’s sometimes psychotic cousin.

Mean Streets sets forth Scorsese’s primary thematic preoccupations very plainly: the struggle between the impulse towards good and evil, the conflict between the saintly Catholic church of his upbringing and the mean streets on which his characters must survive, and the sometimes confusing sexual urges that undermine his characters’ resolve.

Although it was largely considered a failure on its first release, the film quickly developed a cult reputation and is now viewed as an important early work from one of the cinema’s greatest practitioners.

 

2. New York, New York (1977)

New York, New York (1977)

After Mean Streets, Scorsese was picked by star Ellen Burstyn to helm Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a woman’s film that was an unusual project for him, which was a success on its release in late 1974. This was followed by Taxi Driver (1976), an enormous success with both critics and filmgoers alike, which is now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

Fresh off these successes, he chose a most unusual project: New York, New York, a musical starring regular collaborator Robert Di Nero and Hollywood royalty, singer Liza Minnelli.

New York, New York is the story of the tempestuous relationship between saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) and singer Francine Evans (Minnelli). They meet on V-J day in New York and end up going to an audition together, where they are paired by a club owner as a boy-girl act and become a huge success. Falling in love, the two have a child together, but Doyle’s hot tempered nature puts an end to the relationship and soon he and Francine go their separate ways.

In the end, Francine’s lyrics to Doyle’s song “New York, New York” becomes a major hit, but the two star crossed lovers are unable to reconcile their professional success with their personal lives.

New York, New York was Scorsese’s first big budget film, and it was given a major promotional buildup. The film’s box office failure and the critical drubbing that followed hurt the young director badly, and Scorsese realized that his willingness to expand himself stylistically could be a major drawback in the eye’s of some critics.

Despite this, he carried on, and in hindsight New York, New York can now be seen as an interesting variation on some of the director’s familiar themes.

 

3. The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz

Scorsese is hardly a documentary filmmaker, but he has dabbled in documentaries from time to time with a mix of success. In 1976, guitarist Robbie Robertson of The Band, a group Scorsese had long admired, asked the director to film the group’s final performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, and the resulting film is now regarded as one of the greatest rock concert films of all time.

Deciding that the highest quality images were required for this landmark event, Scorsese dispensed with the lightweight 16mm cameras that had previously been used in such films as Woodstock and Gimme Shelter (both 1970), using larger 35mm cameras to record the concert.

Although some technical problems were encountered by the director and his crew, the end result was beautiful footage of some of the greatest rock acts of the era performing live with The Band in their final concert together. Scorsese added interview footage and a few soundstage songs to the film, which was released in 1978.

Although critics and audiences generally hailed the film, some have criticized The Last Waltz for focusing too much on guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, who befriended Scorsese and later worked on several of his films. Still, The Last Waltz remains a great testimony to both the music of The Band and to the man who made the movie.

 

4. The King of Comedy (1983)

The King Of Comedy (1983)

The 1980’s were Scorsese’s most difficult period, as his films often performed poorly at the box office and reviews were often critical. Raging Bull (1980), now regarded as a masterpiece, did only marginally well financially and was given mixed marks by critics, many of whom abhorred the film’s violence.

Scorsese’s next film, The King of Comedy, a scathing look at the influence of television and fame, fared even worse than Raging Bull, failing at the box office while critics took their pot shots at the film’s dark humor and offbeat story.

Robert De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, an obsessed fan of nighttime TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin idolizes Langford, doing everything he can to get the TV host’s attention while trying to become a successful comedian himself. Eventually, Rupert joins up with another Langford stalker, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) and they embark on a crazy scheme to kidnap the TV host and take over his show, giving Rupert his chance of a lifetime to become famous.

In an ending somewhat reminiscent of Taxi Driver, it appears that Rupert’s scheme has actually worked and he has finally achieved the fame that he so desires, despite ending up in jail for his efforts.

With the shooting death of John Lennon in 1980 and John Hinkley’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Reagan the next year, it’s not surprising that Scorsese seized upon this story as a timely commentary on our fame obsessed society. On its release, the audiences of the 1980’s (used to more standard fare) were confused by the movie, while critics were brutally unfair in their assessment of this unique film.

In the intervening years, however, the reputation of The King of Comedy has grown substantially, and it is now rightly regarded as one of the director’s major works and an insightful take on the difficulty that fame and celebrity pose in our society.

 

5. After Hours (1985)

After Hours (1985)

Retreating from his big budget failures and the collapse of his personal project The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese next made a small scale New York based black comedy called After Hours in 1985.

Starring Griffin Dunne as Paul, a word processor who heads down to New York’s SoHo district after a chance meeting with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). On his way to Marcy’s apartment in a cab, Paul loses his money when a $20 bill he was carrying flies out the window.

This begins a series of nightmarish misadventures in which Paul spends the night trying to get out of SoHo and back home. He is eventually mistakenly identified as a home burglar and chased by an unruly mob before he is finally encased in plaster by a deranged sculptress and deposited back in front of his office in the early hours of the next morning.

After Hours was actually modestly successful at the box office and was given decent to good reviews by the critics who had savaged his recent work. Compared to Scorsese’s previous efforts, however, After Hours seemed a very modest film at the time, almost a return to the director’s New York based roots.

After Hours has also seen its reputation grow in recent years and while it will never rank with Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, it is now regarded as a significant entry in Scorsese’s body of work. The darkly black comic tone of the film, somewhat unusual for the director, occurs again from time to time in later films such as Goodfellas and Bringing Out the Dead.

 

 

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  • The King Of Comedy & Bringing Out The Dead are masterpieces and criminally under-seen!!

  • zak1

    It’s amazing to me that Mean Streets could be considered underappreciated – it’s arguably the film of his that has had the most influence on other filmmakers – maybe one of the most influential of all American films.

    It’s true that people think of Goodfellas in terms of Scorsese influence but in many ways for all its brilliance that was a more polished – and (intentionally) shallow – revision of the earlier film. I’m sure filmmakers like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino were more fundamentally shaped by Mean Streets.

    I’m also very partial to Age of Innocence and Bringing out the Dead – not on the level of his vintage films, but firmly in their mold – like his best work, they seem more interested in exploring humanity itself than genre.

    Here are a few others I’d include:

    Who’s That Knocking at My Door

    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

    • Andreas P.

      I agree with you, but one could say it is underappreciated when compared to “The Taxi Driver”, “GoodFellas”, and “Raging Bull”, which are considered his best ones by the majority of people. To me personally, it is definitely his best movie to this day.

      Generally speaking, Scorsese is very popular and much appreciated among the wide audiences and the demanding moviegoers, so, there are probably legendary filmmakers out there who would envy the underappreciated part of his filmography.

      • zak1

        Very true about the question of “underappreciatedness” being relative.

        For me, I find Taxi Driver to be his greatest achievement, but I think that film came out of an accidental and magical collision between Schrader’s script, which had a more contained, Bresson-like spirituality to it, and Scorsese’s sprawling, Fellini-like sense of chaos. I think neither filmmaker has been able to replicate this, so my feeling is that this film is a sort of accident of brilliant alchemy, as one might see in a first-time film.

        Mean Streets seems to me a more characteristic work of Scorsese, and more indicative of his potential, or at least his potential in those days – that film and Who’s That Knocking have a raw open-endedness and a sense of mystery that were enhanced in Taxi Driver, but in later works, even as early as Raging Bull, we see him working to rein it in – Goodfellas seems to me a kind of declaration of artistic intent, reviving the template of Mean Streets, but with a new, slick, roller-coaster sense of control. It’s thrilling and beautiful, but diminished. Mean Streets didn’t need any narrator, to take one example, but it’s hard to imagine Goodfellas working without Liotta’s voice bringing everything together (and not in the same way as Taxi Driver, either, where the narration worked against what we saw in very fruitful ways and amplified the sense of insanity)

        In the Goodfellas mold, I found its most valuable aspect to be its shimmering sociological outlook, which linked it to the strengths of the earlier films – I wish Scorsese had followed this approach with more projects in the vein of Age of Innocence – there was the sense of the director applying his style as part of a vision of life in general. His more recent films are more star-driven and generic, though I hope he continues to explore outrageous comedy.

  • Levi

    Public Speaking.

  • V.C. Privitera

    Awesome List…
    “Mean Streets” has become my all time favorite film from Martin Scorsese’s long resume of great works.
    I will admit, it’s not a film for everyone, especially for those expecting something as great as his later Gangster/Hoodlum Genres, which is what I feel is most people’s conflict upon their first viewing of the Cult-Classic. It took quite some time for the film to grow on myself, but that was cause I was just too young to understand the content as a whole, which isn’t too complex, but if you’re a young teenager that doesn’t know much about being a “barfly” of sorts, even if you’re Italian, from New York, it’s still something of Maturity & Culture to contemplate the different aspects of each character & storyline.

    “Who’s That Knocking At My Door” (1967) – This film is worth an Honroable Mention…it’s like a precursor to Mean Streets of sorts. Very similar in that this film is also set in Little Italy, also starring a very young Harvey Keitel in one of his earliest roles as a small-time “hood” in his early 20s basically doing what we do at that age: hanging-out with friends, chasing women, and all sorts of cockamamie drama.
    Even with this film, you can see Scorsese has his eye on something fruitful….
    I would call this film a decent “Companion” Piece to go with “Mean Streets.”

    “Bringing Out The Dead” is wicked undervalued & completely underrated…
    I think it’s gotta be because it came out in “1999,” a year chalk-full of a plethora of amazing cinema, and it could be that people either overlooked this film or it just didn’t take with their taste…whatever the case, I remember quite vividly watching this film back in ’99, and to this day I have the same feeling that it’s a great New York City film of the time….even though the story is set in the early 90s; people that weren’t around in New York in the 90s that live there now have no idea that this was how crazy & gritty it truly was and Scorsese did what he does best and portrays every turn & dark corner as realistic as can be….it’d be totally different making a film like that today, even if it were still set in the early ’90s, cause New York has a totally different scent in the air.
    This was definitely Scorsese’s great “mark” to end a great Decade of Cinema….if I recall his next film that preceded this didn’t come out til 2002 with “Gangs of New York.”