Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore begins with Alice's dream. We see her as a young girl, on a farm, somewhen in the late 1940s, dreaming of a life beyond this small compass, of her future as a singer. Scorsese films this in the style of a Hollywood film of the time, on an obvious soundstage with a Technicolor-red/orange hue to the scene, the screen narrowed to the older Academy ratio, indicating that Alice's dreams are as much a creation of sound and light as the movies she sees on the silver screen. Alice sings “You'll Never Know”, Alice Faye's song from Hello, Frisco, Hello and thinking how much better she could sing than her famous namesake… And then we jump forward twenty-seven years, and the Forties musical number is replaced by 70s rock, Mott the Hoople's “All the Way from Memphis”. The screen widens, and Kent L. Wakeford's camerawork is in the 70s naturalistic mode it remains in for the rest of the film. Alice is now married to Donald (Billy Green Bush), stuck at home, with a twelve-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter). Her dreams are a long way away. But then Donald is killed in a car crash, and Alice takes the chance to head off with Tommy in search of a new life…
Robert Getchell's screenplay has a picaresque structure, marking the stages of this woman's odyssey with the men and women she meets along the way. After a stint of singing in a bar, Alice meets Ben (Harvey Keitel) but he turns out to have a darker side, and a secret. Finally, in Tucson, just over halfway through the film, Alice has no option but to take a job as a diner waitress. There, after initial mutual dislike, she bonds with fellow waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and one of the customers, David (Kris Kristofferson) takes an interest in her.
The constant in Alice's life is her son. The bond between them is strong, but that doesn't prevent them rubbing each other the wrong way, and Alfred Lutter plays Tommy with a perfect blend of spirit and brattiness. The film takes place in the summer, so Tommy has no school to go to, so he's frequently bored and kicking out. Later in the film he becomes friends with the tomboyish local girl, Audrey (Jodie Foster). Lutter was BAFTA-nominated as Best Newcomer and continued to act for a few more years, especially in The Bad News Bears and its 1977 sequel, which was his final film.
The film came about when Warners head John Calley approached Ellen Burstyn. The Exorcist, in which Burstyn was top-billed, had been a huge hit, and Warners were anxious to continue their relationship with the actress. Many of the scripts she was sent did not interest her, with the women in them mostly there as adjuncts to the men. The women's movement was making its presence felt in American society and Burstyn was keen to find something that reflected the experiences of herself (she was recently divorced) and women like her, trying to find themselves and their own lives. She found Getchell's script. Calley suggested she might direct the film herself, but Burstyn didn't feel up to doing both that and starring in the film, so she asked her friend Francis Coppola for recommendations for directors. Coppola suggested she watch Mean Streets. Burstyn was impressed but saw immediately that it was a very male-focussed film. How much do you know about women? she asked Scorsese. Not much, was the answer, but he was keen to learn. In fact, other than his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, Alice is his only film with a female lead. Strong female characters do feature in his later work, and he directed some of the actresses concerned to Oscar nominations or wins – for example, Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Sharon Stone in Casino, Cate Blanchett in The Aviator - but they aren't the protagonists of those particular films. Burstyn won the Oscar for Alice (Diane Ladd and Robert Getchell were nominated) and it's the high watermark of her career, as she's at the centre of this film in a way she isn't in The Exorcist. In the supporting role of Alice and Flo's fellow waitress Vera is Valerie Curtin, who was Oscar-nominated with her then husband Barry Levinson for ..And Justice for All. Towards the end of the film, you'll see an uncredited Laura Dern (daughter of Diane Ladd), in glasses eating an ice cream, in her first film. (She's in the screengrab below.)
There was a television sitcom spinoff, called simply Alice, which began in 1976 and ran for nine seasons. Linda Lavin took over the role. Alfred Lutter played Tommy again in the pilot, but his role was recast when the series went ahead.
In spirit, Alice is a classic women's picture, one which you could imagine a version of being made ten or twenty years earlier, though the feminist angle roots it in the time when it was made. The language in the script couldn't pass muster ten years earlier, when the Production Code was still in force, though it's mild compared to other films of its time. Alice is something of an outlier in Scorsese's filmography, with its female lead and relative lack of violence (though Keitel is suitably scary in his brief role). It tends to be undervalued compared to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the Mob-focused films Scorsese is most often associated with. Yet it shares a lot of characteristics of his work, in its drawing on a huge cinematic vocabulary (not just classic Hollywood but further afield), the often-mobile camerawork and the use of music to counterpoint the image. It's an essential part of Scorsese's filmography.
The BFI's release of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is DVD-only as no HD master was available to enable a Blu-ray release. It comprises a dual-layered PAL-format disc encoded for Region 2 only.
The transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, opened up from the original 1.85:1. For the most part, the picture is fine, faithful to the largely naturalistic colour scheme. Grain is natural and filmlike. The transfer does struggle a little with the opening sequence, which is a lot closer to monochromatic red and black than it should be. Given that this is a film shot throughout on 35mm, it's a pity that it can't be made available on Blu-ray.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as LPCM 2.0, and is clear and well balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available. Other than young Alice's “ass” being rendered as “arse” in the opening sequence, I didn't having any issues with them.
The extras begin with a partial commentary, running approximately 51 minutes. This features Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson and Diane Ladd. Also included – though not mentioned in the booklet or the disc coverslip – is Harvey Keitel, who talks briefly about the film around the time when his character leaves the screen. The participants are clearly recorded separately and edited together. After Burstyn and Scorsese have talked about how the film was set up, the comments – taking up just under half the running time – are more scene-specific than those on the Who's That Knocking at My Door partial commentary. Burstyn talks about how she wished to have a larger number of women than normal on the film, which included Marcia Lucas as editor and Toby Carr Rafelson as production designer. Ladd talks about how she was embarrassed to say her most famous line, due to its (mild) profanity.
“Second Chances… The Making of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” (19:51) is a 2003 making-of documentary. It features Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson. Inevitably it duplicates some of the material of the commentary, but is informative within its limits. Also on the disc is the trailer (2:21), which is oddly colour-timed quite differently to the film itself (and I can confirm this, having seen the film in 35mm), with several scenes bathed heavily in orange.
The BFI's booklet runs to sixteen pages and mostly comprises two essays. “Where or When: The Sounds of Music in 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore'” by Nicholas Pillai, an overview of the film which pays particular attention to Scorsese's use of the soundtrack and the way he frames shots in counterpoint to it. Then Christina Newland contributes “Declaration of Independence: 'Alice' and the New Female Consciousness”, which concentrates on its feminist themes and how the social changes of the time are reflected in it. Also in the booklet are a reprint of Richard Combs's review from the June 1975 Monthly Film Bulletin, film credits, credits and notes on the extras, transfer notes and stills.