Who's That Knocking at My Door is a personal film by a filmmaker with enormous talent. This is obvious now that we know that the filmmaker is Martin Scorsese. But if you can watch the film without a biased feeling toward the filmmaker it is still easy to see that this independently made first feature has a lot of ambition and style from someone who knows what to do behind the camera and in the editing room.
Yet as a plot driven film it leaves much to be desired. Instead the film is a series of really well directed and conceived scenes; many of which were shot over a couple years and conceived as separate films. It also has - at times - the feel of a series of film exercises with a few tricks thrown in for good measure.
The film is primarily about J.R. (Harvey Keitel) a young unemployed man living in New York's lower East side, hanging out with his friends and trying to deal with his new found relationship with a woman simple called 'The Girl' (Zina Bethune) in the film's credits. Besides this J.R. is driven by his Catholic upbringing as well as his love of movies – particularly John Wayne movies.
The film has a good many stylistic flourishes including the opening sequence, the title sequence, a dream / fantasy sequence with nudity, a long slow motion scene with the guys fooling around and a scene in a church at the end.
Many of these scenes work as pure cinema even though they don't necessarily move the story forward. They instead serve an impressionistic tone showing us what J.R. deals with on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. These are mostly trivial things that go on in his life serving that fill in the gaps of loneliness, boredom and guilt.The exception is the relationship between J.R. and the girl. Here the film explores J.R's inability to deal with a relationship out of the context of his Catholic upbringing. Like too many guys in this scene he has trouble with women. To him they fall into two categories; a Madonna (virgins) or a whore (broads). In this way he is mentally crippled by his own stupidity and will probably never be able to deal with women unless they hone close to his narrow version of their purpose in life.
Scorsese grew up with these guys and in some ways J.R. is his alter ego. Scorsese knows his own personal limitations and contradictions and he wears them on his sleeve. That is what makes him a great artist. It is also what makes the film a personal expression which Scorsese feels a bit embarrassed abou today.
Scorsese shows us that J.R. is in a love/hate relationship with his buddies but he understands them. And just as surely he is tied closely with his religion because it gives him meaning and existence. More importantly J.R. will most likely never leave New York. And maybe it is this provencialism that Scorsese feels uncomfortable about. However it is what makes the film interesting.
Who's That Knocking at My Door has influences including Fellini's I Vitelloni, which too involves a group of young men hanging out together doing nothing particularly interesting with their lives. The difference is that in I Vitelloni the young man at the center of the film gets up and leaves his town and his buddies. In this film J.R. is defined by his surroundings to the point that he probably won't ever leave.