Almost 50 years ago Martin Scorsese released his directorial debut film Who’s That Knocking At my Door (originally went by the name I Called First) in November of 1967 at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was also the debut of lead actor Harvey Keitel who is one of the few actors Scorsese has collaborated with multiple times. The movie first released just days before Scorsese’s 25th birthday and it shows elements of a young director with talent but also inexperience.
The movie feels choppy and after reading about its history, the strange pacing makes sense. It took several years to make the movie as it took on different themes and ideas. The love interest with J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and the Girl (Zina Bethune) was a reshoot and edited in with the original film which explains many of the choppy hard cuts. Then in 1968 after the movie released in Chicago, a film distributor offered to buy the movie and distribute it if more nudity and sex scenes were added for marketing reasons. This is where the dream sequence with J.R. and several prostitutes is added forming the final version of the movie.
Shot in black and white, something still common in the late 60’s especially for independent films, the movie has strange freeze frame cuts and the quality and clearness of the picture changes a few times throughout the movie. In the little research that I did after watching, I learned that most of the movie was shot in 35 mm film but the cameras were too bulky and inhibitive to use for some scenes, so a 16 mm camera was also used and then blown up to fit the 35 mm size. I am not sure if the transition to 16 mm film is the cause of the drop in quality at some points or if that is just an element of shooting movies in film.
While watching I thought the day dreaming of scenes about the girl and the elaborate sex dream where out of place. Those scenes being reshoots and added after the fact makes sense to how they are incorporated into the movie.
The relationship between J.R. and the Girl is the main basis for the movie. J.R. meets the Girl on a ferry and they have a conversation about John Wayne and a French magazine the Girl was reading. From their they grow closer, have many more awkward conversations on rooftops and outside movie theaters, and eventually J.R. uses the word love to describe his feelings towards her.
J.R. turns down the physical affections from the Girl as he thought she was a virgin and wanted to stay faithful until they were married. He becomes enraged when she tells him that she wasn’t a virgin due to being raped a few years earlier. After drinking and spending time with his friends, he decides he will marry her anyway but she doesn’t want to get married to a man that will always hold the rape over her head so she rejects his offer. J.R. called her a whore and a broad (a term he referenced earlier after leaving a theater, explaining to her the difference between a broad and a girl that a man wants to marry). With the relationship in ruins the movie ends with J.R. at a church giving his confession struggling with what had occurred.
I didn’t really like this movie. It has some cool shots and explores an interesting concept of religion and misogyny. I was immediately angry with J.R. when he blamed the Girl for getting raped and claiming he couldn’t trust her. I am curious to how the audience received that conversation back in the late 60’s compared to a millennial like myself watching it in 2017. The fact that her named is ever given and is only ever referred to as the Girl added to the feeling of objectification and misogyny towards women.
The dialogue and characters are the weakest elements of this movie. Every conversation between J.R. and the Girl (except for the two emotional ones about the rape) felt unnatural. One of the few interactions that felt unforced (J.R. reacting negatively to the revelations about the rape) was hurt by its bad editing cutting to J.R. in different positions in the same conversation that didn’t line up.
The conversations with J.R. and his two friends Joey and Sally felt the same way. Joey is highly emotional and is constantly loud and obnoxious. Sally is more centered but still scummy in stealing money from women. I didn’t’ care about any of these characters and much of their development was wasted on long pop music montages.
I didn’t fully understand the imagery in the final scene at the church other than J.R. looking guilty. There is also an emphasis of shutting doors made throughout the movie and the movie’s title is revealed through the lyrics in a song in the final montage. I can’t tell if the close up shots on doors closing serves a purpose and if the “who’s knocking at my door” title symbolizes anything (like the anger and sex dreams are knocking on the door of J.R.’s conscious) or it the lyrics just sounded cool. I think I am looking too deep into it as the movie went by several different names and the climactic scene was initiated by J.R. knocking on the Girl’s door.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is far from a good movie, but it’s fun to watch knowing that a Scorsese younger than I am now made it. His illustrious career of 24 feature films spanning over 50 years started with this small independent picture.