Martin Scorsese has broken the spirit of many a film financier. That wasn’t the case in 1968. Eager to please potential distributor Joseph Brenner, the director agreed to shoot a nude love scene to be shoehorned into his first feature, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” Brenner didn’t care that filming had wrapped more than a year earlier; he just wanted to be able to sell a little skin. That vignette is one of many unexpected treasures of this five-film set. The two-disc “GoodFellas” is a missed opportunity: it lacks the comprehensive extra features and gravitas that might have could have cemented its place in the Scorsese pantheon. Nonetheless, the whole set qualifies as a must-have for acolytes and agnostics alike.
The DVD debut of “Knocking” is a dose of pure talent as exhilarating to experience as a garage recording of Hendrix before he got a record deal. Harvey Keitel, in his first film role, plays J.R., a street tough caught between an affair with a comely upper-crust blond and the lure of gang life. The milieu and character would be reprised in “Mean Streets,” the disc of which is the leanest of the quintet.
Many of the director’s signature elements are strikingly evident in “Knocking’s” limpid black and white: slow-motion violence; meticulous tracking shots; a deft use of pop music; weighty Catholic themes — even the use of mom Catherine Scorsese as a bit player.
On the “Knocking” commentary track, Scorsese animatedly revisits his childhood and early film ardor as a student at Cardinal Hayes High School and Washington Square College. Mardik Martin, his former classmate and co-writer of films like “Mean Streets” and “Raging Bull” also mumbles a few thoughts, but they’re no match for Scorsese’s engagingly discursive cinematic acumen.
“I had no direction in my life,” the director says. What he did have was the Thalia theater and the films of Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini and Welles. In 1959, John Cassavetes’ use of handheld camera in “Shadows” provided a more tangible watershed moment.
“We could shoot anywhere!” Scorsese says over a fluidly choreographed sequence of Keitel and co-star Zina Bethune that reimagines Staten Island Ferry benches as cathedral pews. “It gave us the ability to be insane.”
Coming unhinged also happens to be the essence of “GoodFellas,” and the tale of Henry Hill still delivers a punch to the kidneys. Long neglected since a bare-bones 1997 disc at the dawn of DVD, it gets more admiring treatment here, with multiple featurettes and twin commentary tracks, one by cast and crew and the other by “cop and crook” (Hill and a former FBI agent). Scorsese comments on a few scenes, but neither he nor Robert De Niro or Joe Pesci sat for new interviews. Instead, old junket footage from 1990 stands in.
Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book “Wiseguys” and adapted it with Scorsese, adds some welcome fresh takes. Discovering Hill as a magazine journalist, he recalls, “was like getting hold of a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Detail, detail, detail. Everything was detail.” Scorsese affirms, “You could have made an endless number of films from that book.”