A compelling character study in “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince”

Martin Scorsese, “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)

After making his break-through films “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York”, Martin Scorsese turned back to directing a documentary short about a friend, Steven Prince, who appeared in a small part in “Taxi Driver”. The film is in the form of an extended interview divided up into several chapters headed by film clips of Prince as a small child at home. Prince talks about several hair-raising episodes in his life as a drug addict ┬ábefore he got the “Taxi Driver” gig, including the time he shot and killed an armed robber while working at a petrol station, helping a woman who overdosed on a drug by injecting adrenalin into her chest and following a manual while doing so (a tale nicked by Quentin Tarantino for “Pulp Fiction”), escaping the cops during a drugs bust by bursting into tears and accidentally electrocuting someone while driving a van over wires.

Scorsese focusses his camera on Prince and just lets the film roll while Prince reminisces animatedly about the ups and downs in his life and sometimes acts out what he or someone did. The stories may or may not be true and those that are might be very exaggerated for the benefit of viewers. Prince has quite a cadaverous look similar to Marilyn Manson / Brian Warner in his younger days in the 1990s. The relaxed, minimal nature of the filming with very few edits gives it the feel of a home movie and Prince is a very entertaining raconteur who holds viewers spellbound with his tall tales. Scorsese and another actor appear in the film as minor presences.

The film does look a bit ragged early on, especially during a fight scene, but it is very well-made and has none of the jerkiness and occasional out-of-focus shot that might be expected of a home movie of its type. One has to remember Scorsese made this film during a period in his life when he was partying a lot and high on drugs including cocaine. There’s no moralising about how drugs are bad for you and can ruin your life, or how being a drug addict exposes you to the full range of human behaviours and their depravity and is a life lesson in itself. The last scene in which Prince talks about his last conversation with his father before the older man’s death from heart disease is very moving: for a brief moment before the credits begin to roll, Prince falls silent and his usually lively face becomes a quietly powerful study of warmth and feeling as though resolving to stride forward in life as a tribute to his dad with whom he had a rocky relationship until their telephone reconciliation.

Definitely worth a look if you’re a Scorsese fan or you just like visual character studies pared down to the bone.


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