Every great filmmaker with enough time and experience under their belt has a considerable selection of, for lack of a better term, “B-sides.” Scattered amongst the output of Jaws, Raiders of The Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg has 1942, Empire of the Sun, Hook. David Lean has Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on The River Kwai on his ledger, but he also has Madeleine and Summertime; these undercard films have their fair share of fans out there, and some of the movies are terrific in their own right. But they will never be confused for the best of the best.
Of all the greats, Martin Scorsese has one of the most curious collection of “minor” works. Films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas all helped cement Scorsese as one of the very best (if not THE best) American filmmakers of all time. But scattered throughout his classics are smaller films: the underrated After Hours, the off-kilter King of Comedy, and the 1999 story of an ambulance driver, haunted by the ghosts of patients he couldn’t save, losing grip on his own sanity: Bringing Out the Dead.
At the time, the Scorsese/Nicolas Cage collaboration – made back in the days when Cage was more concerned with delivering his very best work than digging himself out of tax debt – was a film without an audience, as strange as that sounds. It was a little manic, a little zany, incredibly dark. And late 90s, pre 9/11 Manhattan was depicted as a much more pleasant world than what Scorsese shows here. Audiences weren’t drawn to such a bleak tale of burnouts and drifters making their way through the midnight hour of downtrodden Manhattan. Outsiders had no interest in the disturbing world of a New York ambulance driver scuffling through night shifts and crack dens.
Bringing Out the Dead exists in the same theoretical world of Travis Bickle, an underbelly of Manhattan that seems to be literally on fire, melting in a pit of its own insanity (the comparison makes sense, given that Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader helped pen the screenplay). But unlike Taxi Driver, Scorsese regularly abandons the confines of reality here to flirt with spiritual explorations of the afterlife. Fitting, given that his protagonist this time is an ambulance driver, Frank, trying his damnedest to get fired. Except his boss won’t hear of it.
Like it’s unofficial anthem, Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets,” screeching and crying on the soundtrack, Bringing Out the Dead is a passionate trip into a dispassionate world. The gallows humor of Frank’s desperation often keeps us afloat as an audience through all the underlit, depressive Manhattan apartment buildings.
There is no tangible plot here, only the warped existence of our poor protagonist. Frank has three different partners throughout the movie: there is Larry (John Goodman), a despondent, jaded pragmatist more concerned with dinner than saving lives. Then, Marcus (Ving Rhames) treats his shifts like a mixture of barroom banter and spiritual evangelism. And finally, Frank’s third partner is Walls, a man who’s gone totally off the rails, played fittingly by Tom Sizemore. There is the interpretation out there that this film as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which makes real sense if you assign each partner a ghost of present, past, and future.
And along the way, Frank finds comfort in the daughter of one of his patient’s, Mary (Patricia Arquette), who’s saintly name should absolutely be read into, depending on which angle you approach the film. Interesting side note, and one I forgot altogether: Cage and Arquette were married at the time.
As is usually the case, Martin Scorsese is more concerned with mood and feeling than technical precision. His films are often messy and manic, but they capture the exact tone for which Scorsese is aiming. Bringing Out the Dead is a dark, dreary, unforgiving look at a dark, dreary, unforgiving profession in a city that seems to be barely hanging on, still in need of Travis Bickle’s cleanse so many years prior. Nicolas Cage is at his frazzled best here, matching the gaunt stare and sunken eyes he had in Leaving Las Vegas… without the crippling alcoholism. It’s a tough performance physically and emotionally, but one that late 90s Cage was game to play.
Calling this one of Scorsese’s undercard films isn’t a slight against the incredible energy he pours into each and every scene – despite the fact he admitted the shoot was particularly grueling, given the late night sets in the middle of December. Some of your favorite bands’ greatest songs are on the flip side of that vinyl. Bringing Out the Dead may not be in the same stratosphere as Goodfellas or Raging Bull, or any other handful of Scorsese’s classics. But a step down from that level is nothing to shake a stick at.
Silence is in wide release this Friday.
Other Films in The Archive: