When it comes to great cinema, Martin Scorsese is a reliable guide. Here, the multi-award-winning director offers insight into six films that I think it’s fair to say everyone ought to watch before they die: Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Vertigo, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With The Wind and Johnny Guitar.
The first of these, Citizen Kane, was an important influence on Scorsese as a young and ambitious filmmaker. Introducing the 1941 mystery drama, Scorsese explained how the film completely altered his understanding of what cinema could do. “I saw Citizen Kane on television for the first time, and I began to become aware of editing and camera positions,” he told the American Film Institute. “He was not afraid of being self-conscious with the camera and making self-referential remarks with the camera”.
Equally formative was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which Scorsese regards as an essential watch for anyone interested in character. According to Scorsese, the plot is not actually all that important. What is important is what Hitchcock chooses to put in the frame and, of course, the character of Marley, who is “on the edge” and therefore an unreliable protagonist. Because he guides us through the story, we are constantly doubting whether we should believe what he’s telling us is going on across the street. This ambiguity is the beating heart of Rear Window.
As well as sharing his thoughts on another of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films, Vertigo, the director takes the time to discuss Lawrence Of Arabia. Again, it is a film that points out the value of complex, morally ambiguous and perhaps even dislikable characters. “There it is, up on the screen in 70-millimetre film,” he begins. “The main character is not Ben-Hur, it’s not a saint, it’s not a man struggling to come to terms with God and his soul and his heart; it’s a character that really, in a way, comes out of a B-movie”. It’s clear that this self-loathing” and “self-destructive” character influenced Scorsese’s own taste for complex characters at war with themselves.
You can also see Martin Scorsese introducing Gone With The Wind, which he is careful to note “smacks of the 19th century” both in its melodrama and its racial stereotypes, as well as the incredible Johnny Guitar, which would go on to greatly influence the French new wave filmmakers.