Martin Scorsese is widely known as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history. He rose to prominence in the New Hollywood movement that began in the mid-1960s, later becoming great friends with directors such as Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Cassavetes, who influenced and aided Scorsese in his early filmmaking career.
Over the course of Scorsese’s long and illustrious career, the director has become known for working repeatedly with certain actors, for example, nine of Scorsese’s films (25 full-length features, and 16 full-length documentaries) feature Robert De Niro, such as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990). But it is not just certain actors that Scorsese has a penchant for working with more than once. Since the 1960s, the director has recurringly collaborated with specific cinematographers, such as Rodrigo Prieto, Robert Richardson, and Michael Ballhaus.
Scorsese’s trademark style includes freeze frames, which he sometimes places at the beginning of his movies as opposed to at the end, which can be seen in the 1983 film The King of Comedy. Other common tropes include long tracking shots, as well as voiceovers and MOS sequences set to music, iris shots that close in on characters, and slow-motion shots that add a definitive element of suspense.
The particularly striking cinematography that permeates Scorsese’s movies, elevating their stories higher, has ensured that the director will be forever known as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Here, we explore ten of his greatest shots.
The 10 greatest shots of Martin Scorsese:
10. The Age of Innocence (1993) -[cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus]
Scorsese’s take on the romantic historical drama genre was released to much praise in 1993, garnering five Academy Award nominations, including one win for Best Costume Design. Despite a BAFTA nomination for Best Cinematography, Ballhaus was unsuccessful. Regardless, The Age of Innocence showcases some of the most stunning shots in Scorsese’s entire filmography.
The god’s eye view of the ballroom encompasses the grandeur and uniformity of the attendants. As they spin in unison, the camera catches the flowing dresses in a breathtakingly perfect shot that stands out as one of the most memorable of the film.
9. After Hours (1985) – [cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus]
Another Michael Ballhaus collaboration, After Hours, a darkly comedic thriller, was Scorsese’s ninth film, starring Griffin Dune as Paul Hackett and Rosanna Arquette as Marcy Franklin.
A close-up of Paul’s reading material – Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer –establishes the scene before panning out relatively quickly to reveal the head of a woman sitting opposite him in the diner, which leads her to initiate a conversation with him.
Marcy’s face is obscured for a distinctive length of time, instead, the camera remains focused on Paul who seems rather indulged in his book. This technique allows the simplicity of the scene to be framed with much more anticipation than if the character’s faces were to be seen straight away.
8. New York, New York (1977) – [cinematographer: László Kovács]
Taking inspiration from the silent film era, Scorsese employs the use of an iris shot to close in on Robert De Niro’s jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle in his musical drama New York, New York, released in 1977. Although a box office failure, the film features much rich imagery from prolific cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs.
The single street light that illuminates Jimmy, whilst the camera hovers a significant distance above creates an isolating effect, reminiscent of the silent-era days that relied on the voice of the camera to portray emotions in the absence of sound, demonstrates Scorsese’s ability to mould genres and influences into something new.
7. Kundun (1997) – [cinematographer: Roger Deakins]
In collaboration with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Scorsese created a visually stunning work in Kundun, which Deakins described as “one of the best experiences of [his] life”. Although not one of Scorsese’s most well-known or loved films, Kundun still managed to garner four Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography, unfortunately losing to Russell Carpenter for Titanic.
This breathtaking shot that overwhelms the viewer with masses of people, all clothed in red, is one of Scorsese’s most visually impressive, however, Deakins feels as though the film is “basically buried” despite being one of his personal favourites to shoot.
6. Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967) – [cinematographer: Michael Wadleigh; Richard H. Coll]
Scorsese’s first film, entitled Who’s That Knocking At My Door? was not only his directorial debut but also Harvey Keitel’s first acting role. The glorious black and white cinematography shot by both Michael Wadleigh and Richard H. Coll switches between 35mm and 16mm.
Some of Scorsese’s trademarks are established here, including long tracking shots and slow motion, but it is the shot that frames Keitel’s character J.R alongside the naked figure of The Girl that is particularly striking. The low angle that frames the shadows of the bed contrast with the light that illuminates the room through each window with a sensual glow, creating a stunning effect.
5. Shutter Island (2010) – [cinematographer: Robert Richardson]
One of Scorsese’s more recent outputs, the psychological neo-noir thriller Shutter Island starring Michelle Williams and Leonardo DiCaprio, employs cinematographer Robert Richardson, who also worked with Scorsese on the likes of Hugo (2011) and The Aviator (2004).
A close-up shot that moves close to the couple’s faces, who stand in an embrace, is one of the most haunting visuals of the film. The vivid green and yellow colour palette serve to emphasise that Teddy is dreaming, yet this becomes starkly contrasted by the grey ash that Dolores disintegrates into.
4. Mean Streets (1973) – [cinematographer: Kent L. Wakeford]
This scene from Mean Streets, which introduces Robert De Niro’s character Johnny is a lesson for all filmmakers on making something extraordinary out of a rather normal situation – that of seeing someone walk into a bar.
Harvey Keitel’s Charlie Cappa is filmed in a slow tracking shot bathed in the red neons of the bar. The camera tracks past residents of the bar, yet the emphasis remains on Charlie who stands still and poised as the camera cuts back to Johnny with a girl on each arm, all while Jumpin’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones plays in the background.
3. The King of Comedy (1983) – [cinematographer: Fred Schuler]
Scorsese’s black comedy satire The King of Comedy sees Robert De Niro collaborate for the fifth time with the director. Rupert Pupkin, De Niro’s delusional wannabe stand-up comic is desperate to launch his career.
In this striking scene, Rupert stands in front of an image of hundreds of laughing faces, whilst the noise of hysterical laughter accompanies him. As he performs to his imaginary audience, the camera slowly pans out to reveal more and more faces, before framing Rupert in a dark shadow amongst two cold, grey walls. Scorsese communicates the extent of Rupert’s delusion, making this one of the film’s most important and chilling scenes.
2. Raging Bull (1980) – [cinematographer: Michael Chapman]
After Sugar Ray Robinson throws many a punch at Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta, the camera stops to focus on each boxer. Establishing both characters, the camera lingers on Robinson before cutting to LaMotta, who, anticipating the brutal lacerating hits that are about to greet him, stares silently, centred in the frame as the camera slowly closes in on him.
The beautiful black and white of Michael Chapman’s cinematography creates an astoundingly haunting portrait of LaMotta, revealing the anxiety that is surfacing in his mind, marking the moment of the heavyweight’s downfall.
1. Taxi Driver (1976) – [cinematographer: Michael Chapman]
The opening scene of Taxi Driver introduces protagonist Travis Bickle’s taxi, slightly obscured by mounds of smoke, riding through New York. The scene cuts to an extreme close up of Travis’s face, the neon city lights reflected in his eyes and on his face, the colour palette changing from a sensual red to a gloomy blue, before the outside world is shot from the point of view of Travis, showcasing the dreary rain-soaked city bathed in neon hues. The scene is backed by the incredulous jazz score by Bernard Herrmann that perfectly encapsulates the mood of crime-ridden New York that Travis so defiantly frowns upon.
The close-up of Travis’s eyes draws the audience into his inner world, and the simultaneous introduction of the city that we see reflected is a genius way of introducing the film’s themes of the lonely individual versus the city.