Martin Scorsese. Does any name from the 1970s' cinema conjure up such a complete and fully-formed picture of his preoccupations as a filmmaker? Urban blight mixed with destructive men who pursue individuality to the point of psychosis, with ephemeral women placed beyond the human as beacons of pure goodness. Add a rock soundtrack and lots of tracking shots, and enjoy.

Flash back to 1974, when Marty had only directed three features and the idea of a Scorsese Picture was still gestating. Perhaps then we can see why nobody thought it peculiar to attach that director to a script about an independent woman travelling across the Southwest to forge an identity for herself unbridled by the expectations and demands of men. And perhaps there wouldn't have been any raised eyebrows at how successful that director was with that screenplay. But that was 1974. This is 2007, after three decades of macho Scorsese men beating themselves against the world, three decades in which the director effectively invented the popular concept of Italian masculinity and its benighted relationship with womankind, and from that perspective, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is an extraordinary shock: a director with one of the strongest personalities of his generation working with a plot that is almost point-for-point the precise opposite of his comfort zone, and producing one of the absolute best films of his career.

And maybe it wasn't obvious in 1974, but nobody else could have directed this screenplay. The movie opens with a sequence as bold and avant-garde as anything else produced in Hollywood that decade, and it could only have come from the mind of someone with Scorsese's well-documented passion for movie history: the vintage Warner Bros. shield appears in a cropped frame in the grand auld Academy aperture ratio, 1.37 : 1. And then the credits begin over an old pop song, red calligraphy against a mottled blue background, after the fashion of Douglas Sirk or one of the other masters of '50s Technicolor. Finally, we open - still in cropped frame - on a farmhouse in Monterey, CA in 1947, as a young girl named Alice tries to finish singing the song. The scene is in monochromatic red and black, takes place on the world's most obvious soundstage, and looks for all the world like the opening to The Wizard of Oz, deliberately and ironically. The little girl can't quite get the song right, and she curses like a sailor at her failings. Her shrewish mother yells at her a bit...

...and Mott the Hoople's "All the Way from Memphis" starts blaring out, the ratio is 1.85 : 1, and the stock is now that wonderful mid-70s color stock that's only really good for capturing blues and browns, and we're in Soccoro, NM and it's 1974.

What a hell of a way to open a movie! Such stylistic bravado and ballsiness! The first two minutes of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore look and feel like they're from a totally different movie than the rest, in the best possible way. This is a film about the failure of dreams and ambitions, and Marty the Film Buff knows that the best and fastest way to show that is to contrast the glossy style of classic Hollywood, in all its dream factory glory, with the gritty '70s idiom of rock music and crappy stock, which was then expected to herald the dawn of a new era of truthfulness in American cinema.

Not to mention that, even at this point, rock music meant "This is a Martin Scorsese film," and has ever since, and thank God for that man's unparalleled ability to wield a soundtrack.

In Soccoro in 1974, little Alice has grown into a stifled, bored 35-year-old played by Ellen Burstyn, one of the big deals of the early '70s (she was one of the many alumni of The Last Picture Show who turned that film into a boost to the A-List). Alice lives with her verbally abusive, emotionally vacant husband Don (Billy Green Bush) and her foul-mouthed, uncontrollable 11-year-old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). Alice really ought to be miserable, but she isn't, and this is because she's too scattered and too dependent on "proper" social frames to give her life meaning, to actually stop and think about her life. Meanwhile, Scorsese's restless, roving camera peers into the corners of her world to show us the banality, the clutter, the cookie-cutter mail-order sterility of it all, so that we realize that she is an empty person long before she does. My God, I love young Scorsese and his fixation on physical spaces! I love his need to make everything detailed and real! Why is The Departed so leaden?

Nothing would be easier than recounting the meanding plot that leads the suddenly-widowed Alice to drive with Tommy to Monterey, stopping in Phoenix and Tucson to find money and acknowledge that she's both too scared and frankly, too untalented to realise her dreams, and that's why I won't do it. Much better just to let it happen; this is one of the best road-trips in a decade with the best examples of that horrible subgenre, and it's a bit of a delight to just watch it unfold, with its panoply of full characters sketched in just a few short lines, carried out by some truly great actors including Harvey Keitel as a violent (no, really) adulterer, Jodie Foster as a nasty tomboy, Vic Tayback as a cranky diner owner and Diane Ladd above all as the earthy but humane Flo, the closest thing Alice has ever had to a best friend. And it's not worth describing the interplay between mother and child, both neurotic wrecks, because if you've seen it, you know it, and if you haven't, I can't do it justice. Nor will I go into the ways that Scorsese brings this all to life: he's Martin fuckin' Scorsese, after all, and there's an unmistakable rightness to every slight detail in composition and staging that even the most blind viewer can't mistake.

What I would like to talk about is the ending so: SPOILERS.

In Tucson, Alice meets David, a scruffy rancher embodied by the chronically under-appreciated Kris Kristofferson. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they fall back in love, and they end up together. For a film that insists so long on Alice's need for independence, this seems regressive: waitaminnit, she needs a man after all? The screenplay is by a man, when all is said and done, and it's not a masterpiece of women's lib, even if it's mostly feminist.

That said, it's easy to give the ending shit it doesn't deserve. Alice spends a lot of time pondering how she let herself need a man, but what she really means is how she let herself let a man control her priorities. What becomes clear in her moments with Flo is that she needs companions: people to laugh and cry with. David fills that, so does Flo, so can other people. But she's done letting a man tell her what her value is as a person, and she makes that clear in her speech at the diner. Alice will control Alice's life from this point out.

Importantly, she does not view David as a white knight. Their first break comes when he proves that he is flawed, because at this point she still wants a flawless man. Eventually, Alice comes to realize that everyone - Flo, Tommy, Alice - is flawed, and you have to forgive people. Notice at the end, David does not say he's changed: he says he knows he needs to change. And Alice knows the same thing about herself.

Craving companionship and love do not make Alice an anti-feminist, because they are not a substitute for self-definition. They are pieces that will make her life fuller, because every person we meet makes our life fuller. This is the ultimate theme of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Loving David does not mean that Alice surrenders Alice; it means that she loves David. And loving a flawed person is not a sign of "needing" a man. Needing a flawless man is unfeminist, but accepting a man in full recognition that he cannot be flawless is a sign of faith in one's own personal strength. It's an acknowledgement that nobody's perfect because everybody's human.

Oscar Wins: Best Actress, Ellen Burstyn
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress, Diane Ladd
-Best Original Screenplay, Robert Getchell

I'd like nothing more than to say, "hells yeah!" and point to the general consensus that Burstyn's win is one of the very best performances, male or female, leading or supporting, to ever take home a trophy, because it is, and her work carrying the whole damn film on her back is certainly one of the five best female performances of the 1970s. But the nominees also included Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, the latter of which is literally one of my ten favorite performances in the English language. So let's just call it a symptom of how amazing the decade was, and leave it a draw.

The screenplay is great, no doubt, but it was in the company of one of the best slates that category has ever seen: Robert Towne's Chinatown won, and The Conversation and Day for Night were among the also-rans. I think I'd have gone with the Academy on that one, but man! what a choice!

Best Supporting Actress in 1974 went to Ingrid Bergman's cameo in Murder on the Orient Express, a fine performance but one of the great Oscar head-scratchers; even so, I'd have given it to Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles over Ladd.

What about?
-Best Director, a beautiful slate (Coppola for The Godfather, Part II; Cassavetes for A Woman Under the Influence; Fosse for Lenny; Polanski for Chinatown; Truffaut for Day for Night. I'd have snuck Marty in over Bob Fosse, who'd won for a much better film just two years earlier.

-Best Picture that year had three all-time masterpieces in The Godfather, Part II, Chinatown and The Conversation, a near-miss with Lenny and...The Towering Inferno. Alice certainly could have taken one of those last two slots, and nobody in their right mind would ever complain.