Even in his first movie Martin Scorsese had a lot of the fundamentals of filmmaking down. His camerawork is roving but precise, meaning that he often uses a lot of flashy shots but he knows when to pull back because frenetic movement would ruin the sincerity of the moment. His sense of shadow was strong enough to make the compositions in this black and white film look starkly compelling but not underlit. His ability to match music to a scene is also on full display, as is his ability to cut his images so that they match the music precisely.
What he doesn't have much of is a grasp on is story. He has a character – J.R., played by Harvey Keitel – who could be interesting to explore, and there are some big themes that the movie hints at – religious themes that Scorsese would return to over and over again in his career – but he doesn't know how to put the pieces together quite yet. There are big sections of the movie where it feels like there isn't any forward momentum storywise, and the contrast that Scorsese wants to build between J.R. when he's with his friends and J.R. when he's with his girlfriend isn't as sharp as it should be.
The film has enough strong elements that Scorsese's latent talent was obvious, but he was probably more capable of doing a killer music video at this point in his life than he was of doing a feature film. That might sound harsh, but I don't mean it that way; some of the best directors from the last twenty to thirty years cut their teeth on music videos, and by the time that Spike Jonze or David Fincher started to make full length movies they had already learned how to take their natural talent for striking images and wed it with a story. The best section of this movie is a long montage of J.R.'s trysts with some prostitutes set to a Doors song, and while it does do some important work establishing his Madonna / whore complex it also would have worked totally fine as a stand alone video.
There are certainly worse debuts, and anyone who has a deep familiarity with Scorsese's work will find that this early effort provides an interesting contrast to his later works. But Scorsese just has too many great movies that explore similar themes with similar characters but with more skill to recommend this to a casual viewer.
Winner: The Cat