No critic would put the 1946 clunker Duel in the Sun, producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to top his Southern epic Gone With the Wind with a Western love story, on a list of all-time great films. But Martin Scorsese would. As he recounts in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a three-tape centennial-of-the-medium tribute commissioned by the British Film Institute in 1994 and now released as one of the year’s most appealing video collectibles (with an identically titled tie-in transcript book also available), Scorsese was 4 when he saw Duel in its initial run and felt director King Vidor’s violent, colorful imagery hot-wiring itself directly into his precocious psyche.
”It was all quite overpowering,” he narrates as clips unfold, clearly speaking for himself even though film historian Michael Henry Wilson cowrote and codirected this nearly four-hour survey. ”Frightening, too… How could the heroine fall for the villain?” The plot concerns an evil rancher’s son (Gregory Peck) who forces himself sexually on a half-Indian servant (Jennifer Jones). She’s finally driven to murder him. As Scorsese describes it, ”The two protagonists could only consummate their passion by killing each other.”
Scorsese is so abashed at recounting that his mother took him to this orgy of violence and lust, despite the film’s public condemnation by the Catholic Church — ”I guess she used me as an excuse to see it herself,” he shrugs, speaking into the camera — that the segment takes on the tone of a confession. It shows that the whole parade of Scorsese’s adult preoccupations — shame, desire, betrayal, the awful power of unbridled aggression — were seared into him before he ever picked up this Journey progresses through well-orchestrated snippets from 91 other baroquely intense movies, juggled by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, you often think, this one or that one could be a Scorsese picture.
And that’s the great glory of this eclectic walking tour: It’s at once a highly original history of other directors and a primer on the roots of Scorsese’s own movies (which he occasionally mentions, though no footage from them is shown). Even if you think nothing could entice you to the Classics shelf of your video store, Scorsese endows the prospect with the allure of a dream harem — a thousand and one nights at the movies wouldn’t be enough for him. He first tackles genres: the Western, the crime film, the musical. He draws some astonishing parallels, as when he postulates that the megalomaniacal producer characters in all those Depression-era musicals were mirror images of the thugs in gangster pictures, identical expressions of the same economic imperative to ”make it” or die. As you savor the juxtaposition, you realize that the hyped-up rhythms of Scorsese’s great Mob-life opuses owe as much to Busby Berkeley numbers as they do to James Cagney tough guys.
Scorsese then builds masterfully to a meditation on two main ways that great auteurs have injected personal meaning into their work. The first group ”smuggled” their most passionate beliefs into pulpy B pictures (like such Jacques Tourneur horror films as Cat People) and soapy, star-driven melodramas (like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows). Then there are ”the iconoclasts,” who ignored economic and thematic conventions, and whose careers were often hobbled as a result. We see the early glories — and eventual ruinous ends — of D.W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms), Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March), and Orson Welles, whose The Magnificent Ambersons, the follow-up to Citizen Kane, was dismembered by the RKO studio — along with his reputation.
As a director whose films have never been at the top of the box office heap, Scorsese reveals a palpable wistfulness in his evaluation of these hard-headed visionaries. At a point where he’s alternating reasonably commercial movies like Casino with rarefied work like Kundun (”one for them, one for you,” as he puts it) he appears to need reassurance that he’s found a meaningful balance. In that sense, this diary-style history is an elaborate exercise in self-help.
Whether or not Scorsese has found lasting rules by which to live out the final decades of his own career, in the pondering he’s given the rest of us a rare gift. This is the most cogent, entertaining, and genuinely inspiring film-theory course you’re likely to find — and it doesn’t matter if old, obscure American movies aren’t of particular interest to you. The real subject here is the human cost of having a consuming interest in your craft. A