Shot over a period of several years and shown under the alternate titles I Call First and J.R., Martin Scorsese's debut feature is an autobiographical look at the conflicted life of a young, Italian-American, Catholic man in early 1960s New York. J.R. (then-unknown Harvey Keitel) spends his days and nights hanging out with his buddies in Little Italy, going to the movies, goofing around, and looking to score with broads.
When he meets The Girl (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island ferry, she rocks his world with a shared admiration for John Ford's The Searchers (1956). A blond WASP beauty, the girl is more sophisticated than J.R.'s parochial friends and shows him that there's more to life than the neighborhood. J.R. falls in love, yet he refuses to soil her by sleeping with her.
The girl, however, reveals that she is not a virgin because of a date rape. Locked in his Catholic virgin-whore complex, J.R. is disgusted by the revelation, but, after a squalid evening with his friends, J.R. decides to do the righteous thing by forgiving and marrying her. The girl will have none of it, leaving J.R. to sort out his prejudices on his own.
Originally conceived as part of a trilogy with what would become Mean Streets (1973), the black-and-white Who's That Knocking already has the acute grasp of daily life, fluid camera movements, and vivid editing of images to music (such as the slo-mo scuffle to the lilting El Watusi) that would define Scorsese's later work.
Despite a successful debut at the 1967 Chicago Film Festival, no distributor picked up the film until a soft porn distributor agreed to release it if Scorsese added a nude scene.
By the time, Who's That Knocking was finally released in 1969, with J.R.'s sexy fantasy accompanied by The Doors's The End, the loose counterculture mood had made the focus on sexual repression seem out-of-date.