When this director steps in front of his own camera, he's showing us something personal.
Originally published March 13, 2017
Getting into the films of Alfred Hitchcock when I was younger, one of the many delights they provided was trying to spy his own numerous cameo appearances. Something about Hitchcock’s mordant humor—reaffirmed in his hosting the long-running Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show—made these guest spots entirely fitting, in a way hard to envisage with other filmmakers turning up in their own work. Would you, for example, get the same thrill from seeing John Ford seated in a saloon or stagecoach in one of his Westerns?
But whatever the situation, Hitchcock’s cameos basically had little, if any, real bearing on the films themselves, either in narrative or theme. These were just fun sight gags, an additional stamp of authorship from the world’s most recognizable director.
Such director cameos—very different from the actor-director tradition of Orson Welles, Woody Allen, et al—have infrequently continued through movie history. Occasionally they add extra resonance: Think of Francis Coppola’s TV director encouraging Martin Sheen mid-battle not to look at the camera and “just go by, like you’re fighting!” in Apocalypse Now (1979). Often they're just awkward, like Quentin Tarantino’s early appearances in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), or popping up out of nowhere after the interval in The Hateful Eight (2015) as a know-it-all narrator, the vainglorious basterd.
No director has continued this tradition as fascinatingly as Martin Scorsese. Far from making mere Hitchcockian “Where’s Marty?” cameos, however, Scorsese’s appearances often seem to signify something more. Why share Travis Bickle’s obsession with Cybill Shepherd, watching her float by in slow motion, in Taxi Driver? Or feature in the climactic, perhaps cathartic, scene of Raging Bull with De Niro? Why play photographers in both Hugo and The Age of Innocence? This video essay looks carefully at the range of Scorsese’s screen roles—for other filmmakers as well as for himself—to see if they add another layer of visual complexity to the work of one of cinema’s great, iconic visionaries.