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Killing flowers, killing moons: The most underrated Martin Scorsese films

A list of relatively underrated Martin Scorsese films to watch, featuring cocaine-fuelled stockbrokers as well as young boys discovering the birth of cinema

Robert De Niro in 'The King of Comedy'
Robert De Niro in 'The King of Comedy'

Martin Scorsese is 80 years old. One of the most revered directors alive, his new film Killers Of The Flower Moon — starring both of his acting muses, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio — is currently in theatres. The film is a masterpiece, although saying that doesn’t narrow things down. Masterpiece, in fact, seems about par for the man who made Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and my personal favourite Goodfellas

Also read: The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to China after 50 years

Despite Scorsese’s pedestal as one of the preeminent American masters, several of his films haven’t gotten the adulation they deserve. Here, then, is my list of relatively underrated Scorsese films to watch, and watch again. It’s an electrifyingly odd mix — featuring cocaine-fuelled stockbrokers as well as young boys discovering the birth of cinema — but Scorsese has always taken on films of every shape. Give this man a genre, he’ll kill it.

6. The Color Of Money (1988) (Available for rent on Google/YouTube)

Leave it to Scorsese to make a 1988 sequel for a 1961 film. Robert Rossen’s bleak black-and-white classic The Hustler featured Paul Newman as a hotheaded pool talent learning the importance of when to win and when to peak. In Scorsese’s sequel — for which Newman won an Oscar — he’s the old hand, imparting wisdom to a cocky Tom Cruise, who, even on the pool table, did his own stunts. It’s a rousing, wonderfully shot film, and a truly loving homage.

5. Mean Streets (1972) (Available for rent on Amazon Prime)

Many flourishes we consider Scorsese signatures were first seen in this raw, improbably gorgeous film about a Catholic gambler who joins the mob. The Ronettes’ Be My Baby blasts forth as Harvey Keitel’s exhausted head hits the pillow, and that influential needle-drop moment has led many a filmmaker to underscore violent cinema with upbeat pop hits. Mean Streets is all vibe, really, and it’s fun to watch Scorsese — who got increasingly structured and deliberate — making a film this shaggy.

4. Hugo (2011) (Available for rent on Amazon Prime)

Scorsese’s only film in 3D utilised a new storytelling method in order to tell the story of an earlier miracle: that of the creation of cinema itself. Based on Brian O Selznick’s graphic novel of the same name, Hugo is a family-friendly film that is as playful as it is precise. Scorsese takes a tribute to French filmmaking pioneer George Méliès and turns it into a gorgeous pop-up book, one to learn from and to marvel at.

3. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) (Prime Video)

The first time I watched this film about a charismatic, fast-talking hustler I remember my jaw dropping fairly early. Scorsese starts his flashback about Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and shows him driving by in a scarlet Ferrari Testarossa — before DiCaprio’s voiceover corrects us: “No no no no, my Ferrari was white, like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice, not red.” The car changes colour as the word ‘white’ is said, and Scorsese sets the tone for a sleight-of-hand film in which nothing is as it seems. 

2. Casino (1995) (JioCinema)

Casino is a violent, cynical and cold film about gambling. A man in a yellow suit — with a yellow shirt and a yellow tie — asks a cowboy to put his feet off the table, while another stabs a man to death with a nice pen. This is unquestionably a film about degenerates, and yet when Robert De Niro’s casino boss Ace Rothstein observes Sharon Stone’s showgirl Ginger stealing chips from a gambler, time slows down. She throws chips into the air as a distraction, nearby gamblers dive desperately to the floor to scoop them up, and Scorsese cannily freezes the frame on Stone, with De Niro looking on, rapt. The music currently in the air halts, abruptly, and the 1957 Mickey & Sylvia hit Love Is Strange starts to play. Magic.

That’s Scorsese for you — even when he’s cold, he’s cool.

1. The King Of Comedy (1983) (Mubi)

A celebrity walks down a crowded Manhattan street. He shares a laugh with a taxi driver, waves to people as he walks, smiles at whistlers and catcallers. Then a woman talking on a payphone puts her call on hold, approaches the TV star, gets him to sign an autograph, tells him how she’s followed his entire career, calling him a “joy to the world.” She then asks if he’d speak to her nephew on the phone, who’s in hospital. The celebrity, played by Jerry Lewis, excuses himself saying he’s in a hurry.

Her tone changes immediately and violently. “You should only get cancer,” she calls out after him, “I hope you get cancer.”

Scorsese’s biggest box-office failure, The King Of Comedy is a delicious meditation on those who make the famous famous. In the finest performance of his career, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a loner who hosts talkshows in his basement, talking to his wallpaper and playing a laugh track. 

The 2019 Joaquin Phoenix Joker is basically The King Of Comedy’s bastard offspring, an uncredited remake that dumbs down and literalises the sharp and searing points Scorsese’s prescient film made 40 years ago about celebrity, infamy and grasping for the spotlight. That film comes to life only in one scene where De Niro, playing a talkshow host, finds the peak sensationalism he sought so much in the 1983 film. 

As all Scorsese films say, be careful what you wish for.

Streaming tip of the week:

Martin Scorsese’s most essential attempt at a TV series was the feature-length pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (JioCinema). A Prohibition-era crime drama starring Steve Buscemi, this is for those who watch a Scorsese film — and hope the characters live on past the end-credits.

Also read: A requiem for lost languages

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