Martin Scorsese’s 10 Most Iconic Shots as a Director, Ranked

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Martin Scorsese has been hailed as one of the greatest and most important directors of all time. Attached to his name is an Oscar, a number of beloved and critically-acclaimed masterpieces, and an incalculable influence on Hollywood. The auteur’s reputation and skills have attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo, and more.

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Even comedic actor Jonah Hill took a significantly lower salary, only about $60,000, just to appear in the Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. The director’s movies usually dabble in gritty realism and violence, featuring hardened characters living in a tough-as-nails world. Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, The Departed — these classics all adhere to the grimy Scorsese formula.

Scorsese’s movies also feature impressive cinematography that usually plays over iconic records, many of which come from the legendary rock band The Rolling Stones. Some of these shots have been inscribed into our memories and cinematic history.

These famous images have come to define their respective movies. With Oscar season right around the corner, where Scorsese’s newest film Killers of the Flower Moonis expected to snag some nominations, this is a great time to look back on Martin Scorsese’s prolific career and pinpoint his 10 most iconic shots.

10 The Spinning Pool Table Shot — The Color of Money (1986)

The sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler, The Color of Money brings Paul Newman back to reprise his role as “Fast Eddie” Felson. The veteran gambler becomes inspired to make a comeback after teaching the arrogant but talented Vincent (Tom Cruise) the ropes of pool hustling. The Color of Money is an underrated Scorsese classic that earned Newman his only Academy Award.

Dancing Around With Vince

Tom Cruise - The Color of money
TouchStone

There are a lot of great shots in The Color of Money. But its most iconic (and arguably the movie’s best) shot occurs during a game of pool. The camera takes us around and around the billiard table, as we watch Vince crush his opponent.

We see every shot he takes from every angle, though interestingly, we never see any of the balls go into the pockets. The camera instead remains focused on Vince’s cocky and jubilant reactions. We watch him arrogantly dance around the pool table, doing karate with his billiard cue. With this shot, the audience dances and basks with Vince in his own euphoria.

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9 Sunglasses Close-Up — Casino (1995)

Casino
Casino

Release Date
November 22, 1995

Rating
R

In Casino, gambling expert Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) finds himself running Las Vegas’ Tangiers Casino for the Mafia, along with best friend and mob enforcer Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci). The casino’s success brings them to the heights of money, power, luxury, and extravagance. But the mob’s operations eventually come tumbling down like a house of cards, sending their lives spinning out of control faster than a roulette wheel.

​​​​​Related: 10 Most Underrated Performances in a Martin Scorsese Movie

Gazing Out at the Desert

When it comes to individual shots, the film’s most iconic and recognizable image is this one right here. Ace ventures out into the Las Vegas desert to meet Nicky, a place that’s notorious for disposing of murdered bodies and unwanted people.

Things have grown tense between the two friends, leaving Ace to wonder whether his life is in jeopardy. He gazes out at the vast, endless desert — and as he does, Scorsese offers a close-up of his over-sized sunglasses. We see the reflection of Nicky’s car, a cloud of sand trailing behind him, speeding past one of Ace’s lenses and into the other. It’s a simple shot, and yet it’s oddly satisfying. Show this close-up to any Scorsese fan, and they can probably tell you exactly where it comes from.

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8 Laughing Track Shot — The King of Comedy (1982)

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) dreams of being a successful and famous comedian. In order to achieve this, he comes up with the psychotic plan of kidnapping the comedian and talk-show host that he’s obsessed with. The King of Comedy is a satirical black comedy that comments on celebrity worship and media culture. It also served as inspiration for Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning film Joker.

Inside Rupert’s Fantasies

king of comedy
Regency Enterprises

There’s a scene in The King of Comedy where Rupert fantasizes about his own talk-show introduction. The scene starts with the camera focused on an enormous black-and-white photo of laughing audience members plastered on a wall. Rupert enters the frame and begins his stand-up, performing for the imaginary audience.

While he does, the camera slowly zooms out as an imaginary laughing track howls in the background. It’s a cool shot that takes the audience into Rupert’s mind and highlights his obsession.

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7 Disintegrating Dolores — Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island is a psychological thriller with one of the most debated finales in cinema. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshal who’s investigating a patient’s mysterious disappearance at a mental asylum for the criminally insane. But the truth slowly begins to unravel as Teddy descends deeper and deeper into the island’s madness.

A Beautiful but Haunting Dream

Shutter Island is arguably one of Scorsese’s most beautifully shot films. The story toes the line between fantasy and reality, which is reflected in its cinematography. The film includes subtle shots that toy with the audience’s perceptions, such as jarring cuts where characters have suddenly moved positions and objects that seem to vanish between frames.

In one of the film’s most beautiful yet harrowing scenes, Teddy encounters his late wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a dream sequence. The elements here seem to contradict themselves: Dolores is soaking wet, while everything seems to be burning around her. Like many shots in Shutter Island, the imagery here represents the warped psychology of our protagonist, his fantasies clashing with reality.

There’s one poignant shot during this sequence that’s become iconic: a distraught Teddy is holding Dolores tightly, ashes falling all around them, when she suddenly disintegrates. Her body crumbles to ashes and scatters away, leaving Teddy holding nothing.

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6 Charlie’s Dolly Shot — Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets (1)
Warner Bros.

Mean Streets is quintessential Scorsese. It follows a group of Italian-American, small-time hustlers in New York City. One of them, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), finds himself caught between his reckless, degenerate friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and the loan sharks to whom he owes money. Mean Streets was Scorsese’s first feature film of his own design and was the breakthrough success that put him on the map.

Charlie in the Red

Harvey Keitel - Mean Streets
Warner Bros

The most iconic shot in Mean Streets comes early into the movie. We find ourselves in a dive bar that’s glowing with a dim, red light, like we’ve just stepped into Hell. The audience is on the far side of the bar, while Charlie stands at the opposite end.

As “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones plays in the background, the camera moves toward Charlie, a drink clenched in his hand, warily scrutinizing Johnny Boy, who’s just entered the bar with two girls. It’s almost like the audience is observing Charlie while he observes Johnny Boy, both characters being analyzed amid that deep, red glow. It’s a beautiful yet sinister shot that kicks off one of the best introductions to a movie character ever.

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5 Evolving New York City — Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York is an epic period piece that’s regarded as one of Martin Scorsese’s best works. Sixteen years after Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his most iconic roles) kills his territorial rival Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the Priest’s son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) journeys to America, seeking revenge on Bill for murdering his father.

New York City Transforms Before Our Eyes

Gangs of New York ending
Miramax

Gangs of New York is set in the mid 1800s at the time of America’s Civil War. The movie’s final shot captures a war-torn New York City. As Amsterdam and Jenny (Cameron Diaz) limp away, the scene gradually dissolves into pre-2001 New York City.

The Twin Towers stand triumphantly amid the skyscrapers, replacing the city that Bill and Amsterdam once knew. “It will be like no-one even knew we was ever here,” Amsterdam narrates somberly. And he’s right. It’s a profound final shot that reminds us of our own mortality and the inevitable progression of time.

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4 Final Shot — The Departed (2006)

the departed
The Departed

Release Date
October 5, 2006

Director
Martin Scorsese

Rating
R

An undercover cop and a mole in the police department play a dangerous game of cat and mouse (or in this case, rat), racing to see who can expose the other first. The Departed is a violent, sprawling tale that weaves together criminals, cops, and rats in the city of Boston, many of whom overlap.

It boasts an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen. The Departed is considered one of the best films of the 2000s. But its greatest accomplishment was finally winning Martin Scorsese his Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

“I’ve got this rat.”

The Departed
Warner Bros.

As mentioned earlier, The Departed is filled with “rats,” a derogatory term for gang members who are secretly working with the authorities. In the very last shot of the film, a rat runs across the railing of a balcony with the Massachusetts State House in the background.

It’s a memorable and fitting end for a movie that featured a whole cast of rats, though not everyone seemed to agree. One devoted fan launched an online Kickstarter campaign to digitally remove the rat from the movie’s ending, claiming that the metaphor was too direct and cheesy — pun intended.

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3 LaMotta vs. Sugar Ray — Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull
Raging Bull

Release Date
November 14, 1980

Director
Martin Scorsese

Rating
R

Raging Bull just might be Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. It covers the life of rage-fueled boxer Jake LaMotta, who became the sport’s middleweight champion in the late 40s and early 50s. Featuring a transformative performance from Robert De Niro, Raging Bull is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Face-to-Face With the Raging Bull

Raging Bull was filmed in black and white, though this wasn’t only for creative reasons. It was brought to Scorsese’s attention that the color of boxing gloves during the 40s were only maroon, oxblood, or black. To avoid this problem, and to separate his movie from color films, Scorsese filmed Raging Bull in black and white. This decision produced many beautiful shots. The most iconic one happens during LaMotta’s fight with Sugar Ray Robinson.

There’s a reason why LaMotta was nicknamed the Raging Bull. He treated the boxing ring like a therapy session, transferring all his fury into his matches. After getting pummeled by his opponent, LaMotta maniacally taunts Sugar Ray and encourages him to keep throwing punches.

The camera then stops to focus on LaMotta. It’s not just Sugar Ray who’s standing face-to-face with him, but the audience. We see LaMotta standing there, his back against the ropes, breathing heavily, preparing himself for the beating that’s about to come. It’s a haunting shot that sticks in your mind, a raw and introspective look at the Raging Bull.

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2 The Copacabana Long Shot — Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas
Goodfellas

Release Date
September 12, 1990

Director
Martin Scorsese

Rating
R

Adapted from the 1985 true-crime book Wiseguy, Goodfellas follows gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his involvement in the Mafia. Unlike most gangster films, which tend to focus on crime bosses, Goodfellas revolves around mid-level gangsters, though they still have a ton of money and lead a luxurious lifestyle. Goodfellas is a landmark film, a huge influence on the gangster genre, and is in the conversation for Martin Scorses’s best film.

Walking in a Gangster’s Shoes

Goodfellas
Warner Bros.

Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to walk in a gangster’s shoes? Scorsese grants us that experience in Goodfellas with one of his most famous shots. Henry takes his date, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), to the iconic Copacabana nightclub. But they don’t wait in line and go through the front door like ordinary people — oh no.

Related: 10 Best Martin Scorsese Movies That Were Snubbed for Best Picture, Ranked

In one long take, as “And Then He Kissed Me” plays in the background, we follow Henry and Karen through the back routes of the Copacabana. With Henry as our guide, we weave in and out of kitchens and behind-the-scenes corridors, happily greeting every employee and security guard that Henry passes, eventually surfacing into the main dining room, where a table and two chairs are pulled out of thin air to accommodate Henry. By the time we sit down at the table, we feel a lot like Karen: utterly mystified, having stepped behind the curtain into a different world.

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1 “You talkin’ to me?” — Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver

Release Date
February 9, 1976

Director
Martin Scorsese

Rating
R

Taxi Driver is the ultimate Scorsese classic, featuring grit, violence, New York City, and an iconic perfomance from Robert De Niro. Inspired by true events, it follows the mentally disturbed taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), who takes the law into his own hands and uses violence to rid “the scum off the streets.”

One of the Most Iconic Shots Ever Was Improvised

Scorsese’s most famous shot wasn’t even planned. In the film’s most iconic scene, we see Bickle talking to himself in the mirror, imagining his reflection as an enemy. He adopts a tough guy persona and engages in an aggressive conversation, whipping out his pistol at the end of it. At one point, Scorsese leaves the camera on De Niro to see where the actor takes the scene. And then, it happens: De Niro delivers one of the most iconic lines in cinematic history, resulting in movie magic.

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