Anti-Hero: The Nominal Hero and the Villainous show up a lot. Scorsese himself doesn't believe in conventional ideas of heroism with characters who want to be heroes like Travis Bickle proving themselves to be Knight Templar in their belief that they can pass judgment on the "scum".
All There in the Manual: A lot of Scorsese's ideas and influences and observations of his films can be discerned in books like Scorsese On Scorsese as well as DVD Commentaries and interviews available on YouTube.
Big Name Fan: To Michael Powell, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Elia Kazan and several directors who he championed and introduced new audiences to. His documentaries, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy as well as A Letter to Elia served as primers to appreciating films for audiences around the world.
For Michael Powell, when the latter's career was on the skids and he was living in a trailer, Scorsese befriended him and later attached his name to a re-release of Peeping Tom, his career-killing masterpiece, which paved the way for its later re-evaluation. He has since helped in restoring many of Powell's works as well as that of other directors.
Christianity is Catholic: Somewhat justified, in that the majority of characters in his best known films (i.e. the ones involving organised crime) tend to be Italian or Irish, two strongly Catholic ethnicities. Scorsese himself was raised Catholic and initially planned to become a priest.
Averted for two of Scorsese's religious films. The Last Temptation of Christ is an adaptation of a work by a Greek Orthodox writer and its screenplay written by Paul Schrader who was Dutch Calvinist. His film Kundun likewise is a biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama(the one we know today), exploring Buddhist concepts and culture with an eye for detail far beyond more simplistic portraits.
Creator Breakdown: He reportedly came very close to killing himself in the late '70s, having a cocaine addiction and depressed over the state of his career and the failure to get his dream project Gangs of New York off the ground (it ultimately wouldn't be made until 2002). He credits a phone call from Robert De Niro asking him to direct Raging Bull as stopping him from going through with it.
Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster: When discussing films like the original Scarface(by Howard Hawks, not Brian De Palma's remake) and a western like The Wild Bunch, Scorsese admits that audiences tend to root for the bad guys and overt Do Not Do This Cool Thing admonitions never work. In his movies, he shows gangsters more or less as they are, showing them as a kind of counter-culture with its own rules and what happens to people who step out of line and by and large leaves it to the audience to sort out their moral alignment.
Darkest Hour: He was heavily addicted to cocaine during the 70s and 80s, which along with a troubled marriage, drove him to the edge of despair. He credits such things as the experience of filming Raging Bull as well as the support of critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert with pulling him out of his depression.
Doing It for the Art : He aspires all his films to be this, but is pragmatic to make a couple of well-made Money, Dear Boy films, by his own admission(and which he put good work on nevertheless), along with his personal films. The remake of Cape Fear was by his own admission made to fund films like The Age of Innocence.
Early Installment Weirdness: His debut film Who's That Knocking At My Door? is a Romantic Comedy. But it features a surprising number of what would become his trademarks (New York setting, Italian-American community, Catholic guilt, awesome use of old rock songs on the soundtrack, Harvey Keitel).
Family Versus Career : As a Big Name Fan of The Red Shoes, a running theme of some of his films is the sacrifices you need to make to follow your passion. His film New York, New York famously explored this and averted Always Female by showing this an equal conflict between the man and woman, showing a relationship between creative people who are both The Determinator in their field. His film is notable for its Reality Ensues showing that the relationship would never work, even if they were still very much in love.
Gentleman and a Scholar: In his interviews he reveals himself to be a history buff and an autodidact who is knowledgeable about history, art and literature who is as much at home at discussing the influence of Caravaggio on his work as well as his love for B-Movies, genre films and directors like Mario Bava and Roger Corman.
Glory Days: In the commentary on Casino, Scorsese discusses his identification with the nostalgia for the Vegas in the 70s(which he doesn't share) to his own lament for the end of the New Hollywood generation, the last time directors like him were given access to decent budgets.
The Mafia: He's created the most iconic Mafia films outside of The Godfather. Having grown up in Little Italy, he knew that culture and mentality well, while The Godfather was not a realistic film by any means(as admitted by Coppola). His films show the Italian-American mob as merely a part of the larger immigration story and failure of assimilation into American society and The American Dream.
Fans debate whether Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas are his True Magnum Opus.
Scorsese himself treasures Italianamerican a documentary about his parents. In Scorsese on Scorsese he has cited The Age of Innocence and Kundun as two films which he feels are productions where he had a free reign and achieved exactly what he had visioned and cites them as his favorites.
Scorsese is also grateful to legendary producer Roger Corman for giving him the chance for Boxcar Bertha which he says helped him learn how to do a professional studio production rather than the piecemeal way he had made his student films.
Michael Powell served as an important advisor during their friendship, inspiring Scorsese to shoot Raging Bull in black and white.
Who's that Knocking At My Door was supposed to be the second installment of a trilogy of films based around the idea of crime and Catholic guilt. Mean Streets was the third part. The first part, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would have involved the Harvey Keitel character going to a seminary retreat and would have been based around symbolism from the stages of the cross. No studio would fund it due to its overtly religious nature.
Scorsese's initial plans for Gangs of New York were considerably more radical and ambitious. In the 70s, he planned to make it a collaboration with The Clash, making it a punk musical and starring De Niro. In the 90s, he initially said that he planned to make a trilogy. He also stated that it was his hope that the film launch a new genre, a 19th Century Urban Western, with many films set in nascent conurbations. A real What Could Have Been.
The Movie Buff: His knowledge of films, not only silent and classic American, but Italian, Russian, French, Japanese films as well as avant garde films, from different eras is so encyclopedic that many film historians believe he has seen every movie ever made.
The Narrator : Makes frequent use of it on most of his films. In interviews, Scorsese has even argued against conventional wisdom about narrators by the screenwriting gurus who argue that reliance on this leads to an avoidance of Show, Don't Tell. In his movies narrators never directly discuss or explain the plot or motivation, but merely add another layer of interaction and observation in his films.
Nothing But Hits: An example of the trope at its finest; Scorsese's movies possess some of the best soundtracks ever. Scorsese averts the extreme uses of this, because of his extraordinary knowledge of music (nearly as extensive as his knowledge about cinema) and his music uses varies from the popular, to the unexpected and the Giant Space Flea from Nowhere such as the use of Georges Delerue's theme from Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt in Casino.
One of Us: While most of today's filmmakers operate with an "out with the old, in with the new" mentality, Scorsese is president of The Film Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of film (including the very obscure, very old ones). For this passion alone he is adored by many a fan of silent film and classics alike. A good part of the reason Hugo works so well is because of this.
During his childhood he would constantly borrow a certain book from the New York Public Library featuring photos from various films up to 1950, and a few times succumbed to the temptation to clip a picture out.
Watch his documentaries about American and Italian cinema to see Scorsese in full-on film geek mode.
Scorsese once surprised Dave Chappelle by saying he was a fan and quoting from "The Playa Haters Ball".
The One That Got Away: Following his breakup with Isabella Rossellini, Scorsese couldn't bring himself to watch her films again, or even visit places where they had spent time together. In fact, he could no longer bear to watch anything made by studios that had employed his ex, even if she wasn't in the film in question.
"I'd see the United Artists logo, and it would ruin the movie for me!" *nervous chuckle*
A favored theme for Scorsese, especially his early films, is the desire for his characters to be this, of getting out of the ghetto, but lacking the ruthlessness, commitment and drive to go ahead. This even extends to The Age of Innocence, a story about a man in a superficial society with a banal marriage who longed for a more intellectually fulfilling life. Scorsese's films generally show the tragedy of this experience and to what extent this is possible.
Scorsese is himself this in Real Life. Many of his friends were street hoodlums in Little Italy, but he became a rich, successful, famous artist. His commentaries and interviews often talks of the poignancy of this experience.
Playing with a Trope: Because of his wide knowledge of film history, Scorsese's movies frequently engage with genre conventions with and a wider historical and intellectual context.
Pigeonholed Director: He's known for his gangster films but he only made three films about the Mob, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. His other films vary in genre and style, from period epics to musical to biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama. This is lampshaded by Billy Crystal during the 84th Academy Awards in regards to Hugo. "Are you sure this is a Scorsese movie? No one's gotten whacked yet."
Pride : A stated theme in a lot of his films, is identifying and arguing against all kinds of pride, which fits in with his Catholic background. Whether it's characters over-reaching on excess like the gangsters in Casino or supposed good guys who think their moral crisis allows them the right to pass judgment on other people, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Bringing out the dead.
Promoted Fanboy: As a young boy, Scorsese grew up seeing classic films on TV in the hope of becoming a great film-maker. He succeeded. Scorsese's understanding of this trope is what makes The King of Comedy so poignant, as he says in interviews, he identified with both the hungry crazy fan, who he was growing up, and the established comedian who was a Consummate Professional, which he had become when he made the film.
Raised Catholic: He was raised in a devoutly Catholic environment, and originally wanted to be a priest. He once said "I'm a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic - there's no way out of it." His films often deal with Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption. In an interview with Roger Ebert, he was convinced that he was headed to Hell for divorcing his first wife (Isabella Rosallini). No ifs, ands, or buts. On the other side of the coin, Scorsese is perfectly able to make a beautiful film about Buddhism, as in Kundun.
Redemption Quest: Some of his characters yearn for this, but Scorsese shows that it's hard to achieve in life and in fact his more religious films explore constantly what the idea of redemption actually means in everyday life.
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
The Last Waltz (1978) is about The Band's farewell concert in 1976, while Shine A Light (2008) captures The Rolling Stones in concert in 2006.
Early in his career, Scorsese was assistant director and editor for the Woodstock film.
Shout-Out: Martin Scorsese's movies are filled with numerous film and music references, only very subtle that careful viewers and cinephiles can recognize. It's not so much in dialogue as in compositions, gestures by characters, editing and cutting. The range of references in his movies in terms of variety as well as the subtlety with which it is done is a lesson in itself, in that they are there for a reason, suggesting like Alan Moore's Watchmen a deeper layer and connection. Any Scorsese movie will have references to American films, famous and obscure, Italian films, Japanese films or experimental works. Taxi Driver refers to Hitchcock's obscure film The Wrong Man, Michael Snow's experimental Wavelength and Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. They are that dense.
Shown Their Work : Scorsese's films are almost anthropological for the level of details and visual information that is placed in the frame and the background without having a direct impact on the plot. In fact, a good portion of his films are period films and set in different historical periods, and thus needing that level of research. He averts Hollywood History by a great margin, while still finding much visual invention and creativity in storytelling.
Viewers Are Geniuses: The content of his films are generally not True Art Is Incomprehensible but by and large they challenge narrative conventions and genre expectations that audiences are otherwise comfortable with. As a film historian, Scorsese has an eclectic taste and wide knowledge of cinema from around the world, and fully believes that audiences can enjoy all kinds of films, even the ones that require some effort.
Villain Protagonist: The main characters in most of his films are not nice people. Martin Scorsese is unapologetic about this and notes his belief that Humans Are Flawed and that people who society deems as villains are Not So Different from more respectable people.
You Are Better Than You Think You Are: John Cassavetes gave him a speech of this nature after seeing Boxcar Bertha. He also said he considered the (incredibly rare, for him) negative review given to The Color of Money by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert another version of it, one that he appreciated greatly.