Lower East Side cowboy : on viewing Martin Scorsese's gangster pictures through a Western lens

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Gilbert, S. Dennis

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Despite a five decade long career and a body of work that encompasses nearly every format and genre of film, in both popular and professional circles, Martin Scorsese’s name is synonymous with the gangster picture. He is also known for his devout, lifelong cinephillia, initiated, at least in part, by a boyhood obsession with Westerns; particularly, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which has remained a mainstay in the director’s interviews and discussions. Additionally, Scorsese was a member of the first generation of university-educated filmmakers, where exposure to the burgeoning field of film studies codified the merit of previously disparaged genre pictures, including his beloved Westerns. While there is natural overlap between the gangster and Western genres, this study examines the ways in which five of Scorsese’s best known and critically acclaimed gangster pictures; Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995), and Gangs of New York (2002) instead can be understood to structure their protagonists’ journeys along Western trajectories, recontextualizing Western generic rituals and tropes behind the gangster film facade. Taxi Driver (1976) is included as something of an exception that proves the rule. While the film is often argued to exemplify the ‘urban Western,’ and while there exists a large body of scholarly work that compares Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) journey to that of The Searchers’ protagonist Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne), this study demonstrates how the film does not resemble the generic Western in the manner as do the others.


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