By Marc S. Sanders
Martin Scorsese was destined to be a great director. No doubt about it. Look at 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Not only does it offer an Oscar winning performance from Ellen Burstyn as Alice, but this early career film contains skilled tracking shots.
Scorsese uses his camera like a musical instrument. He times it to move on a certain cue. Near the end when Alice needs to pick up her 12 year old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter, well played here) from a police station, Scorsese is clearly on foot positioned behind the police counter. When the time is right, he walks it behind the cop and extras in a crescent step by step over to behind Alice. We are in the scene. It didn’t take much imagination, but Scorsese is economical for an engaging payoff. The camera continues to follow a young Jodie Foster as Tommy’s rebellious pal, Audrey and then after she’s quickly escorted out by her mother, it peers into the room where Tommy is waiting. It’s an unbroken steady cam moment that predates his classic tracking shot of the Copacabana in Goodfellas, or the bloody overhead outcome from Taxi Driver.
The story is decent, though nothing big. Alice is forced to flee following one set back after another with the men she encounters in her life. First she’s unexpectedly widowed from her unappreciative and cruel husband, next she encounters a charmingly young Harvey Keitel who sheds his first impression quickly. Then she comes across Kris Kristofferson but is he right for her?
The second half of the film inspired the basis for the classic TV show Alice, featuring Linda Lavin and Vic Tayback who plays Mel the cook in the film as well. Scorsese uses the diner sequences for some good laughs of confusion and slapstick with side characters Flo (scene stealer Diane Ladd) and Vera (Valerie Curtain, another scene stealer).
These are good characters here. You want Burstyn’s Alice to be happy and succeed as a mother to Tommy and become the singer she dreams about. She’s adoring. She tries, and she always works hard. Burstyn has some great moments of various range whether she’s feeling like a pestered mom driving the long highways, having anguish and fear with the men who cross her path, or when she’s singing Gershwin’s “I’ve Got A Crush On You” at the piano of a seedy bar. I loved her in the role.
This is not really a special movie. Yet, it’s an important one in cinematic history. See this film to see the master director when he was merely a pupil, exceeding what was likely minimally ever expected of him to accomplish.
Martin Scorsese is just a great director.