The soft side of Martin Scorsese

Because Marty’s not only about mobsters, mean streets and men of the cloth...

Martin Scorsese behind the scenes of Shutter Island (2010)

You know what you’re getting with Martin Scorsese’s signature line: bristling wiseguy patter and flare-ups of physical violence backed up with bravura camera moves. Or, if the one-time would-be altar boy is in the mood, a mountainous helping of religious angst along the lines of his latest release, Silence. But Scorsese has a less celebrated soft side. Not that he’ll be directing a Disney afternoon special any time soon, but every so often he puts the baseball bat aside to sample life’s gentler pleasures. Here’s our guide to Marty light (with ratings for how likely he is to backslide).

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Getting out of New York can have a mellowing effect on Scorsese. Made right after Mean Streets, this 1974 comedy-drama sees Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother traipsing through New Mexico and Arizona with her 12-year-old son in tow, in search of a new life. It starts off by lampooning the soppy golden-age Hollywood melodrama, but ends up almost as sentimental; very un-Scorsesely hymning domestic harmony and small-town hospitality. The director starts off thrusting his camera around, but is at his best coolly tip-toeing around Burstyn’s rather sweet torch-song scenes.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 3. It doesn’t look so good when Burstyn falls for Harvey Keitel’s Phoenix sleazebag.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 2. Her waitress colleague shows her a homespun crucifix made out of safety pins, but she’s not the proselytising kind.


New York, New York (1977)

New York, New York (1977)

Given his pioneering use of pop music and his later run of music documentaries, it’s not surprising Scorsese tried his hand at a musical. The last half-hour, when Liza Minnelli finally takes command, is an unadulterated, sashaying tribute to the MGM factory that made her mother, Judy Garland, famous. But the director – between Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) in his filmography – can’t help but darken. things. With Robert De Niro’s tormented sax player at war with his wife and domineering the film, this revisionist roughs up the old showbiz ideal. Still, Scorsese was trying.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 5. Some of De Niro and Minnelli’s rows really get out of hand.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 1. De Niro witnesses a celestial midnight dance on the Big Apple streets, but that’s about it.

After Hours (1985)

After Hours (1985)

Comedy shading over into violence runs through Scorsese’s gangster output, but he rarely gives himself over 100% to levity. Rebounding from an initial aborted attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ, he cut loose with this small-scale 1985 comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as a New Yorker whose night out runs seriously off the rails. The Wolf of Wall Street’s Lemmon Quaaludes scene possibly tops it in the nocturnal-recreational stakes, but that film had fundamentally serious reasons. After Hours – finally depositing Dunne back in the office where he begin – is pure absurdism.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 1. Local punks threaten to give Dunne a mohican.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 3. Dunne asks God what he’s done to deserve his night-owl ordeals.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Scorsese’s stab at the genteel end of the costume drama brims with violent emotions, but this Edith Wharton adaptation is way more refined and self-aware than the norm for this genre. The opening – the camera flashing through the opera house across buttonholes, brooches and brocades – showcases a dazzling and deceitful style matched perfectly to a world in which appearances are everything. Too bad for anyone grappling with deep feelings, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s divorce lawyer and Michelle Pfeiffer’s uncertainly wedlocked countess.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 3. Archer briefly contemplates murdering his annoying wife.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 1. God’s far too heavy a word for this bunch of Victorian fashionistas.

Kundun (1997)

Kundun (1997)

This 1997 biopic of the current Dalai Lama might appear to be another doomy religious opus in the vein of The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. It’s actually notable for its total absence of spiritually wracked characters. The one-time Lhamo Thondup progresses mostly without complaint to become the Tibetan leader; any conflict is purely external, in the form of the Chinese communists strong-arming the country. Not Scorsese’s softest picture, then, but it does ascend towards a certain serenity. The final sequence, of the Dalai Lama fleeing into Indian exile cut with the destruction of an extraordinary sand mandala, is a sequence of capital-p Passion as striking as anything Scorsese has ever shot.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 7. When he invites the Dalai Lama to Beijing, Mao looks on the verge of making him an offer he can’t refuse.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 6. Such a good advert for Buddhism, it might convert you.

Hugo (2011)

Hugo (2012)

Supposedly a kids’ 3D extravaganza, the 2011 film was where Scorsese – restorer of Powell and Pressburger, among many others – goes to town proselytising in his role as cinema’s chief preservation officer. Focusing on Georges Méliès destitute and selling toys in Montparnasse is a prime opportunity for the director to lament all those lost nitrate prints. It’s his most sentimental film, with Méliès a vehicle for autumnal reflections on what his own legacy will be.

Likelihood of someone being shot in a car boot: 0. Asa Butterfield’s young whippersnapper dodging the orphanage is about as threatening as it gets.

Likelihood of a sudden religious conversion: 2. Only if cinema is a church.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free