Scorsese Circled

Martin Scorsese’s love for and knowledge of film history is well known, and goes beyond mere study. His fascination with archaic aesthetics sends stylistic ripple effects through his own movies. He has a penchant for tinted and toned images, a technique that harks back to the silent era. Scorsese also adopted another stylistic device that was popular in the heyday of silent film: the iris shot.


In an iris shot a circular mask is applied to the image. The outer edges of the shot are darkened, leaving only a circular space at the center exposed. The technique was used in various ways. A (fixed) iris was a way of focussing the audience’s attention on a particular part of the image. Often, it was used to suggest a point of view shot of a character looking through a spyglass or a hole. A gradually opening iris was a standard way to begin a scene, while a closing iris denoted the end of a scene or the movie.

The iris fits right in with Scorsese’s assertive directorial style. He constantly reminds the viewer who is calling (and framing) the shots. This director’s handiwork is in every composition. Forget about unobtrusive tracking shots, moving sideways at a safe distance from the subject: his forward dollying shots are penetrative and take the viewer right up to the action.


In a Scorsese movie, there is no time to let your eyes roam over a scene at your own leisure or liking. You’re forcefully invited to look at Martin Scorsese looking at the scene. Averting your eyes is not an option. The iris shot is the ultimate tool for directing the viewer’s gaze. There is no escaping the tyranny of that circular mask: the audience’s gaze is corralled.


Scorsese uses the iris shot for all the usual reasons. As a point of view indicator, to direct attention or to open a scene. (His Boardwalk Empire pilot starts off the period series with an opening iris). As he does with tinting and toning, Scorsese sometimes finds other methods to accomplish a visual effect similar to the iris. Most notably in New York, New York, where clever lighting and the use of spotlights achieve iris-like effects.

But because it is such an unsubtle device, Scorsese mostly uses it with moderation. In The Age of Innocence and Hugo the masks are semitransparent, in Casino they are sepia instead of harsh black. Only in Life Lessons does he fully indulge in the technique, and does the iris become a recurring visual motif that stresses the self-centered view on life of the main character (an artist, like Scorsese himself).


In Scorsese’s use of the iris, film history has come full circle. Not only does he breathe new life into an antiquated technique, but he uses it to recapture the sheer joy of looking at – and showing – moving images.

This video essay includes clips from:


What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? [short film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. New York University Department of Television et al., USA, 1963. 9 mins.
New York, New York [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Chartoff-Winkler Productions, USA, 1977. 155 mins.
‘Life Lessons’, New York Stories [anthology film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Touchstone Pictures, USA, 1989. 45 mins.
The Age of Innocence [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Cappa Production et al., USA, 1993. 139 mins.
Casino [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. De Fina-Cappa et al., USA et al., 1995. 178 mins.
Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty [television documentary] Dir. Martin Scorsese. History Channel, USA, 2004. 55 mins.
The Departed [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Plan B Entertainment et al., USA et al., 2006. 151 mins.
‘Boardwalk Empire’, Boardwalk Empire [television program] Dir. Martin Scorsese. Home Box Office et al., USA, 2010. 72 mins.
Hugo [feature film] Dir. Martin Scorsese. GK Films et al., USA, 2011. 126 mins.


The music used is:


‘Layla (Piano Exit)’, Goodfellas: Music From The Motion Picture [music track, CD] Perf. Derek and the Dominoes. Atlantic Records, USA, 1990. 3 mins 53 secs.


Additional illustrations are from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Griffith made extensive use of iris shots in his silent epic, and Scorsese echoed that use in the opera scene of his Edit Wharton adaptation.