Perhaps the greatest creative bond ever achieved is between an actor and their director, and none more so than bona fide American legends Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Born within a year of each other in New York City, the pair were seminal figures in the New Hollywood movement that changed the course of American cinema. They forged a friendship that spawned eight films, critical acclaim, and numerous awards. So, what is it that makes their films together so special?
They vary in tone, genre, aesthetic and subject matter, but somehow they come back to the same human centre. These films are not, at their core, about gangsters, jazz, boxing, or vigilante justice; they are about belonging, connection, loneliness, jealousy, masculinity, power, greed, and love. They are about people, about humanity – our strength and mistakes, our hopes and dreams, our victories and defeats.
It all started with Mean Streets. Scorsese’s breakthrough film, and his first with De Niro, was based on his own youth growing up on the streets of New York. The Italian-American experience and the gangsters of America are essential to his films. De Niro takes a smaller role than usual as Johnny Boy, hot-headed and hell-bent on destruction. Trying to keep him in check, and his own head off the chopping block, is the charismatic Harvey Keitel. He plays small-time gangster Charlie, pulled in all directions by his conflicting loyalties. It is he who carries the thematic weight of the film. Within the criminal dealings, Scorsese is probing ideas of connection and loneliness in his characters. Charlie’s love interests happen to be a black dancer and Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin; relationships which are forbidden by the gangsters in charge. Charlie is therefore left lacking in love and connection, isolated and left to conquer his demons alone because of the world he lives in.
It may be Travis Bickle who calls himself “God’s lonely man”, but Scorsese’s films are full of them
Mean Streets is, despite being a formative work, a film that contains many of the characteristics we think of as quintessential Scorsese: Catholicism, loyalty, money, power, and explosive violence, all neatly scored to a contemporary rock soundtrack. These elements are never stronger than in the 90s double-bill of Goodfellas and Casino. The most purely entertaining films of the bunch, they feature near-endless camera movement to help absorb the audience. We are drawn into a breathless, glamorous world of gangsters, sharp suits and Italian food, before being brought crashing down by the dark, corrupted heart of the films – violence and betrayal underpins the gangster lifestyle.
De Niro is present in both films as a ruthless money-man, counterbalanced by Joe Pesci’s psychotic killers. They are characters driven by money, claiming to have strict moral codes in their New York and Las Vegas criminal empires but are ultimately money-motivated, eliminating anyone who threatens their cop-proof operations. While De Niro sneers like nobody else can sneer and Pesci spontaneously beats people to a pulp for speaking out of turn, the big bosses aren’t interested in or bothered by their violence or immorality. They only care for the money they ultimately produce. It is a mindset encapsulated by one of many great lines from Goodfellas : “Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me.”
The efficient, ruthless capitalism of Scorsese’s gangsters (often based on real-life criminals), is only hindered by the women in their lives and their love for them. Unlike a lot of films of similar subject, Goodfellas commits itself to showing a female perspective of the Mafia. The film is told using two separate voice-overs: Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, our eyes and ears in the criminal underworld, and the terrific Lorraine Bracco as his wife Karen. There is no mistaking that just about every world Scorsese and De Niro focus on is male-dominated and often inherently misogynistic. By giving Karen a voice we are allowed to appreciate this much more, as we see the human effect of the repeated lies and infidelities that are taken for granted in the Mafia lifestyle; at the Copacabana club in Goodfellas, they have one night for the wives and one night for the mistresses.
Casino goes a step further by giving us a less submissive female lead, with the electrifying Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna, a woman who matches the boys for immorality, disloyalty and greed. Because she is a woman, this makes her a liability, a problem, rather than her fitting right in. An increasingly worse mother and a drug-addled mess, what Ginger needs is to escape her lifestyle of excess and obsession. Tragically, she can’t tear herself away from the money. Ginger and Karen are drawn into a world of materialism and murder by rich men flaunting their power. This is best exemplified by one of the greatest shots in the history of cinema; it comes in Goodfellas, as the camera tracks Henry and Karen off the street and through the Copacabana, the world unfolding elegantly at their behest. Scorsese is a director who never lets us forget just how damn stylish he can be.
Love and relationships play a key role in these rise-and-fall epics but the sad, lonely heart of Scorsese at his deepest is best found in the triptych of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy. As Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Rupert Pupkin respectively, De Niro gives some of the most superb performances you will ever see, presenting three wounded men with hopes and dreams stunted by their inability to communicate and forge relationships. It has been acknowledged by many a critic that Raging Bull is not really a boxing picture, but a film about masculinity and jealousy. Jake LaMotta is ultimately crippled by his obsessive, overprotective urges and violent lifestyle. Never allowing himself to settle into happiness, he is a man trained to fight, constantly looking for the opportunity to swing the next punch. Like Goodfellas and Casino, Raging Bull is full of sudden violence, normalising its existence within the turbulent worlds the characters inhabit.
While LaMotta’s overbearing desire for masculine dominance leads to his lack of connection, it is Travis Bickle who is perhaps the greatest screen loner of them all. Obsessed by the “scum” on the streets of New York, he is a Vietnam vet with a fracturing psyche. As he drives his cab and his hatred of the world with which he cannot communicate grows, the racism, misogyny, and gun fetishism of American society is brought to the fore more than anywhere else in Scorsese’s films. The tragedy of Taxi Driver is made all the better by the fact it seems inevitable.
The Taxi Driver tagline reads: “On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” It is a line so achingly true of Travis that, despite his flaws, the prevailing emotion of what is probably Scorsese’s greatest film is a kind of disturbed sadness, rather than anger. The King of Comedy can be seen as a less violent, apparently lighter companion piece to Taxi Driver. Rupert Pupkin is strikingly similar to Travis – a lonely, obsessive antihero who struggles to communicate effectively. Rupert dreams of being a stand-up comedian and uses his fanatic adoration of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to achieve his dream, by any means possible. Where Taxi Driver’s lonely man revealed contemporary issues of race and violence, The King of Comedy is a movie about fame, with Jerry’s story almost as sad as Rupert’s. The endings of both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are morally fascinating twists that plunge the viewer deeper into their twisted worlds. Can people like Travis and Rupert ever stop being lonely?
The lack of connection can even be found in Scorsese’s two “Hollywood” pictures, the musical drama New York, New York and the 90s Cape Fear remake, both with De Niro front and centre again. The clash between human relationships and professional ambition in the former and the conflict of a family with a single violent man in the latter both further highlight Scorsese and De Niro’s shared interest in happiness and isolation being thwarted by life and by ourselves.
At 74, Martin Scorsese is still making critically-lauded and crowd-pleasing films, while De Niro’s place as one of the screen greats can never really be lost, such is the power of the characters he portrays. Yet by watching these films you could learn something very important about the modern world. You will feel sympathy for this rogue’s gallery, and you will see the sadness in the lives of even the cruellest of people. It may be Travis Bickle who calls himself “God’s lonely man”, but Scorsese’s films are full of them.
The Scorsese/De Niro season was showing at CityScreen Picturehouse as part of their weekly vintage Sundays slot. They offer annual student memberships for £20.