8 Classic Movies That Influenced Martin Scorsese

Gangsters, Westerns, and Red Ballet Shoes

Alongside friends Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, director Martin Scorsese has made some of Hollywood's most iconic films of the last fifty years.

He has captured life on the gritty streets of Little Italy in Mean Streets, delved into the dark psychosis of a would-be vigilante with Taxi Driver, exposed the animalistic violence of middleweight champ Jack La Motta in Raging Bull, and depicted the rise and fall of wiseguy Henry Hill in Goodfellas.

Many of Scorsese's films have influenced countless filmmakers from his generation and beyond. But what movies influenced him as a young moviegoer? Here are a few classic movies that have been the source of Scorsese's inspiration.

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‘The Public Enemy’ – 1931

Warner Bros.

Scorsese has been associated with gangster movies ever since directing his explosive crime drama, Mean Streets (1973), so it’s no surprise that this William Wellman classic was an early influence. Starring James Cagney as ruthless bootlegger Tom Powers, The Public Enemy – aside from its obvious focus on the criminal underworld – first taught Scorsese the idea of using music as counterpoint, particularly in the final scene where Cagney arrives home dead with the lighthearted “Forever Blowing Bubbles” playing in the background. Scorsese has been known to use this same technique throughout his career, most notably with the piano coda from “Layla” in Goodfellas, as the audience watches gangster getting whacked on orders from Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro).

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‘Citizen Kane’ – 1941

Warner Bros.

Perhaps no list of influential films would be complete without Orson Welles’ groundbreaking fictional biopic. A bold and technically brilliant examination about the rise of an idealistic newspaper publisher (Welles) who evolves into a ruthless businessman with grandiose political ambitions, Citizen Kane has served as inspiration for countless filmmakers across the globe. Scorsese was amazed by Welles’ revolutionary technique – deep-focus photography, low-angle shots, multiple points-of-view – and first became aware that there was a vision behind the camera. Scorsese has shown that same visual mastery with his use of slo-motion in Taxi Driver (1976), stark black-and-white cinematography in Raging Bull (1980), and his ever-fluid camera motions in Goodfellas.

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‘Duel in the Sun’ – 1946

MGM Home Entertainment

As a child, Scorsese suffered from asthma and was often confined inside the house while his friends played outside. In order to find entertainment for their son, his parents routinely took him to the movies and this racy Western from director King Vidor made an early impression. Starring Jennifer Jones as a half-Native American girl gone to live with her Anglo relatives and Gregory Peck as an evil ne’er-do-well who falls for her, Duel in the Sun was full of stark imagery, nightmarish music and edgy sexuality that terrified the young Scorsese. Look no further than Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Shutter Island for those same elements.

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‘The Red Shoes’ – 1948

Sonar Entertainment

Of all the films that have influenced Scorsese, it was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s elegant musical The Red Shoes that had the greatest impact. One of the most successful British films in the United States, the film focused on an impoverished young ballerina (Moira Shearer) who becomes an understudy with a famed dance troupe, only to reach new heights when she dons a pair of magical red shoes. The film’s lyrical choreography, vibrant colors, and seamless movement taught the young Scorsese how to assemble images and movement through the editing process, an influence that was apparent in numerous scenes from Goodfellas and Casino.

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‘Tales of Hoffman’ – 1951

Public Media, Inc.

Another elegant British film had a major effect on Scorsese, Tales of Hoffman was an operatic musical fantasy from British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. As with The Red Shoes, the film is a simple tale elevated to great heights by its stunningly photographed ballet sequences. In fact, it was the film’s worldless sword fight atop a gondolier that served as a blueprint for Scorsese's famous scene in Goodfellas, where Robert De Niro stands at the bar smoking and deciding who he’s going to kill while Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” plays over it.

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‘Land of the Pharaohs’ – 1955

Warner Bros.

While admitting that this historical epic was not the greatest movie ever made, Scorsese saw Howard HawksLand of the Pharaohs at just the right moment in life. At the time, Scorsese was obsessed with ancient Rome and was just starting out as a filmmaker by directing films with an 8mm camera. His ambition at this stage was as grand as it ever would be, as he had fully storyboarded a Roman epic of his own. While he hasn't made a film about ancient Rome as a professional, Scorsese did direct several large-scale epics like Kundun, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator.

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‘On the Waterfront’ – 1956

Sony Pictures

Starring Marlon Brando in one of his most iconic performances, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront may not have influenced Scorsese’s stylistic approach to filmmaking, but he did learn a great deal about acting. In fact, Scorsese has cited Kazan’s body of working as being his acting school and this classic drama served as an advanced level course. Scorsese has drawn his share of Oscar-winning performances out of actors like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Paul Newman in The Color of Money, and Cate Blanchett in The Aviator.

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‘The Searchers’ – 1956

Warner Bros.

John Ford’s classic Western starring John Wayne as a hateful Civil War veteran who searches for his niece (Natalie Wood) after his family is murdered by a gang of Comanches made Scorsese aware for the first time that a director’s job is translating ideas into images. From the bleak long shots of Utah’s Monument Valley to the close-ups of an enraged Wayne seeking revenge at every turn, The Searchers has influenced the imagery of Scorsese’s most visually arresting work like Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Casino, and Shutter Island.