Martin Scorsese's debut contains so many of the director's trademark themes that it's fascinating even in its flawed state. What started as a short student film in 1964 evolved into a Catholic-tinged romance by the time it debuted at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1967 under the title I Call First, where it was enthusiastically received by then-novice critic Roger Ebert, who almost single-handedly established the director as a talent to watch years before he followed through on that promise with Mean Streets. Even if it pales next to later works, the film is a thoroughly interesting introduction to a legend.
Scorsese follows J.R., your average Italian-American kid, as he passes the time on the streets of New York. He's played by Harvey Keitel, more fresh-faced than I ever thought possible; yeah, I know he was younger, but even in Mean Streets he had a bit of a grizzled appearance about him. He hangs out with his aimless pals as they hit up bars and have their way with loose women. Near the start of the film J.R. meets a young woman (Zina Bethune) in a train station, and the two discuss John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers, a film that will come to have many parallels with the story. The two hit it off, and soon they're a serious couple.
J.R. is so in love that he even plans to marry the girl, until she reveals to him a terrible secret: when she was younger, her boyfriend raped her. Unwilling to marry someone who isn't a virgin, J.R. rejects her and must figure out what he wants to do. The men of Scorsese's films often fear the sexual power of the female, and J.R. is no exception. Scorsese contrasts J.R.'s rejection of her impurity with an earlier montage of J.R. imagining himself bedding numerous floozies and whores. The men in society can screw whomever and whatever they want, but if a woman has sex--even against her will--it's her shame.
Likewise, Scorsese also deals with the subject of Catholic guilt that would define many of his characters. At one point we see J.R.'s mother fixing dinner for well-behaved children, only to cut to the seedy hangout in which J.R. and his buddies meet, complete with photos of nude women plastering the walls. When J.R. decides to marry the girl "anyway," she justifiably gets upset with him for being bothered not by the fact that someone violated her but that she's not a virgin. J.R. struggles with the way he was brought up and even calls her a whore. The film subsequently ends with a montage of shots of J.R. going to church for absolution, because of what he said but also because that's just what he does. As with the theme of male and female double standards, it's just too pronounced.
The influence and indirect homage of The Searchers plays out with the girl's confession. J.R. plays the role of John Wayne's character. Where Ethan held viciously racist views on Native Americans and accepted only the "purity" of the white race, J.R. places women into two categories: the nice girls and the broads. The girl fits into Natalie Wood's part: just as Natalie Wood was barely different after being assimilated into the Commanches, J.R.'s girlfriend is a "nice girl" who's just not a virgin.
I Call First became Who's That Knocking at My Door when exploitation producer Joseph Brenner agreed to distribute the film for wide release, under the provision that Scorsese added a sex scene, resulting in that fantasy sequence that looks so out of place. It's only another addition to a film established largely in a piecemeal format; not only were new scenes added in but different types of stock. Scorsese used both 16mm and 35mm film to make the movie, so some scenes sparkle while other look like the indie film that it is. It's somewhat of a visual approximation of the film's own disconnect between the obviousness of the themes and the brilliance inherent even in the director's first work.
For all its flaws, Who's That Knocking at My Door gets a great deal right, and it shows Scorsese deftly in control of his camera as it mingles with characters, jump cuts all over the place and just generally makes itself a force in its own right. Scorsese also shows his mastery with melding pop music with the visuals, making it that much more exciting. For all its heavy-handedness, I'd love to watch this again, something I didn't think I'd be able to say about the film from the outset. It trapped Scorsese in the exploitation market for a few years (he'd go on to make his weakest film, Boxcar Bertha, after this) before friend and indie pioneer John Cassavetes shook some sense into him and told him to get serious. The result was Mean Streets, and that's the place everyone should start with Scorsese, but die-hards can find a lot to love in this potential-laden offering.