Who's That Knocking at My Door
R2 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th March 2017).
The Film

“Who’s That Knocking at My Door” (1968)

J.R. (played by Harvey Keitel) is a young adult New Yorker who spends most of his time with his wisecracking rambunctious friends Joey (played by Lennard Kuras) and Sally Gaga (played by Michael Scala), rather than working or making an honest living. One day at the ferry he meets a girl (played by Zina Bethune) who he is smitten by but has no idea how to engage in conversation. Commenting on her French magazine having a photo of John Wayne, he tries to converse about “The Searchers” which she can’t remember quite as well as he could. The two have a long talk where he seemingly dominates the conversation, but she does eventually find charm in him. The girl is a liberal modern girl with very different values and interests compared to the Catholic Italian-American J.R. but through a series of dates together they come closer to the point that J.R. confesses that he is completely in love with her. But when she discloses an incident from her past that devastates J.R., it severely puts a toll on their future together…

In 1965, university student Martin Scorsese made a short subject called “Bring on the Dancing Girls” starring a bunch of guys talking and having fun. With interest shown from professors and others, Scorsese took to reconstructing the film as a long form subject by adding a new plotline and connecting the stories. The original film featured the Keitel played J.R. character with his friends, but a new subplot of J.R. falling in love with a girl was placed to make a film about a young man torn between the girl he loves, the friends he’s known forever, and his beliefs and upbringing. Much of the character of J.R. is autobiographical from Scorsese, as J.R.’s upbringing as an Italian-American living in New York with a close bond to his neighborhood friends and his religious upbringing. Also his awkwardness towards women and how to talk becoming a series of outbursts of film references is something the director acknowledged, but the toughness and attitude of J.R. was more of an exaggeration compared to the more soft-natured scrawny kid Scorsese was.

The reconstructed film was screened with the new title “I Call First” in 1968 in Chicago where it received good press and especially a warm review from Roger Ebert. Film distributor Joseph Brenner offered to distribute the film only on one condition - if there was nudity to entice the exploitation audience. While Scorsese was in Europe footage was shot of Keitel with a group of beauties to be included as a dream montage. With the footage inserted into “I Call First”, the film was again retitled as “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”.

As much as the film is inconsistent in footage being shot anywhere between 1965 to 1969, Keitel ages a bit, the filmstock is different in shots, cameras are different, and the story being reconstructed over time gives it a cut and paste feel that makes very different from any standard cinematic release. In addition to that most of the characters are not fleshed out at all. Why doesn’t J.R. work? What’s the girl’s name? Do J.R.’s friends ever meet the girl? Even the relationship between J.R. and the girl seems far fetched as they have nothing in common, yet they start and continue a relationship. These issues may sound like negatives but in a way are very positive. Rather than focusing on what is missing from the picture, the dialogue and interaction between the characters are more in tune with a French New Wave film rather than an American one. What the characters say in between the lines, say the non-sensical dialogue and the non-plot driven outbursts make the characters real. Born out of improv yet carefully scripted, the interaction between the characters are like home videos or off the wall footage and that gives the film a reality missing from Hollywood spectacles. The early John Cassavetes directed films such as “Shadows” and “Faces” were a huge influence on Scorsese and they show very highly in the finished film, along with the jump cuts and editing techniques that Godard or Truffaut constructed in “Breathless” and “The 400 Blows” respectively. The camerawork is impressive with certain scenes having subtle tracking takes like the long take of J.R. and the girl’s first meeting, or the amazing sex montage that is done on a handheld camera with rigorous fast paced cutting mixed with slow motion. Surprisingly the shots were almost always storyboarded out with dialogue being scripted, even though the film has an improvisational feel both in dialogue and in camerawork.

Harvey Keitel is credited as “Introducing Harvey Keitel” as this was his debut film answering an ad made by Scorsese. He would later continue to appear in many subsequent films directed by Scorsese with “Mean Streets”, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, “Taxi Driver”, and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Zina Bethune did some television acting but never made it big as a performer even though she continued in the industry through the 70s, 80s, and very few parts afterwards. In the early 1980s Bethune formed the Bethune Theatredanse - a performance company and Infinite Dreams - to help disabled children through dance programs. On February 12th, 2012 she was killed in a hit and run accident. She was 66. Director Martin Scorsese has continued to have a huge impact on modern cinema to this day with hits in every decade from the 1970s onward, with many of his films having themes encountered in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”. Brotherhood, violence, love, religion, along with trademarks such as music montages, the creative use of the camera, and the witty quotable dialogue. Scorsese said “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is not a great film since it is like looking at a high school yearbook rather than something of quality, but I disagree. It’s a standout debut and the essence of what a Scorsese film is.

Note this is a region 2 PAL format DVD which can only be played back on region 2 or region ALL compatible DVD and Blu-ray players only

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.78:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio in the PAL format. The transfer comes from the standard definition master provided by Warner Brothers, which previously released the film on DVD in 2003. The film was originally shot to be projected at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio so the ratio is slightly off which is a Warner Brothers trend that continues to this day in the HD age - to transfer 1.85:1 ratios as 1.78:1 by either cropping a little or opening up the matte a little. The BFI DVD also presents the film in the slightly differing aspect ratio. While the source is the same as the previous DVD from 14 years ago, they are not identical transfers. Below are screenshots comparing the UK BFI release from 2017 and the US Warner Brothers release from 2003. The UK is first, the US is second.





















The BFI release shows slightly more information especially at the top of the screen. As for the transfer, it shows the same damage marks, same contrast which has not been tweaked from the original source master. Some scenes especially shot on 16mm and the older 1965 footage look the weakest with bad contrast and damage on the frame. The first meeting with J.R. and the girl also is weak which was shot in 1967. As for positives, the sex montage scene - the last to be shot looks great with grey levels and only has minor damage. Overall it’s hard to judge overall since the quality changes scene by scene, but it is certainly very watchable.

The runtime of the film is 86:03 which accounts for 4% speedup with the PAL transfer.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track is offered in lossless mono sound. The older Warner Brothers DVDs only offered a Dolby Digital track so this is an upgrade but not by much. The audio remains average on fidelity with echoes in dialogue shot on location and some issues with the music sounding flat. The music score is entirely of modern tracks such as Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take a Ride”, The Doors’ “The End”, The Chantels’ “The Plea”, among others. The lossless audio is an improvement, but not by very much.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. The song lyrics are also transcribed along with all the dialogue.

Extras

Select-scene audio commentary by Director Martin Scorsese and Directorial Assistant Mardik Martin
In this commentary, the two are recorded separately and edited together, with Scorsese dominating the track. The two talk about how they met at University, how the project evolved over time, the storyboarding and the directorial process, the influences from Italy, France, and Cassavetes films, and the aftermath of the film. As this is a select-screen commentary, it lasts for about 43 minutes of the film. This commentary was recorded for and originally released on the Warner Brothers DVD release.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"From the Classroom to the Streets" featurette (12:40)
This interview with Martin repeats some of the information from the commentary, including his choice to move to New York from Baghdad, Iraq, his first encounter with Scorsese, and the making of the film. Also included are film clips and storyboard clips. This featurette was made for and originally released on the Warner Brothers DVD release.
in PAL, in anamorphic 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
An 8-page booklet includes an essay, a contemporary review, credits, and stills. The essay is by journalist Christina Newland which discusses the film and the review is by Tom Milne which appeared in Monthly Film Bulletin in September 1976.

The BFI ports over the two extras from the older Warner Brothers DVD and adds a booklet, but adds no new video content. There are no interviews from Scorsese or Keitel, no visual essay, no featurette on Bethune’s life and death, and no option to watch the original short film which would have been a plus. In addition, the commentary on the BFI release is a little frustrating. On the original Warner Brothers release, the select-scene commentary is not an alternate audio track, but a separate extra - meaning the 47 minutes on the US NTSC release was a separate extra of a condensed version of the film. On the BFI release, the commentary is an alternate audio track to the film, so that means half of the 86 minute runtime is commentary-less.

Overall

Scorsese’s 1968 debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is a fascinating debut filled with themes and styles that would resonate with the director’s lengthy career. Flaws and all, it’s an exciting look at one of the most important debuts in cinema history - both by Scorsese and actor Harvey Keitel. The BFI release does not improve very much from the older Warner Brothers release, but still comes as a recommended release.

The Film: A- Video: B Audio: C+ Extras: C Overall: B

 


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