This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
Like most filmmakers of his generation, Martin Scorsese went to film school (NYU in his case), and there he made a number of shorts during the course of his training and study. A few of these student films survive, including 1963’s What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, which may be his earliest use of a narrator telling his life story in the first person. This is the structure he uses once again with his latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street. But the protagonist of that 50-year-old 9-minute effort (which you can find all over YouTube) bears little similarity with the one Leonardo DiCaprio plays in the new movie. Scorsese’s following student film, 1964’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! (the young director clearly liked punctuated titles at the time), features a few more parallels and even seems like a template for a number of later works, including Goodfellas, Casino and now The Wolf of Wall Street.
The fact that It’s Not Just You, Murray! is about gangsters aligns it more with the former two films. But I believe we’re supposed to think of The Wolf of Wall Street as a kind of gangster film – or at least a crime film, which is often the same thing. Where the early short and the very long new feature start off being alike is in their opening sequences. The narrator of Murray, who is also the title character (played by Ira Rubin), begins by breaking the fourth wall and showing us his expensive clothes and car and then sets out to tell us how he wound up so wealthy. In Wolf, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) also begins by telling us of his riches, showing us his house and car and yacht and trophy wife, and then sets out to tell us how he got there. Murray starts as a bootlegger before doing time at Sing Sing. Jordan starts as a legit broker before the 1987 crash. After their respective snags, they each become instrumental in a new empire of corruption.
Where Wolf doesn’t stick with Murray, the way Goodfellas and Casino do, is in its lack of multiple narrators. But the films connect again in their employment of a main character who is an unreliable narrator. For Murray, Scorsese sticks with the idea throughout, almost always showing us something that at least partly contradicts with what we’re hearing. Sometimes Murray is straight-out lying and playing the victim, as in the way he describes his bootlegging bust as a “misunderstanding,” and other times he seems to be clueless of what’s going on around him or behind his back. That kind of trickery isn’t done in Wolf, but we are reminded of Jordan’s untrustworthiness in a sequence of events that we see play out twice – not that the first version is a lie so much as an illustration of how the events appeared to a heavily drugged Jordan at the time.
Murray is actually a victim to his dominant business partner, Joe, who lets Murray take the fall and is clearly having an affair with Murray’s wife (apparently co-writer Mardik Martin’s sister, Andrea Martin, who it’s pretty clear is not the same person as the SCTV comedienne, despite some sources stating the contrary). Jordan, on the other hand, is the Joe, the ringleader who ends up screwing over his partners and employees. Wolf also doesn’t conclude with a lift of the ending from Fellini’s 8½, which is a real shame if you ask me (though the end of Wolf is perfect). But I’m not saying the new movie is a remake of the short start to any degree, anyway. Just noting some correlation. It’s interesting that with Murray, Scorsese borrows so much from other films, including the Fellini, some Busby Berkeley style choreography and camera tricks and, of course, the great crime films of the 1930s, which he’s spoofing. Today, though, it’s like he’s primarily influenced by his own half-century’s worth of films, most precisely giving us a companion piece to Goodfellas, which itself is a descendent of Murray.
The way Murray ends with that 8½ homage has been said to indicate that the character Murray appears to have taken over Scorsese’s film in this moment, a way to symbolize that he’s finally taken control of his own life as opposed to being a character in someone else’s story (Vincent LoBrutto in Martin Scorsese: A Biography, page 61). To me that corresponds more literally with how Jordan Belfort to some extent seems to be the ultimate master of Wolf in the way he gets to remain the sole narrator and has apparently even gotten some special deals out of his permissions for the film to be made. The last scene of Wolf can then be read as a kind of 8½ carnival dance, but I won’t get into the specifics of that ending. Instead, it’s time we actually get to the short start and enjoy the 15-minute forebear consisting of far less debauchery, the film debut of Mama Scorsese and – this is my favorite credit on the short – a score performed by junior high students.