Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of The Wolf Of Wall Street, we look back on a few of Scorsese’s most underrated movies.
New York, New York (1977)
Sandwiched between two all-time classics—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, 1977’s New York, New York is generally considered one of the director’s most notable clunkers. Nobody was necessarily itching to see Robert De Niro paired with Liza Minnelli, even near the height of her stardom (she’d won the Oscar for Cabaret five years earlier), and this attenuated romance between a saxophonist and a nightclub singer seems almost psychotically determined to alienate viewers looking for the ordinary pleasures of a movie musical. That abrasive quality, however, is precisely what makes the film interesting, if not entirely successful. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like something of a dry run for The King Of Comedy, with Scorsese and De Niro trying to see how far they could push a character into sheer obnoxiousness without making audiences flee the theater in droves. In this case, they arguably took it too far, but the result offers some of the most bizarrely memorable sequences of Scorsese’s career.
Early on, Scorsese signals that he’ll be embracing artificiality by having a tracking shot lose De Niro in a crowd of celebrating extras (on V-J Day) until he stops directly beneath a giant neon arrow, pointing straight at him. Repeatedly, the film creates an iconic shot or action only to render it absurd and/or ugly, as if exposing these tropes’ underlying pathology. When De Niro tries to steal a kiss as Minnelli exits a cab, the clinch is spectacularly awkward, continuing well past the point of discomfort as she lunges around the gutter in her stocking feet. Likewise, his big declaration of love takes place in the chintziest-looking fake forest imaginable, and is hilariously anti-eloquent. (“I love you. Well, I mean, I don’t love you, I dig you, I like you a lot, and, you know…”) By the second hour, it starts to become clear that New York, New York has no real narrative shape; it’s just a collection of stock scenes organized around a central conceit. Even then, though, it remains mesmerizingly, almost randomly digressive: a dramatic conversation gets interrupted and completely undermined by someone who wants De Niro’s parking space. In another scene, the simple act of ordering drinks turns into a demented Abbott And Costello routine. It’s an exhausting experience, but for anyone remotely interested in Scorsese’s evolution, an essential one.
Availability: New York, New York is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.