With the release of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo upon us, it is probably as good a time as any to take a quick look back at his career. Every filmmaker has that “one” film he or she will likely be remembered for. When we say that “one”, we are talking about an undisputed masterpiece that imbedded itself into the culture and will continue to generate discussion in years to come. For example, legendary actor/writer/director Orson Welles will always be associated with his stunning film debut Citizen Kane.

Picking a masterwork for director Martin Scorsese has become exceedingly difficult because with films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas in his awe-inspiring resume, it feels as though you might be doing him a disservice in choosing only one. That is a testament to his remarkable career. However, even the most ardent Scorsese followers have been scratching their heads over his latest film Hugo, a 3-D fantasy based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. How could a man who has made a career directing such raw, uncompromising character pieces possibly pull off a whimsical family film? These same questions arose in the months leading up to the release of Scorsese’s classic dark comedy The King of Comedy in 1983.

The King of Comedy was made during a period where director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro had hit a creative stride. Having already collaborated on several films together including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York, the duo cemented their legacies with their brutal and brilliant portrait of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Though Raging Bull turned out better than they ever could have imagined, the film’s bleak subject matter and emotionally grueling shoot took its toll on Scorsese and De Niro.

To ease the tension, De Niro suggested that the pair’s next effort be a comedy. Unfortunately, Scorsese was not interested. With the success of Raging Bull, Scorsese saw an opportunity to develop his long-awaited dream project, a film adaptation of Niko Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.  However, much as he had done with Raging Bull, DeNiro just kept highlighting all the possibilities until Scorsese finally agreed to helm a script written by Paul D. Zimmerman called The King of Comedy. Zimmerman’s screenplay told the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a failed stand-up comic who kidnaps a late night TV personality, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), to get a spot on his show. The film’s simple, straightforward narrative gave Scorsese and De Niro a lot of room to really explore the characters, something with which they excelled in their previous efforts. Once again, they did not disappoint.

I would argue that, as Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro gave his most subtle and complex performance in a Martin Scorsese film. Obviously, this is open to much debate given the towering cinematic figures in play, including Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Jimmy Conway. However, all these characters have more in common with each other than initially meets the eye. Hardened, introverted, manipulative, and psychotic, they were the kind of men De Niro excelled in playing, bringing equal parts vulnerability and vitality to them. Nevertheless, particularly by the time Goodfellas came around, De Niro had mastered that persona so well, that the air of mystique had vanished. Just because his performance was brilliant didn’t necessarily mean it was bold.

The character of Rupert Pupkin was of a different breed entirely. A down and out comic with lots of ambition but little ingenuity, Rupert had convinced himself that he was this great talent and it was society that couldn’t come to its senses. De Niro was clearly having fun with the duality of Rupert, giving the highly insecure figure a kind of painfully forced swagger and charm. In fact, with a script that is almost completely absent of one-liners and physical gags, it is De Niro’s vocal inflections and body language that gets the laughs.

However, using his immense range as a dramatic actor, De Niro was able to give the seemingly bumbling Rupert some very dark and subtle dimensions. There are times in the picture where De Niro captures Rupert’s hostility, contempt, and embarrassment with a single glance or line of dialogue. With De Niro skillfully underplaying these aspects of the character’s personality, Rupert becomes a shadowy figure capable of generating both sympathy and fear. While Rupert Pupkin may not have looked as dangerous as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, you came to the realization that he was capable of inflicting as much harm as they did in his desperate search for fame. With that, he might just be the most terrifying character ever crafted by De Niro and Scorsese.

Another refreshing element of The King of Comedy was the brilliant supporting performance delivered by Jerry Lewis. As the arrogant, unsympathetic Jerry Langford, Lewis gave, without question, the best performance of his career. By all accounts, Lewis was a forceful presence behind the scenes and not the least bit intimidated by the likes of De Niro or Scorsese. That confidence shows in a performance where he matches De Niro step for step, making the crusty, no nonsense Langford a figure of significant power and influence. There are very few actor who have shared the screen with Robert De Niro and not been outclassed. Jerry Lewis belongs in that elite group.

There are reports that the filming of The King of Comedy did not go smoothly. This was due in part to the fact that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were working with such unsettling material in a genre they had yet to tackle. While the two men have rarely spoke of these difficulties, the fact that they did not work together for another 7 years speaks volumes. Critics and audiences were also turned off by the film’s lurid subject matter, leading The King of Comedy to open to mixed reviews and paltry box-office. However, in the years since its release, film buffs have revisited the film and the general consensus is that it is one of Martin Scorsese’s forgotten gems.  It is one of those twisted comedies that truly has something meaningful to say about painful aspects of our society. Never before, or since, has Martin Scorsese attempted something like it and his gamble paid off. For those of you doubting Scorsese in his choice to direct Hugo, just keep this in mind.