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Martin Scorsese’s Guilty Pleasures

The film lover’s list of undersung favorites

This is the film lover’s list. It’s like a cushion: you can fall asleep thinking of these pictures. If you’re uncomfortable you can lean over and rest on Land of the Pharaohs.


Land of the Pharaohs (1955, Howard Hawks). When I first saw it, as a kid, Land of the Pharaohs became my favorite film. I’d always been addicted to historical epics, but this one was different: it gave the sense that we were really there. This is the way people lived; this is what they believed, thought, and felt. You get it through the overall look of the picture: the low ceilings, the torchlit interiors, the shape of the pillars, the look of the extras. There’s a marvelous moment when the dead are being taken away from battle in their coffins, and someone says, “Let us hear the gods of Egypt speak.” The camera pans over to one of the statues of the gods, and it talks. That’s it—the statue talks! You don’t see the mouth moving, you just hear the voice. Then they pan over to the other god—and now he talks. Soon there are about four gods talking. You’re never told, “This is how they did it: it was a joke, a trick.” In a sense, you’re taken into confidence by the Egyptians; you’re let in on a religion. I watch this movie over and over again. I put it at the top of the list because it’s my favorite.

Khartoum (1966, Basil Dearden). I like anything about the British in the Sudan; I love the 1939 version of Four Feathers. In Four Feathers, the British are out to avenge the killing of Chinese Gordon in Khartoum by the Mahdi, the holy redeemer. Khartoum takes place ten years earlier. Charlton Heston, as Gordon, is marvelous; and Laurence Olivier has a lot of fun as the Mahdi, with a space between his front teeth. It isn’t very good filmmaking, but it has a mystical quality about it. This was a holy war. At the end—when Mahdi killed Gordon, and then six months later he died himself—it was as if the two of them canceled each other out, religiously and historically. It’s a story I want to be told, over and over again, like a fairy tale.

The Ten Commandments (1956, Cecil B. De Mille). I like De Mille: his theatricality, his images. I’ve seen The Ten Commandments maybe forty or fifty times. Forget the story—you’ve got to—and concentrate on the special effects, and the texture, and the color. For example: the figure of God, killing the first-born child, is a green smoke; then on the terrace while they’re talking, a green dry ice just touches the heel of George Reeves or somebody, and he dies. Then there’s the red Red Sea, and the lamb’s blood of the Passover. De Mille presented a fantasy, dreamlike quality on film that was so real, if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life.

Giant (1956, George Stevens). I’ve seen this film over forty times. I don’t like the obvious romanticism, and it’s very studied, but there’s more here than people have seen. It has to do with the depiction of a life style through the passage of so many years. You see people grow. I like James Dean; I like the use of music, even though Dmitri Tiomkin did it; I like Boris Leven’s image of the house, and the changes in the house; I like the wide image of Mercedes McCambridge riding the bronco, then cut to an extreme closeup of her hitting the bronc with her spur, then back to the wide image. As far as filmmaking goes, Giant is an inspiring film. I don’t mean morally, but visually. It’s all visual.

The Silver Chalice (1954, Victor Saville). The Silver Chalice is one of the reasons I hired Boris Leven to design New York, New York. Giant and The Silver Chalice: any man who could design those two films . . . that’s it, I had to have him. The Silver Chalice, which is a bad picture, has no authenticity. It’s purely theatrical, and this is mainly due to the sets. They’re clean and clear; it’s almost like another life, another world. We don’t know what ancient Rome was like, so why not take the attitude Fellini had with Satyricon: make it science fiction in reverse? The Silver Chalice came close to that, fifteen years earlier.


Hell’s Angels (1930, Howard Hughes and James Whale). The dialogue sequences, directed by Whale, are atrocious; there’s no excuse for them. But I was amazed by the aerial footage: real planes, real houses being bombed, overhead shots of barns exploding and things flying up in the air. What I’ve seen of Wings just couldn’t compare to it. I showed Hell’s Angels to John Milius and Steven Spielberg during the preparation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After seeing the film, Milius made a speech: “This is the kind of film that should be made these days.”

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962, George Seaton). Before The Counterfeit Traitor, most war-related movies were in black-and-white—the neorealistic, Rossellini influence. You got used to it. Then, suddenly, comes this film: intelligent, beautifully made, expensive, its plot twists based on true incidents, terrific performances by William Holden and Lilli Palmer—and all in vivid color. For kids brought up on the black-and-white battlegrounds of newsreels, the use of color here—especially the color red, which is very important—gave the film a presence and an immediacy that frightened us.

Play Dirty (1969, Andre de Toth). In the opening sequence, Michael Caine is driving a dead body on a jeep, and there’s Italian march music on the soundtrack. Right away you know you’re in for something unique. Play Dirty isn’t a sadistic film, but it’s mean. The characters have no redeeming social value, which I love. In one sequence, they pretend to be Italian soldiers to fool some Arabs; one of the Arabs spots something on them, so they take their guns and shoot all the Arabs. They don’t think, they just act. They have a job to do, and they’re going to do it. The nihilism, the pragmatism—it’s frightening.

Twelve O’ Clock High (1949, Henry King). I know all about Gregory Peck, don’t read any further, Gregory Peck is Gregory Peck, when he’s in a film you accept it for what it is, it’s a given, like a theorem in geometry, okay, Gregory Peck. But here he’s a man in war, dealing with his conscience and his fears. You figure, this guy’s so tough he can take anything. But then comes the moment when he has to get into the bomber, and the machismo breaks down. He can’t get in the plane. And I love it. The movie deals with a man of war on the human level. Because this guy can’t take anything. That’s the point. That’s why he’s so tough.

In Harm’s Way (1965, Otto Preminger). The ships are out there in the Pacific at night, and the combination of image and music gave the scene a foreboding, a danger, a horror of the war. Until finally everything explodes in the last battle sequence: glass starts to break on the bridge, and it’s frightening the way it intrudes on your privacy. John Wayne is the complete American in the film: they ask him if he’d like a scotch, and he says, “No, a Coca-Cola.”

Music and Comedy

Lady in the Dark (1944, Mitchell Leisen). Leisen went all out here. The whole film is so vulgar and outrageous, there’s got to be something to it. The dime-store psychology is ridiculous, of course, but the dream sequences are marvelous kitsch. I love the fantasy element. I love the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin songs. I love “Jenny.” For me, the whole film builds to the point where Ginger Rogers sings, “Poor Jenny, bright as a penny”—and she opens her dress, and it’s fur-lined and red. The film has influenced a lot of my movies. I screened it before shooting New York, New York, to look at the color and the use of lipstick, etc. Liza Minnelli was named after the Ginger Rogers character; her godfather was Ira Gershwin.

My Dream Is Yours (1949, Michael Curtiz) and The Man I Love (1946, Raoul Walsh). Both are musical films noirs about night-club singers; they had a lot to do with New York, New York. When we asked Doris Day about My Dream Is Yours, she said, “That’s my life story.” The style, the color, the décor, I took it all for New York, New York. For the opening titles I wanted a New York skyline—the one from The Man I Love. We wound up painting the film.

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949, Roy Del Ruth). Milton Berle is the archetype of the comedian who’s really tough and nasty. This film depicts in no uncertain terms the kind of character Milton Berle—the real Milton Berle—is. I find comedians fascinating; there’s so much pain and fear that goes into the trade, and this is one of the most honest films about comedians. I admire the guts it took for Berle to make this autobiographical film about a completely dislikable guy. In fact, I believe Berle completed direction of the film after Roy Del Ruth got sick about three-quarters of the way through.

The Road to Zanzibar (1941, Victor Schertzinger) and Blue Skies (1946, Stuart Heisler). I like most Bing Crosby films. I was fascinated by his character. He’s charming, he sings all the time—and meanwhile, he’s swindling everybody. In the Road pictures, he takes advantage of Bob Hope from beginning to end—and still winds up with the girl. He uses Hope so badly, but with such integrity, such confidence. I used a variation of that in the Mean Streets relationship between Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. In Blue Skies, Crosby is a marvelous, dangerous character, because he’s too restless to stay in one place. Every time he makes a success with one of his nightclubs, he sells it, goes on to another one. Fred Astaire is the stable good guy. And Crosby is the hero: unstable, irrational, maybe crazy, and such a charmer. It influenced the DeNiro character in New York, New York.

Lost in a Harem (1944, Charles Riesner) and Abbott and Costello Go To Mars (1953, Charles Lamont). Lost in a Harem has one of the great Abbott and Costello comedy routines: “Slowly I turned . . . step by step . . . inch by inch . . . I took my revenge.” When they do their word-play routines, nobody can come near them. They take the English language, dissect it, throw it up in the air, fiddle it around; they find absurdity in the English language. This film is really Theater of the Absurd: Beckett, Ionesco, it’s all there. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars was recommended to me by Michael Chapman, my cameraman, while we were doing Taxi Driver; he used to show it to his kids on Sunday mornings. It becomes very avant-garde during a “weightless” sequence. Two gangsters have a fight, and when they’re weightless they talk into slow motion. One of them fires a gun, and the bullet goes in slow motion, and finally it just drops. It’s total surrealism, the whole picture. These guys took a lot of chances and, in doing that, stumbled over something they didn’t expect. The movie is worth seeing, at least on a Sunday morning.

Horror and Western

House of Wax (1953, Andre de Toth). It’s the best 3-D film ever made—and Andre de Toth had one eye! Throughout the first third of the film, the camera keeps tracking around Vincent Price, and around the wax figures—who look very much like real people. And every time somebody comes into a frame, you don’t know whether it’s a dummy or a real person. When the wax museum burns, and the eyes start to fall out of the dummies’ eye sockets, it’s tremendously effective. The whole movie is so outlandish, so outrageous. And I like that it takes place on Mulberry Street—my old neighborhood.

The Uninvited (1944, Lewis Allen). The Uninvited is even scarier than House of Wax. In fact, it’s the best ghost story ever made. It’s so frightening that Ray Milland has to crack a few jokes now and then, just to keep everybody in the theater.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967, Terence Fisher). I like all Hammer films. If I singled this one out, it’s not because I like it the best—it’s a sadistic film, very difficult to watch—but because, here, they actually isolate the soul: a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysics is close to something sublime.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman). Again, we’re dealing with metaphysics. The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it’s God testing the good. In this sense, Regan (Linda Blair) is a modern-day saint—like Ingrid Bergman in Europa ’51, and, in a way, like Charlie in Mean Streets. I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it. Maybe Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961, Marlon Brando). It’s a shame this movie has to be included here. It’s unique: so extraordinary and so personal a vision, I can’t see how it could have been a flop. Brando even has the guts to ride off into the sunset, waving, on a white horse—and he gets away with it. Even in its cut version, it’s an amazing achievement—one of the best Westerns ever made.

Tough Guys

I Walk Alone (1947, Byron Haskin). In the late Forties, Paramount released a series of films noirs unlike others at the time. They were produced by Hal B. Wallis, and usually starred Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas. In I Walk Alone, Lancaster comes out of prison after ten years—he took a bum rap for his friends—looking to cash in on his part of the nightclub his pal Douglas bought with the loot. But everything’s changed; he can’t fit in. He has only one way to deal with his problems: brute force. I Walk Alone is a very intelligent movie about a man totally perplexed by the new postwar world. And this world became the new world of filmmaking, too. The gangster of the Thirties became the gangster of the Forties.

Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin). This was an important film for me, in terms of the background for Mean Streets. There’s a good sense of emotional violence in the film. Richard Widmark is a character obsessed, a hustler, all night running, panicked, desperate—like Charlie in Mean Streets. And he winds up ruined, like Charlie—doom written on his face.

Station Six—Sahara (1963, Seth Holt). A group of men live alone in an oil station in the desert. There’s a strong suggestion of homosexuality among the men—and then, in an extraordinary sequence, this siren (Carroll Baker) drives into the scene, with her husband, and all the men try to kill each other. The desolation and the overall lurid quality make the movie better than anything the National Enquirer could come up with. The editing and the use of overlapping dialogue are marvelous; Seth Holt began his movie career as an editor. Here you get that palpable sense of being in a place—stuck in a place. And you learn what it’s like in a society of people who live on the outside. Way on the outside.

Dark of the Sun (1968, Jack Cardiff). This movie—Rod Taylor vs. the Mau Maus—was the most violent I’d seen up to that time. There’s a scene where Taylor fights an ex-Nazi with chain saws. In another scene, a train full of refugees has finally escaped the Mau Maus in the valley below—and just as it’s about to reach the top of a hill, the power fails, the train goes all the way back down, and the refugees are slaughtered. It’s a truly sadistic movie, but it should be seen. I’d guess that because of its utter racism, a lot of people would have found it embarrassing, so they just ignored it. The sense of the film is overwhelmingly violent; there’s no consideration for anything else. The answer to everything is “kill.”

Guns Don’t Argue (1957, Bill Karn and Richard C. Kahn). On an incredibly low budget, this movie told the entire FBI story, with Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. It’s very episodic, very documentary. There’s a moment when Ma Barker knows she has to kill her husband. She tells him to go off in the woods; he goes; dissolve to a machine gun; dissolve back and Ma’s in the car. It’s an amazing film. It’s to be studied, because it shows you how to make a film on a low budget. Twenty cents.

Murder By Contract (1958, Irving Lerner). This is the film that has influenced me most. I had a clip of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out: it was too long, and a little too esoteric. And there’s a getting-in-shape sequence that’s very much like the one in Taxi Driver. The spirit of Murder By Contract has a lot to do with Taxi Driver. Lerner was an artist who knew how to do things in shorthand, like Bresson and Godard. The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style, especially in the barber-shop murder at the beginning. Vince Edwards gives a marvelous performance as the killer who couldn’t murder a woman. Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn’t know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it.

And . . .

The Magic Box (1951, John Boulting). I saw it as a child. It was the film that taught me a lot about the magic of movies. (Specifically, it taught me how to do flip books.) The scene where Robert Donat shows Laurence Olivier his film is a scene that says everything about movies; it opened the whole magical quality of filmmaking. The magical and the mad: a man who would continue to try and try—at the expense of his family, his career, everything. The obsession of it! It makes you want to sign up. When you’re eight years old, it makes you want to be a filmmaker.