Bringing out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999)

"This is not about New York. This is about suffering, it's about humanity. It's about what our part is in life."
- Martin Scorsese (Quoted in Ebert, 2008: 320)

Bringing out the Dead Martin Scorsese

Barely making it into the top 100 grossing films of 1999, Bringing out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999) has never been one of Scorsese's best efforts commercially as a director, making back just $17 million of its $55 million budget. After Kundun (1997) and Casino (1995), the director returned to both New York and to his screenwriting collaborator Paul Schrader, adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly about a burned out paramedic, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) working the night shift in New York's Hells Kitchen. Perhaps the fact that it was a film about empathy with a mis-marketed trailer and a low budget which was the reason why it wasn't successful upon release, but unlike The King of Comedy (1982), for instance, it has neither enjoyed a re-evaluation. Perhaps now is the time?

As with all Martin Scorsese pictures, the film owes much to his long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who has said of the film:

"It's the only one of his [Scorsese's] films, I think, that hasn't gotten its due, It's a beautiful film, but it was hard for people to take, I think. Unexpected. But I think it's great.... it was about compassion, and it was sold, I think, as a car chase movie. When I saw the trailer I said, "Wait a minute! That's not what the movie's about!" I think people were made nervous by the theme of it, which I think is beautiful. I think it'll get its due...I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about that movie." - Thelma Schoonmaker (Quoted in Lambie, 2016)

Scorsese Thelma Shoonmaker
Scorsese with Thelma Schoonmaker - perhaps his
most important collaborater of all. 
Comparisons with Taxi Driver are inevitable, the same low lives and dead beats inhabit the dirty New York streets and still, 15 years on (Bringing out the Dead is set in the early 1990s), The Big Apple is still being effected by a massive social and financial crisis. LoBrutto even argues that 'spiritually, the film takes place in the 70s' (2008: 365), which was the era that Scorsese knew best. Drug dealers, prostitutes and murderers all permeate the environment, which is a cold, dank filthy vision of the city, full of graffiti filled interiors and neon lit shop fronts. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and Frank Pierce are insomniacs who wish to cleanse the streets, but while Travis looks down in distain at the people he witnesses whilst driving around, Frank wishes to help them. This explains why every street corner triggers a guilt ridden flashback, where he see's the ghosts of people that he has failed to save as a medic. One in particular, Rose, a young hispanic girl haunts him more than any other. This is as close as the film comes to a real narrative, that Frank is looking for some kind of redemption from the people who have died under his care: 'his spiritual craving is a desire to be released from guilt rather than desire for immortality or godlikeness' (Nyce, 2004: 157). 

Roger Ebert argues that there's a simple reason for the film's lack of plot, saying that 'the paramedics days have no beginning or goal, but are a limbo of extended horror' (2010: 316). While this is true, there is a neat, episodic routine to the way that the film moves along, undercut by a nightmarish sense of adrenaline and disorder. Set over three nights, Frank is paired with a different partner, each one more unhinged than the last as they patrol the streets in an ambulance waiting for an emergency call to come through on their radio. There are recurring patients, who everyone in the ER remembers as regulars in the manic, overcrowded and claustrophobic hospital that acts as a kind of purgatory for the lost souls that are brought in. Most of them are the unwanted drug users and gang members who are on the fringes of society, in this sense Bringing out the Dead is quite a personal film for Scorsese: 

"Although he grew up in a decent family, they lived in a neighbourhood that was less than a block from the Bowery, and he saw the derelicts, the dregs of society, that is, people who are waiting to die. According to Scorsese, because of the human misery that he witnessed as a child, he has been conflicted by between feeling compassionate for the unfortunate on the one hand, and feeling repulsed by them on the other hand." (Miliora, 2004: 119) 

Bringing out the deadThis repulsion is characterised by Nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt) who chastises the regulars in the ER by questioning why it is that they should be helped when they're going to go back to their drug abuse and violent ways again anyway. At one point Frank also shouts at a homeless man who has tried and failed to commit suicide, saying that the city is full of people who were viciously murdered and just want want to live. Ultimately, what Frank likes about the job is that he has the ability to save lives ("the best drug in the world"), but the film follows him when he's having a breakdown. Frank is suffering as he debates whether his job is making any difference at all, he hasn't saved a life in months and is powerless to stop the spread of a new drug called Red Death that's making its way through the streets. In a constant state of oblivion, he mostly saves people such as drug dealers, who have brought about a great deal of pain and death to others themselves. As mentioned, many of the patients are self-destructive "frequent flyers", those who repeatedly find themselves overdosing or passing out to alcohol consumption. The dilemma that all the nurses and doctors in the film are faced with is that they're exhausting themselves emotionally and physically by saving those who will only need saving again in a few days. It seems like a futile job at times, which is why Frank see's himself as a "grief mop" who has been given training that was useful in less that 10% of situations that he ends up in. If Taxi Driver is about a man who has a heroic god-complex, Bringing out the Dead is the opposite. Or at least it's about a man who must gradually come to accept that just because he has the ability to save lives, he's not god. Frank's third partner, Tom (Tom Sizemore), is closer to Travis Bickle than Frank ever is - disturbed, angry and manic - genuinely wanting to rid New York of the scum through violence. 

Frank's redemption of sorts comes in the form of a woman called Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a heart attack victim who is being kept on life support. As he lies in the hospital bed taunting Frank, he asks to be allowed to die in order to free him from his vegetative state. It seems like the characters in the film who wish to die are doomed to spend their life in the limbo of the emergency room or the back of the ambulance, while the different suicide cases that Frank attends do are always failed attempts. Mary is a former drug addict and someone who Frank feels that he can save, but whether he knows it or not she's also someone who can save him. She's the closest that he has to a real companion after his first (and only sane) partner Larry (John Goodman) quits. We get a hint that the two of them are going to help each other right at the start when Frank is resuscitating Mary's father. Here, the lighting keeps shifting in intensity, which cinematographer Robert Richardson did in order to 'emphasize the dual nature of Pierce’s experience, he’s burned out, and his patient is dying, so Pierce feels like hell, however, at the same time he is seeing a glimmer of hope for redemption in the man’s daughter' (Quoted in Rudolph: 1999). As Thelma Schoonmaker has stated, this is a film about compassion and humanity, which is why Frank knows how to try and calm the traumatised family down. While he's resuscitating the victim, he says that playing their favourite music can help - so the son snaps out of his panicked daze to go and put on some Sinatra. At the end of the picture, when he mercy kills Mary's father who has been shocked back to life from his ultimately irreversible injuries several times, 'Frank overcomes the temptation to adopt the false transcendence of thinking of himself as god' (Conard, 2007: 154), and accepts that he can't 'reverse the course of the natural deterioration that is the essential fact of the human condition' (Shary, 2013: 125). Eventually, after finally saving two lives on his third night, Frank gets the forgiveness that he's been seeking for the whole film, as he looks on at Mary as Rose's ghost who tells him that no-one asked him to suffer.

A third of the film takes place inside the ambulance, but that's not to say that it isn't a hectic picture full of fast and frantic camerawork. This may have come out of Scorsese's research as he rode with paramedics, after only a few days he stated that he too started seeing things in a blur - illustrated by the several sped-up shots of the ambulance driving down the dark streets. All of this contributes to giving a hallucinatory aesthetic to the sequences as the shop and street lights whizz by, giving an insight into the unbalanced, sleep-deprived mind of its protagonist. Speaking of this, Scorsese at one point uses a time lapse of the city's skyline to shift from early morning to the evening of the graveyard shift which he must work - showing us how his moments of solace are brief and fleeting. However, this method sometimes screeches to a halt, when Frank is witnessing the ghosts of the dead in slow motion as he stares out the window, it's protracted, painful and drawn out, just as it has been for him in the years that he's been a paramedic. Likewise, as doctors are treating people in the ER we get a couple of long takes. These fluid oners move around the characters and the fluidity of which seems to demonstrate their skilfulness in their job, how they effortlessly take everything in their stride as being completely routine. The camerawork is also restrained during scenes of quiet conversation, an article by the American Society of Cinematographers states that this was because of the intensely interior nature of the story, Scorsese has agreed: 

"I didn't want to be distracting, he's [Frank] a complete, utter spiritual wreck.. He’s cut off from people. He has a great need for forgiveness, but first he must forgive himself. When you're dealing with that sort of material, you don't want to move the camera, you leave it alone" - Martin Scorsese (Quoted in Rudolph, 1999)

Ving Rhames Bringing out the DeadBy the time we get to the third and final night, Richardson made sure to establish the shots in the ambulance so that the 'lighting and camera angles become much more extreme', to coincide with Frank reaching the end of his tether after being paired with Tom for the night. The music has also shifted by this point; Van Morrison's slow, blues song TB Sheets which featured prominently at the start of the film is replaced with the Clash's Janie Jones. At this point, he sees even more ghosts of Rose, which seems to manically spur him on and make him desperate to save a life before his shift ends.

The pitch black humour throughout is akin to After Hours (1985), also set entirely a night - when all the crazies seem to come out. Much of this humour seems to come from the religious Marcus (Ving Rhames), Frank's second partner. At one point, Frank discretely resuscitates an overdose victim (apparently by the name of I.B Bangin') in a gothic night club with a shot of adrenaline. Marcus uses this as a chance to gather the club goers in a circle and preach to the lord, convincing them that it was god who spared the man, not medicine. This macabre humour is constant and in a melancholic film about the unwanted in society dying, adds to the unusual, dream-like experience of watching it. Sotinel  says that this humour has 'nothing in common with the sadism prevalent in American cinema at the time' (2010: 72). Again - perhaps this is why it failed, because it veers from the straight-faced hellish to the plain bizarre without any warning. Unlike, say Fight Club, released the same year, Bringing out the Dead also doesn't relish violence, but in fact seems appalled by it. 

Even though it's a relentlessly grim vision of 1990s New York, Bringing out the Dead turns out to be one of Scorsese's most optimistic films. It's certainly one of his most underrated. Damon Smith, writing on the website for New York's Moving Image museum says that it does not need to be rescued from oblivion; it needs to be resuscitated.


Conard, M. 2007. The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Ebert, R. 2008. Scorsese by Ebert. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eric Rudolph. 1999. 'Urban Gothic: Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC rejoins director Martin Scorsese for a harrowing look at the life of a troubled EMT in Bringing Out the Dead'. American Society of Cinematographers. [Online] Available here: 

Lambie, R. 2016. 'Thelma Schoonmaker interview: editing Silence, Scorsese, Michael Powell'. Den of Geek. [Online] Available here: 

LoBrutto, V. 2008. Scorsese: A Biography. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Miliora, M. 2004. Scorsese Psyche on Screen: Roots of Themes and Characters in the Films. North Carolina: McFarland and Company.

Nyce, B. 2004. Scorsese Up Close: A Study of the Films. Oxford: Scarecrow Press.

Shary, T. 2013. Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Sotinel, T. 2010. Martin Scorsese. Paris: Cahiers Du Cinema Sarl.