New Scorsese boxed set pulls no punches with ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘New York’

Jon Dieringer

Six months after the release of Warner Bros.’ Martin Scorsese boxed set, MGM has opened up their vaults to give the special edition treatment to three of the director’s films and newly release another on DVD. Taken together as The Martin Scorsese Film Collection, the four films range from the director’s greatest work to one of his worst, but all are essential to understanding the director’s influences, passions and career.

In surveys of Scorsese’s early years as a filmmaker, the stock line on the significance of Boxcar Bertha is that it impressed his idol John Cassavettes enough that he encouraged Scorsese to continue his filmmaking career.

According to the book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Cassavettes’ exact words were, “Nice work, but don’t fucking ever do something like this again.”

Well put. In some ways, Bertha pays homage to the iconoclastic Hollywood B-films that Scorsese so adores more explicitly than anything he’s done since. But the film was produced under the auspices of Roger Corman, who, despite giving the start to some of the greatest filmmakers of the ’70s, made movies with one goal in mind: money.

Corman’s films are fast, cheap and out of control, calculated to succeed in the box office on the wholesome virtues of their sex and violence and by piggybacking on the success of larger films. In this case, Bertha is an obvious riff on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, coasting along comfortably within the lovers-on-the-run formula.

Though by no means Scorsese’s best film and not remotely personal, this is where he begins to display the many trademarks that would distinguish his later films.

By the time New York, New York came around, Scorsese had already established himself as one of the most artistically successful directors of his generation, but he was still a Hollywood outsider. This is the movie that was set to change that, and it was one of the most anticipated films of 1977.

Unfortunately, the film was a critical and commercial disaster, and the classic title track wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.

Scorsese is torn between paying homage to the na‹ve Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and expanding on the darker themes of films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. In a movie that sets itself up as a romantic musical comedy, it is nothing short of disturbing to see in hindsight that DeNiro’s angry, jealous performance is very much a precursor to his depiction of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

Near the film’s completion, Scorsese undertook another musical venture, working on New York, New York during the day and his new project at night.

He must be a night person. A document of The Band’s final performance, The Last Waltz, is the benchmark by which all performance films are gauged.

On the commentary tracks frequent references are made to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a film about the passing of Italy’s aristocracy during the country’s unification. The movie culminates in one of the most visually and dramatically breathtaking scenes in cinema as Burt Lancaster’s Prince Fabrizio shares a dance with the lovely fianc‚e of his progressive nephew, symbolizing the end of one era and the beginning of another.

While Boris Levin’s production design owes much to the film — in reality, the stage at the Wonderland is a far cry from a stately 19th century ball — The Last Waltz has just as much dramatic resonance, as well.

Watching the film now, that Thanksgiving Day of 1976 really does feel like the passing of an era. Punk rock would break soon, then give way to New Wave, and rock ‘n’ roll would eventually become confused, diluted, lose sense of its roots, effectively dying.

But it was with his next film that Scorsese reached the peak of his brilliance. At DeNiro’s insistence, Scorsese reluctantly set out to adapt the autobiography of a washed up former middleweight boxing champion, and the result is arguably the greatest film of all time.

Raging Bull reaches the heights of cinema’s ability to portray effective character studies, visceral thrills and aesthetic beauty. So much can be said that it’s difficult to summarize, but it is a film that belongs in everyone’s library and the special edition DVD is long overdue.

Although the film’s represented in this set aren’t all Scorsese’s greatest, they’re essential to fans of his work. In celebrating the work of such an important director, the failures are at the very least a good way to appreciate his successes. At the very most, they are just as good as any other director’s successes.

Contact pop arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].