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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Partners in Crime: Scorsese and De Niro

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations

For the modern filmgoer there are few director/actor collaborations that have been as fruitful as that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Almost twenty years after their last film together, their collaboration remains an example against which other director/actor pairings are measured due to the richness and quality of the films they produced together. While many of their films together explore similar themes and milieus, the key to the Scorsese/De Niro pairing is that each one explores different aspects of those themes and milieus, and while De Niro has played a number of, lets say, psychologically challenged characters for Scorsese, each one has been crazy in his own particular way.

Mean Streets (1973)

Although not Scorsese's first film, Mean Streets is arguably his first "Scorsese film," a gritty little crime story about two friends and small-time hoods. It was De Niro's first really significant role in a career which was about to rocket into the stratosphere (the next year would see his Oscar winning turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II), and it finds him playing the volatile foil to Harvey Keitel's protagonist. It's no wonder, seeing what they accomplished together here, that Scorsese and De Niro would reteam so many times and that Scorsese would cast De Niro so often as powder-keg characters on the brink of (or beyond) madness.

Taxi Driver (1976)

The pair's next film was also a gritty New York-set story, this time a psychological thriller in which the protagonist prays for the rain that "will come and wash all this scum off the streets." As Travis Bickle, De Niro gives one of his most memorable and iconic performances (arguably, perhaps, his most iconic performance) and Scorsese creates one of his most compelling and fascinating characters. Because it's told from Bickle's increasingly troubled perspective, there's a volatility - and a vitality - to the film that few others can match. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece in every way but although the film itself and De Niro would receive Oscar nominations, Scorsese would be passed over for a Best Director nod.

New York, New York (1977)

New York, New York was not just a departure for both the director and actor at the time of its release, but remains something of an anomaly on both their filmmographies to this date. A musical and period piece which finds De Niro playing a saxophone player in love with Liza Minnelli's aspiring singer, it's the kind of film where, if you haven't seen it and only know of it in its broad terms, you think, "WTF? That happened?" Yes, it happened and it was not particularly well-received when it was released, though it seems to have found a few champions after the fact. To be sure, Scorsese seems to lack control over the proceedings (the film was made in the midst of his drug addiction), but De Niro, nevertheless, manages to show a different facet to his persona - and not in the self-parodying way that took root in his career in the mid-90s.

Raging Bull (1980)

A return to form, but not a repetition. Like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a masterpiece, and De Niro's performance as the protagonist is a masterclass in acting, but the films themselves are like night and day, examples of different kinds of atmosphere and different kinds of psychological drama. Both Bickle and Jake LaMotta are characters poised to explode, but the former is a hunter waiting for his moment, while the latter is an animal fighting against being trapped. Scorsese takes a slightly more poetic view of his protagonist here, depicting him in beautiful black and white that somehow makes the violence seem even more palpable, and makes it protagonist all the more tragic.

The King of Comedy (1983)

If it wasn't for New York, New York, The King of Comedy would be the strangest of Scorsese and De Niro's collaborations. A dark comedy about an aspiring comedian who kidnaps his comedy idol in order to secure his big break, The King of Comedy was mostly well received by critics even though it didn't find much of an audience at the time of its release. De Niro plays one of his strangest characters here and the film itself is Scorsese's most tonally unique. It doesn't really "feel" like a Scorsese movie, but it's an admirably risky venture and De Niro is obviously having a good time exploring a different kind of crazy character.

Goodfellas (1990)

The director/actor duo returned to the crime genre with Goodfellas, practically reinventing the mob movie in the process. De Niro takes a backseat here to star Ray Liotta, but his performance is nevertheless revelatory. As Jimmy Conway, the Irish gangster whose lack of Italian blood prevents him from becoming a "made man," De Niro's performance is the calm (relatively) anchor that serves as an effective counterbalance to the increasingly manic performance of Liotta and the wildly energetic performance of Joe Pesci. This isn't a flashy performance, but it's one that's absolutely essential to the film's success and Scorsese uses it to the best possible effect.

Cape Fear (1991)

Remakes are rarely necessary things, but Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear is the equal of (if not better than) the original. Here De Niro plays a convicted rapist who embarks on a campaign of revenge against the public defender he blames for his incarceration. Although De Niro has played plenty of psychotically disturbed characters for Scorsese, each one, including this one, is distinct from the others. This character is pure, unfettered evil and De Niro really goes all out with his performance, creating one of the most loathsome characters ever to grace film. However, though Cape Fear is an effective and well-made genre film, it pales in comparison to Scorsese and De Niro's best collaborations.

Casino (1995)

... Speaking of paling in comparison, Casino is a mob movie which reunited not just Scorsese and De Niro, but Pesci and Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi as well. While far from being a bad movie - it's a solid picture that sometimes verges on greatness - it does feel like a bit of a retread of Goodfellas and never quite reaches the level of vibrancy of De Niro and Scorsese's best films together, nor does it feel as ambitious or daring as their strangest films together. This was the last (at least, as of this date) collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro, as the director has spent the last decade devoted to a partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio, and the actor has spent the last decade choosing projects with a shocking lack of discrimination. There's talk of the two reteaming for future projects (including a sequel to Taxi Driver), which hopefully comes to pass because while Casino isn't a bad way for their work together to end, the pair could go out on a much stronger note.

Next Time: Paul Thomas Anderson & Philip Seymour Hoffman

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