Martin Scorsese speaks to Kent Jones at NEH Q&AMartin Scorsese is not only known as one of the greatest movie directors of all time, he is also renowned as a great movie historian. His own personal film collection is reputed to run into the hundreds of thousands. Scorsese has spoken many times about the films that influenced and inspired him. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the bushy-browed maestro’s favorite films:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

This British film about the long friendship between a German and an English military officer was released smack in the middle of WWII, against Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s objections. Consequently it was not initially well-received and was re-cut many times through the years with no thought of preserving the filmmakers’ original vision. In a 2013 Q&A at a National Endowment for the Humanities, Scorsese was speaking about his personal hand in restoring the Powell & Pressburger classic:

Scorsese: The problem was that by the mid-50’s, England had changed … and their [Powell & Pressburger’s] films fell out of favor to the point where I didn’t even know– Nothing was written about these two men. And so we began to search them out. And one of the key films was this Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

The main reason is that it was originally two hours and forty-six minutes. A beautiful epic.

Kent Jones: Yeah, and cut to ribbons.

Scorsese: It was re-edited, many times. So I only saw it in black and white at first, finally in 16mm color on PBS in New York, a two-hour version where they straightened out the storylines, ’cause there were a lot of flashbacks, and that sort of thing. And it was still pretty interesting, and very moving, too.

Jones: Andrew Sarris came to love it more than Citizen Kane

Scorsese: There’s no doubt that Kane, you know looking at Kane changed my life, when it was on TV. Cassevetes’ film Shadows— There were a number of key films. On the Waterfront was the first.

But, um, I gotta tell you. In the past ten, fifteen years the film I watch like listening to a piece of music is Blimp — the Colonel Blimp film — more than Kane, more than the others.

The Searchers

In a 1993 Cinemax documentary, Scorsese talked about his love for the classic John Ford western:

Certainly one of my favorites is The Searchers. … I began to realize what a director did, and that is translate ideas into images, using the lens like a pen.

In Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at my Door, there’s even a long conversation where the Harvey Keitel character sort-of bullies a girl he’s just met into admitting that The Searchers is a “great picture”.

On the Waterfront

Scorsese loved director Elia Kazan, even making a documentary about him. Kazan’s (and star Marlon Brando’s) breakthrough film was a story about dockworkers written by the great Bud Schulberg called On the Waterfront.

Again from the 2013 NEH Q&A, Scorsese and Kent Jones talk about the Hayes Code’s restrictions on what filmmakers could show on screen:

The Code of the time … kisses could only last a certain amount of time, that sort of thing. You’re really seeing things where people understood what it meant, but you didn’t see it played out.

In the case of On the Waterfront that happened. The ending of the film is a very upbeat ending, In reality, we know it wouldn’t have been that way. It probably wasn’t that way.

Interesting for me, I was ten years old in 1952. Around that time The Moon is Blue is made — Otto Preminger — same time Stanley Kramer starts producing films that have to do — Home of the Brave — with very, very powerful themes. Even later, Inherit the Wind. Really thought-provoking pictures.

The thing is that between Preminger, Kramer and Kazan, the Code was being taken down. Things were being changed. Until, by the time that I got to make a movie, we were from another planet, in a way, the filmmakers of my time. All we could do is cherish and become nourished, continually be nourished by the work of the past.

Duel in the Sun

In the 1995 TV series A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Film talks about the film that launched him on his way:

I remember quite clearly. It was 1946, I was four years old and my mother took me to see King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun.

Now, I was fanatical about westerns. My father usually took me to see them. But this time my mother took me. You see, it had been condemned by the church– “Lust in the Dust” they dubbed it. And so I guess she used me as an excuse to see it herself, obviously.

From the opening titles alone, I was mesmerized. Bright blasts of deliriously vibrant color, the gun shots, the savage intensity of the music, the burning sun, the overt sexuality… The hallucinatory quality of the imagery has never weakened for me over the years.

He goes on to talk about how he had to cover his eyes at a particular point in the climax (spoilers at the link!).

Stan Brakhage’s abstract films

For a director so closely associated with narrative filmmaking, I was astounded to learn that Scorsese loves and seeks out obscure avant-garde films as well. In the NEH presentation, he shows a clip from Stan Brakhage’s experimental art film Love Song and he rhapsodizes the visual dazzle of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s star gate sequence.

Critic David Bordwell has praised Scorsese’s use of avant-garde elements in his films:

Typically such Expressionist and Impressionist touches were associated with crime, craziness, or genre stylization. Much of this flagrant irrealism went out of A-pictures in the 1950s, but it survived in horror and, interestingly, in the US avant-garde cinema of Deren, Markopoulos, and others.

One of Scorsese’s contributions to the 1970s, I think, was to revive and consolidate this legacy.

Shadows

This and other films by actor-director John Cassavetes became touchstones for the independent film movement that later developed. It is obvious that Scorsese’s earlier, less-remembered films are highly influenced by the low-budget, improvisational style of Cassavetes’ films. He would return to that raw, unpredictable style to great effect in key scenes for Raging Bull.

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles’ screen directorial debut is pretty much on every list of influential movies, but if you don’t treat it with reverence, it’s still a heck of an enjoyable film. You can see the epic rise-and-fall arc used by Scorsese to great effect in films like Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street.

Cat People (1942)

This Val Lewton horror film was a major inspiration for Scorsese’s Shutter Island, according the DVD extras for that film. Scorsese often draws on the expressionist horror tradition, even for unlikely films, like Hugo, where the giant clock set provides a a surreal environment full of mysterious shadows.

Vertigo

This Hitchcock classic is regarded by many as the British suspense master’s best. In a British Film Institute interview, Scorsese says that despite drawing inspiration from scenes like the shower murder in Psycho for Raging Bull, it is the slower scenes of Vertigo — like the sequence where Jimmy Stewart’s character trails Kim Novak’s character in a car — that he loves:

The scenes where things– where it appears not much is happening in a Hitchcock film, and it’s all happening there with the obsession of following her everywhere she goes with that car. It’s a beautiful sequence. And of course Bernard Herrmann’s music doesn’t hurt it. (laughs)

A connection, by the way: Bernard Herrmann did the brilliant score for Taxi Driver, one of his final works in a film scoring career that began with Citizen Kane.

House of Wax (1953)

On the extra features for Hugo, Scorsese calls this the best 3D film of the original 3D era and points out that, ironically, the eye-patch-wearing director Andre de Toth had vision in only one eye, therefore did not even see in 3D.

Other films mentioned in A Personal Journey
The Girl Can’t Help It, Blackboard Jungle, East of Eden, Bigger Than Life, The Naked Kiss, Murder by Contract, The Red House, The Phoenix City Story, The Bad and the Beautiful (“possibly the best drama about Hollywood’s creative battles”).

MORE:
Rick Tezelli has compiled a list of the 85 films Scorsese referenced in a 4-hour interview.
An unverified list of 39 foreign films recommended to young filmmaker Colin Levy via Scorsese’s assistant.