DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: New York, New York

Thursday, 23 June 2011

New York, New York

New York, New York (1977) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, Lionel Stander


By Alan Bacchus

Martin Scorsese’s maddeningly uneven ‘coke movie’ New York, New York gets the Blu-ray treatment for the first time. It would be less a disappointment from the man if it didn't come at the time of one of his great artistic peaks – between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. This period was poisonous to many of the great ‘70s filmmakers, as Steven Spielberg's 1941, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Francis Coppola's One from the Heart, like New York, New York, were ambitious, admirable failures.

Robert De Niro is like Dick Powell on coke, a cocky skirt-chasing sax player named Jimmy Doyle trying to make it in the post-WWII big band era. If De Niro is Powell then Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) is his Myrna Loy, a beaten down singer/dame who suffers for years as Doyle's creative partner and lover but is continually subject to his violent outbursts and verbal abuse. Minnelli does her best to work with such a shallow and underwritten role, but ultimately she's mostly a victim who only reacts to Doyle’s outrageous behaviour.

The movie really only hits its stride in the final 45 minutes, which includes a series of musical set pieces in the grand MGM style featuring Liza taking the stage to show off her immense talents. The 'Happy Endings' sequence feels like Scorsese doing the final Gene Kelly montage in An American in Paris, and the title song New York, New York, as sung by Liza, is terrific and sends the film out on a high note. But before that, it’s the Robert De Niro show. His talents are unbridled by Scorsese, as he lets loose like a rampaging Jake La Motta and affable oddball Rupert Pupkin.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Doyle lacks the curious charms of these two other characters. One of the film's inconsistencies is the opening sequence, during which he’s introduced as a con man/pick-up artist exploiting the jubilance of VJ Day to try and ‘get laid’. It's in this lengthy opening sequence where he meets Francine, who initially does everything she can to shove him away but instead falls in love with his perseverance.

This sequence plays like a screwball comedy fuelled by Robert De Niro’s rat-a-tat banter and the dialogue rhythms of Mardik Martin’s (Mean Streets) distinct writing style. We can see Scorsese’s skills with big scenes. Effectively populating his frames with hundreds of extras, we can practically hear the ticker rack up the excessive budget. But this scene feels like a different movie and Doyle feels like a different character.

After this comic introduction, Doyle quickly turns into a manic madman artist, a transition, which even after several viewings of this film, just never fits the bill for me. In the second act, as Doyle and Francine make their way towards success, De Niro's aggressive behaviour overpowers each and every scene, especially Minnelli, who can only charm us with her sad expressive eyes.

But, as mentioned, this is an admirable failure. As a musical vehicle for Scorsese, it's no stain on his filmography. His streetwise aesthetic and the primal masculine aggression of Mean Streets and Raging Bull combined with the MGM dream factory genre is a wholly Scorsese vision. While it has never landed softly on me, it's a risk great artists like Scorsese continually need to take. After all, his next (dramatic) film was Raging Bull.

New York, New York is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.

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