For Martin Scorsese, it hasn’t all been about breaking heads. Cast a glance at the man’s credits and you’ll find music (“The Last Waltz,” “No Direction Home”), comedy (“After Hours”), history (“Kundun,” “The Aviator”) and gentility (“The Age of Innocence”). You will even find religion (“The Last Temptation of Christ”).
Yet perceptions often die as hard as made men in the trunk of a car. When most cinephiles think of Scorsese, they think of violence, elevated to a saintly level. At once operatic and visceral, the action usually comes in shocking and bloody staccato bursts, like they often do on the unforgiving streets of Scorsese’s favorite turf. Nobody takes a shovel to a skull or empties a revolver into a scumbag quite like Marty.
His new work, “The Departed,” will only add to Scorsese’s reputation as an impresario of controlled mayhem. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson, it revolves around a police investigation of Boston mobsters. While it is a compelling and effective crime thriller, suffice to say that it’s less a cerebral “All The President’s Men” type of whodunit and more like Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” set in Southie barrooms.
But in his usual masterful way, Scorsese integrates the artery-spilling into the fabric of the narrative. Rather than be gratuitous, Scorsese’s violence is once again organic to the story-telling process. It just so happens he has become renown for telling stories rife with blunt-force trauma.
It all started with Johnny BoyWhile it wasn’t his first effort, the film that put him on the radar was 1973’s “Mean Streets,” which also introduced the world to a young and incendiary Robert De Niro. It was the volcanic anger of Johnny Boy (De Niro) that served as a symbol of the frustration experienced by those growing up in Little Italy with little reason to believe life would ever consist of anything more than small-time deals among two-bit hoods. It would form a bridge upon which Scorsese could take those themes and expand them with slightly larger budgets.
Although opinions vary as to which among his films is his best — “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” usually seem to get the most acclaim — it was “Taxi Driver” that still stands as perhaps the perfect melding of bold, visionary director and incandescent script. Paul Schrader wrote it from his gut, drawing upon a time when he was consumed with isolation and loneliness himself after a broken relationship. The producers who discovered it and decided to make it needed some convincing at the time to allow Scorsese to direct it, but “Mean Streets” smoothed the path.
Travis Bickle is the quintessential Scorsese companion — a Molotov cocktail of rage, looking for a plate-glass window to crash through. Violence is promised throughout the film, and in the third act it is delivered in one of the most nightmarish sequences in movie history. It isn’t disturbing in the manipulative way some horror films play with fears, but rather it feels terrifyingly real because the character is so expertly drawn as a loner on the brink of mental collapse that when it finally happens the result is almost worse than what our imaginations had anticipated.
For Scorsese, “Mean Streets” opened doors, but “Taxi Driver” opened eyes.
“Raging Bull,” again with De Niro in the lead, was the next signpost on Scorsese’s journey. It featured an altogether different kind of violence. The boxing sequences were bone-jarring, but they were staged for heightened visual effect rather than for shock value. That film was marked by the emotional violence perpetrated by boxer Jake La Motta upon those around him, especially his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). And it was as raw and upsetting in its way as Travis Bickle’s final stand at the brothel.
When violence becomes artAlthough “Raging Bull” was a filmmaker’s film and a triumph of style and technique, “Goodfellas” might be Scorsese’s signature work because it revisited the world of La Cosa Nostra that was touched upon earlier. Whereas “Mean Streets” literally dealt with organized crime on a street level, “Goodfellas” was all pinky rings and Cadillacs. It focused on the lavish lifestyle and grandiose aspirations of those in organized crime because that’s what the main character, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), grew up dreamily fixated upon.
“Goodfellas” required Scorsese to indulge in brutality and violence because it was as essential to that milieu as garlic. Pesci’s Tommy DeVito was as cold-blooded to those who crossed him as all the shooters at the toll booth were toward Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.”
The sequence in which Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) is beaten mercilessly in a bar, then thrown into a trunk, then stabbed later, then buried, then unearthed and buried again, is almost done with nonchalance, as if such actions are so natural to the characters as to be routine. That’s the kind of violence that resonates all the way to the bone marrow of movie-goers.
Five years later, Scorsese revisited mob turf in “Casino,” which worked as effective drama but was not a groundbreaking achievement. By then, he had broken enough bones and inflicted enough gunshot wounds, and “Casino” felt like a brilliant rehash of familiar themes.
“Gangs of New York” in 2002 was a different take on the gangster genre, about warring factions in the “Five Points” section of Lower Manhattan during the middle of the 19th century. The film is awash in blood and grime, and the behavior of the antagonists toward each other is almost medieval. It’s the kind of material that Scorsese gravitates toward, and with which he is unmatched in presenting as harrowingly real.
And now comes “The Departed,” which is less graphic in terms of actual gore per frame than a typical Scorsese film, but just as powerful in its pacing and deft placement of barbarous acts. As usual, he lets the story tell itself. It’s not his fault if the story in question involves people who want to do each other great bodily harm.
There have been plenty of Scorsese films over the years that do not fit the savage paradigm. It just so happens he has become known for those that do. Failure to recognize his accomplishments in both categories is grounds for a one-way ride to a shallow grave in upstate New York. Figuratively speaking, of course.