Over the course of his glorious career which has lasted more than half a century, legendary director Martin Scorsese has presented some of the most memorable cinema of all-time to audiences across the globe. Among them, Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), just to name a few.
Following the never-ending debate regarding the length of his last creative endeavor, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), whose running time amounts to 206 minutes, we became even more passionate about his massive weight in contemporary cinema. That’s why we would like to pay homage to this great filmmaker by revisiting his half-a-century career, and ranking Martin Scorsese’s 10 most iconic characters within his filmography. Let’s jump right into it!
Paul Hackett, “After Hours” (1985)
Before Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid (2023), a paranoid odyssey had already been brought to the big screen in 1985 by Martin Scorsese. After Hours is set in a nocturnal New York City characterized by absurd occurrences and grotesque personalities. This surrealist tragicomedy follows Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a bored yuppie, as he tries to muscle into the city that never sleeps, with its un-fair share of late-night nut cases. Paul Hackett is earnest yet weirdly curious, and his curiosity will lead him into a nightmarish experience of what might be interpreted as his perversions and paranoia.
Frank Costello, “The Departed” (2006)
With lots of morally dubious characters, The Departed legitimated DiCaprio as a badass in a tough world. He is the one who emerges as the protagonist among this ensemble cast. However, it should be pointed out that, in a good film, the villain should be as compelling as the protagonist. It is in fact Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello the character that emerges as the most engaging personality in the story. Thanks to his uncontrolled outbursts, sardonic humor, and his utter lack of moral principles, Costello entered the realm of the greatest villains of all time with this film.
Max Cady, “Cape Fear” (1991)
Speaking of monsters, Scorsese gave birth to another bloodthirsty villain with this well-received remake of Cape Fear (1962). We’ve probably never seen a Robert De Niro like this before: he’s never been more tattooed and muscular, his eyes are a reflection of his devious mind, and even the way he smiles makes hard to believe in a single chance for salvation. This is not a horror film, yet De Niro manages to become a monster, making you feel frightened whenever he enters the scene.
Alice Hyatt, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974)
Among Scorsese’s most underrated works, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore deserves a special mention. This female-led story must be contextualized within Scorsese’s filmography and considered a counter point to Mean Street (1973), a very masculine picture and the director’s true first authorial achievement as an independent voice. With Alice, Scorsese exhibited an incredible sensitivity without being sentimental. Ellen Burstyn’s Alice makes the ordinary look extraordinary in this heartwarming portrait of a widow in search of a better life. No wonder she won a Best Actress Academy Award for this role, beating out Faye Dunaway in Chinatown and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.
Henry Hill, “Goodfellas” (1990)
After the first act, you’ll feel as if you had already watched an entire film. Goodfellas showcases one of the most memorable and dense set-ups ever seen in films. As early as the opening sequence, the narrator absorbs you into this fast-paced narrative, and the film doesn’t take too long to turn into a cinematic manifesto on the sensual fascination with crime. With its eccentric mix of realism, satire, and stylistic virtuosity, this film is an authentic cult. Ray Liotta’s initial innocence gradually and inexorably turns into a gangster-like attitude. His ambiguous morality makes him extremely relatable for being a multidimensional persona weakened by vices.
Rupert Pupkin, “The King of Comedy” (1983)
The King of Comedy features an incredibly convincing performance by Robert De Niro as a strangely well-mannered psychopath. As in the case of After Hours, which arguably was a influence for Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid, De Niro’s character in The King of Comedy is the older brother of Joker (2019). What’s even more interesting is that these recent genre revivals are performed by the same actor, Joaquin Phenix, another magnificent performer. In The King of Comedy, De Niro merges his soul with that of his character and portrays a profoundly disturbed mind obsessed with fame. Needless to say, today, this film is more relevant than ever.
Tommy DeVito, “Goodfellas” (1990)
Getting back to Goodfellas, let me reiterate how convincing Ray Liotta is in that role. Nonetheless, I intended to reserve my loudest applause for Pesci. Joe Pesci infuses his character with enough sociopathy and uncontrolled rage to make the entire film unpredictable from start to finish. His character seems a toy in the hands of Scorsese, who cannot help but play and have fun with him. The “funny how” scene rests on Pesci’s unique ability to infuse his character with a temper that’s simultaneously carismatic, funny, and cruel.
Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)
On our podium, we couldn’t do without Leonardo DiCaprio and his uncompromising portrait of a modern antihero, the one and only, Jordan Belfort. In this role, DiCaprio has such a natural charisma that is hard to not get addicted to him the way he is addicted to drugs. He is a truly depraved character in the story, and yet he is so likeable that the audience gets glued to the screen as early as the first scene, almost willing to forget how much sufferance he was able to cause to so many people.
Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull” (1980)
Acting-wise, this is one of the finest performances in the history of the seventh art. A troublesome journey that draws a clear parable for the protagonist: LaMotta begins as a quick-tempered, tough guy, who is determined to get his shot at the title, and whose journey to get there is extremely compelling to follow. However, once he reaches the top, jealousy, rage, and fear of failure jeopardize his purpose, so he gets ready to fall, hard and fast. Robert De Niro’s depiction of this falling man is probably the finest compromise between grace and rage in a film.
Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver” (1976)
Widely considered one of the finest screenwriters and film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman commented on Taxi Driver saying, “I think Mr. Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver is a film about violence on the highest artistic level.” In all art today you have rage and violence as driving forces, but what Travis Bickle incarnates is something that goes beyond any idea of violence. He sees himself as a hero who needs to clean up his own city: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Despite all the blood, De Niro expresses a wide range of contrasting emotions that are meant to conceal his profound sadness and loneliness, and the realism of his performance is just unsettling and magnificent.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.