By Spencer. Sometimes a film is less important for what it is, and more important for what it signals to come. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I recently had the opportunity to see the debut films of three of my favorite directors: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Terrence Malick. What struck me is how, even in the formative moments when these auteurs were still learning their way around a camera much less a set or an editing room, you can still see the unmistakable signature they would each imprint on their future body of work.
It doesn’t always happen that way; certainly not in music, where many artists take several albums to find the voice or tone for which they will later be known; and often not in film either, where many competent directors never really establish a signature visual or thematic style. Only an artist who from the very beginning is driven to say something different can put his or her stamp on their medium at such an early age.
Martin Scorsese was a 23-year-old film student when he first started creating Who’s That Knocking At My Door, the 1967 film that would become his feature-length debut. Shot in black-and-white, it tells the story of a young New Yorker (played by a 27-year-old Harvey Keitel in his own film debut) with clear ties to street toughs as he falls in love with a young woman (Zina Bethune) he meets on the Staten Island Ferry. Questions of loyalty, purity, social strata, religion, and gender hypocrisy arise when he learns she was once the victim of date rape. These are questions that Scorsese will tackle again and again in his career, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull to Gangs Of New York.
But what is truly shocking about this movie is how quickly Scorsese’s visual style and attitude assert themselves. The very first scene cuts sharply from an Italian mother’s kitchen to a group of thugs beating a man violently on the streets, while the soundtrack blasts rock music – the tone both energetic and also vaguely unsettling when coupled with the violence it parallels. It could be a scene out of Goodfellas, but it was filmed twenty years earlier.
When Keitel meets Bethune, the dialogue is notably naturalistic and improvisational in comparison with the more staged acting style common to the time, and their conversation turns to one of Scorsese’s greatest passions – film history. (The Aviator, Cape Fear, and Hugo will later delve into this topic at greater length, and Scorsese is a fierce advocate for film preservation).
Perhaps the movie’s most famous scene is one that was added later at the insistence of a sexploitation distributor, Joseph Brenner, who would release the film only if it included more nudity. Scorsese films Keitel in a dreamlike sequence bedding a series of prostitutes, with The Doors’ “The End” serving as the chaotic soundtrack while the camera spins around them in a daze. It’s such a jarring scene, both because of the way in which it is inserted abruptly into the middle of a conversation between Keitel and Bethune, and because Scorsese dares to take a cheap, gratuitous sex scene and turn it into art. [Ed. Note: The video is glitchy until the :32 mark, but stick with it — it’s worth it.]
But the most purely Scorsese moment of the film is something quite different. It’s a slow motion montage, set to mamba music, of Keitel and his buddies partying in a kitchen. They’re drinking. A little roughhousing starts. Someone pulls out a gun. He holds it to the head of a friend. Everyone laughs uproariously, while the terrified friend struggles harder and harder to get away. He begs, pleads for it to stop. Everyone keeps laughing. The menace builds as the fight becomes more and more serious. Everyone else runs away. A shot fires.
It’s the blueprint for Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” moment in Goodfellas – perhaps the most famous scene in any Scorsese movie, ever. And it’s right there in his very first film.
If Scorsese’s films are characterized by the tension between violence and joy, Steven Spielberg prefers a more childlike version of joy. Even as his movies feature some truly terrifying moments, there’s always a sense of wonder to the spectacles he creates. And, of course, a certain nostalgia and a sense of regret over lost youth that haunts everything he does.
This is true even in 1974’s The Sugarland Express, the story of a woman (Goldie Hawn) who breaks her husband out of prison so that they can take back their child from foster parents. Taking a state trooper hostage, they keep the police at bay in a chase across Texas that turns them into minor celebrities and folk heroes. It’s based on a true story, and even though the subject matter is more serious and less fantastical than Jaws or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or E.T., Spielberg engages it with the same light-hearted touch and sense of humor. The production is remarkably polished; even at this early stage, Spielberg clearly wants to entertain the masses.
It was also the beginning of a number of other Spielberg trademarks. The score, of course, is by John Williams — a partnership that continues all the way up through 2012’s Lincoln. There’s the symbolism of a child’s toy left behind during a moment of panic (see also, Empire Of The Sun, Schindler’s List, Hook, War Of The Worlds, etc.). And in the clip above, note how he portrays the police manhunt as it assembles — like a nameless, faceless, unstoppable horde coming from every direction. Remind you of the scientists coming to capture E.T. or the military blockade evacuating the townsfolk from Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters?
Spielberg is a master of that particular brand of suspense, but there’s also a constant undercurrent of optimism trying to prevail in his films. Though the protagonists in The Sugarland Express are doing bad things, they’re doing them for a noble reason, and we find ourselves rooting for outlaws – even as we know it can’t possibly end well for them. That’s where the Spielbergian flair for hope takes hold of us. As they evade capture time and time again, and even befriend their hostage, we almost fool ourselves into believing, like they do, that everything will turn out just fine. But this one doesn’t give us the safe, crowd-pleasing ending. It’s said that Spielberg regretted that, and felt like it was the reason the film didn’t reach a wider audience. He needn’t have worried; up next for him was a movie called Jaws.
Compared with Scorsese or Spielberg, Terrence Malick is something of an enigma. He made two films in the 70s, Badlands and Days Of Heaven, that were critical darlings. And then he disappeared for twenty years, only coming out of retirement in 1998 for the WWII visual poem, The Thin Red Line. Since then, his films (The New World, The Tree Of Life, To The Wonder) have become increasingly abstract and inaccessible, even as they’re shot with stunning beauty.
That eye for splendor is right there in Badlands, Malick’s first feature. But if you’re used to Malick testing your patience (or outright putting you to sleep), you may be surprised at the quick pace of Badlands. Starring a baby-faced Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young lovers on a killing spree in the 1950s, Badlands moves along at a brisk hour-and-a-half filled with violence, tension, sweetness, and yes, fun.
Hiding out in the woods for a time, Sheen and Spacek live a back-to-basics lifestyle that is almost innocent in its small joys – even as they also rig their hideaway with deadly traps for the manhunt they know is coming. Malick uses the opportunity to dig deep into all of the themes and stylistic tricks he’ll make his name on – the juxtaposition of man and nature, the use of introspective narration, the endless philosophizing from characters who otherwise don’t seem that smart.
When the violence comes, it comes in spades, and for a director now relegated to the art house, Badlands racks up an impressive body count once Sheen and Spacek flee their sanctuary. But if you’re a Malick fan, it’s undoubtedly not for his attention to plot, which he virtually eschews altogether in his other movies; it’s for his haunting visual imagery. And Badlands delivers that too, nowhere more so than in the scene in which Spacek’s childhood home is torched to the ground. As the flames dance in the darkness, spiraling out of control and taking with them a lifetime of memories, it’s a moment more ominous than any of the murders that follow.
Terrence Malick isn’t for everyone. But Badlands might be. Of the three debut films I’ve touched upon here, it’s the most enjoyable watch as well as the most mature artistic statement. Scorsese and Spielberg would go on to become greater all-round directors and innovators. They would define movies for an entire generation, while Malick is adored by a small but vocal contingent of film critics. But the three of them together represent a pivotal moment in the maturation of moviemaking. And that’s obvious from the very first moment the cameras rolled.