(director/writer: Martin Scorsese; cinematographer: Michael Wadley; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; cast: Zina Bethune (The Girl), Harvey Keitel (J.R.), Lennard Karras (Joey), Michael Scala (Salvatore ‘Sally’ Gaga), Wendy Russell (Sally’s Girlfriend), Philip Carlson (Mountain Guide in Copake), Harry Northup (Rapist), Catherine Scorsese (J.R.’s mother); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Joseph Weill/Betzi and Halg Manooglan; Warner Bros.; 1967)

The crude semi-autobiographical film is a forerunner to Scorsese’s powerful Mean Streets.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s (“GoodFellas”/”Kundun”/”Shutter Island”) first feature film, at the age of 25. Scorsese began shooting it in 1965 as a short school film called Bring on the Dancing Girls while he studied film at NYU and it was expanded into a feature retitled I Call First upon an initial Chicago festival release in 1967. After adding some nudity to spice it up as recommended by producers, it was retitled to its current name. The crude semi-autobiographical film is a forerunner to Scorsese’s powerful Mean Streets. It’s set in NYC’s Little Italy and follows around some unpleasant youthful wiseguys in their everyday trite ventures, and focuses on the streetwise but strictly brought up Catholic J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and his doomed romance with a more sophisticated lady (Zina Bethune). She’s reading a French magazine, as he picks her up on a Staten Island ferry ride. The romance is doomed when J.R. listens to her tell of being raped and insensitively calls her a whore and dumps the nice girl because she’s not a virgin. This was Keitel’s acting debut. Scorsese was influenced by the shooting style of Godard and inspired by John Ford, and in one chatty Cassavetes-like scene Keitel’s movie buff character wax’s poetic on the legendary John Wayne and his commanding role in The Searchers.

J. R. hangs out with his main man, the lifeless Joey (Lennard Karras), in a Little Italy pleasure club run by local gangster Salvatore ‘Sally’Gaga (Michael Scala). The idler spends his time drinking with his pals, bullshitting with them and on one occasion taking a 3-day vacation with them to Copake, in upstate New York, and climbing a mountain, where he realizes there’s a world outside his neighborhood.

Though Scorsese’s low-budget black-and-white first feature is primitive, it still intrigues by showcasing his potential talent that was to be realized in his wonderful career. It’s worth seeing this raw film no matter the warts. The background music is mostly 1950’s rock and doo-wop, but also includes The Doors.

It was re-released in the early 1970s under the title, J.R.

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