Mean Streets December 20, 2017
Robert De Niro
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
hough he’d directed two films before it — the no-budget Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and the Roger Corman-produced exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha (1972) — it could be argued that Mean Streets (1973) was Martin Scorsese’s true-blue filmmaking debut. While sometimes limited by its small but serviceable budget, the movie made for the first time Scorsese was given artistic freedom, and the first time he was
able to more thoroughly explore the themes that would pepper his later works. And it was the first time he prompted major discussions among both critics and audiences.
By the fall of 1973, Scorsese had yet to have a major effect on the output of modern cinema. His actual directing debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, helped bolster his artistic credibility (Roger Ebert was one of his earliest admirers) but didn’t make all too much of a cultural stir. Boxcar Bertha saw Scorsese able to make the most of a feature that was never meant to be much more than a cobbling of ideas popularized by hits like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Bloody Mama (1970). But things would change for the director when he released Mean Streets, a passionate, searing account of criminal life in hostile, ‘70s-era New York. The film was a hit with audiences — making its slim budget back several times over — and was lauded by the career-making (or breaking) film critic Pauline Kael, who famously declared that it was “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” In a little over a year, Scorsese had become more than a director to simply keep an eye on. He metamorphosed from promising talent to potentially culturally influential artist.
Now, Scorsese is, like Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg, an easily recognizable celebrity director, a name and personality familiar to even the least cinematically inclined. Currently approaching his sixth decade of moviemaking, it seems impossible to picture a cinematic landscape of which he is not part. So while watching Mean Streets in 2017, it can be difficult to immediately see why it was such an important film. Because the following decades have seen derivative filmmakers channeling Scorsese's ideas, it first appears to be like any other crime feature made in the ‘70s and beyond. To sit through Mean Streets' 112 minutes and understand what it must have been like to experience it in theaters nearly 45 years ago, we must consider the industry at the time, and everything we’ve come to know about Scorsese’s trajectory as a whole, as well as later, imitative features.
In 1973, cinema was in a transitional period. In a matter of a few years, the glamorous (and sanitized) studio system that had dominated in America for nearly a half-century had effectively collapsed. Foreign films had begun gaining prominence. Auteur filmmakers like François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Mike Nichols began redefining what it meant to be mainstream; as such, it was no longer so easily discernible which films would be popular and which wouldn’t. The rise of niche subgenres began to emerge, too: audiences interested in exploitation features, as well as movies colored in the avant-garde and the pornographic, began to mushroom. Consumers and distributors alike were doing away with the conventional old and bringing in the varied new, the status quo-dependent features of the Hollywood Golden Age out of fashion.
In the supposed new arriving as the ‘60s were coming to a close, several American filmmakers, like Scorsese, started surfacing. Directors with a penchant for naturalism, like Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, saw growing popularity as the 1970s progressed. And so did directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, who could easily latch onto the grandeur of classic Hollywood and modernize it while keeping intact their voices. These directors have mostly maintained their statures as iconic artists not just because they crafted so many agreed-on masterpieces during their respective career peaks, but because those agreed-on masterpieces also broke molds.
Mean Streets is one such rule-breaking film. The camerawork is frenetic, shaky — taken with the intimacy provided by close-ups. It's redolent of the cinéma vérité style, starkly contrasting with the static, careful composition frequently found in movies released in the previous decades. It doesn't use a generic orchestral score to heighten emotions felt from scene to scene —Scorsese implements the sounds you’d most likely find on a jukebox in a run-down diner circa the early '70s, a now-commonplace aesthetic tactic but, in 1973, an unusual flourish. The acting is not informed by the presentational style; instead it's shaded by the nonchalance of the Method. None of these characteristics would have flown as high just 10 years earlier; they’d likely be regarded with the same vaguely
exoticized reverence thrown atop the products of the prescient French New Wave.
In Scorsese’s courageous hands, and in the scope of a decade that saw both music and film ever-changing, Mean Streets likely felt, and still continues to feel, revolutionary. Much of what it does has been widely copied in the years since. Gritty street movies of its ilk are now as omnipresent as Coca-Cola, No-Smoking signs inside small-town diners. But unlike other groundbreaking works that've
lost some of their power over the years as a result of homogenization and/or evolved cultural norms, like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), there's a still-fresh enthusiasm found in Mean Streets that makes it as bracing as it must have been four decades ago. It's so raw, visceral — a crime film that forever appears to be taking place in the now.
To argue that it's aged a little badly — Scorsese would later refine and better what's introduced in the movie, some could cynically offer — is to conflate cultural mirroring with shoddy quality.
e’ve seen a version of its story so many times before. But Scorsese suffuses it with a sort of hard-boiled intuition persuasive enough to make us think we’re watching a warped reality, not formulaic fantasy. In Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel stars as Charlie, a young Italian-American trying to stay alive in the dangerous arena that is the 1970s New York crime milieu. Working under his loan-sharking and
politically-fixing uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), his life consists of not much more besides dirty deeds done for decent amounts of dirty money and sleeping with his best friend Johnny Boy’s (Robert De Niro) epileptic girlfriend Teresa (a sincere Amy Robinson).
Take his self-serving lifestyle into account and you might believe Charlie’s a rat —a brown-nosing, would-be mafioso who will someday pay a karmic price for his outwardly reckless hedonism. But in Mean Streets, our arriving at such conclusions is not so simple. Charlie, for one thing, has a conscience: clear is that he performs these misdeeds because he incidentally got into the business so young that it’s too late to escape. He’s tormented by what he does, considering his uncle and his cronies despicable. His Catholic guilt plagues him, and so does the creeping sensation that maybe there is no such thing as a happy ending waiting for him. A premature, violent one might be instead. Mean Streets probes
Charlie’s struggle, punctuating scenes clouded by this inner turmoil with interactions with criminal bigwigs, oft-violent meet-ups with so-called friends, and rendezvous with Teresa, who appears to be his sole font of happiness.
Scorsese dependably uses audacious style to underline how Charlie’s demons are always climbing on his back even when we cannot necessarily pinpoint them. He’s frequently photographed in deep reds, sitting wistfully in the backgrounds of bars and clubs contemplating his future. Because the soundtrack principally features singles that might have been heard on The Arthur Murray Party (1950-60) (the opening credits are memorably backed by The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby," from 1963, for instance), there's a suggestion that this aural harking back to the past parallels Charlie’s yearning for his salad days — when he wasn't enmeshed in what seems to be doom all the time. In scenes where he’s interacting one on one with either Johnny Boy or Teresa, the camera zooms in uncomfortably close on his still-wrinkle-free face, as if to get rid of the distraction that is his sinewy, tough body to assert porcelain-skinned vulnerability.
Johnny Boy is much younger than Charlie and is octaves more reckless. He lives for commotion, thrives when threatened with violence. We never sense Charlie necessarily likes Johnny Boy, though: He views him like a baby brother, loving him unconditionally albeit internally bemoaning his excursions into childish rebellion. Charlie doesn’t have to be so concerned with the fool’s well-being. But his body language tells us that because he sees Johnny Boy as a kid sibling or even a younger version of himself, he’s become fixated on “saving" him. He’s under the impression that Johnny Boy has the chance to escape this wasteful life of crime that he doesn’t.
De Niro’s performance is so perfectly infuriating. He’s cocky at the worst of times, oblivious to repercussions when he should be the most acutely aware of them. Yet there’s enough naiveté imbued here to help us understand why Charlie’s so attached. He possesses the type of myopia found in so many young people. It's a kind of foolishness that comes with age and can be, with time, ushered out.
In scenes that find Charlie and Teresa together, there’s a tinge of poignancy found that increasingly crosses over into the deadlier sequences in the movie, adding to their waste. Charlie and Teresa’s relationship was likely something neither thought would develop into something more. Perhaps they believed it was going to look something like the one-time-hookup scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) where Bridget Fonda and an older De Niro decided to fuck just because. But in the weeks, or months (the movie doesn’t specify), since they started their affair, the twosome has begun to realize they might need each other.
Teresa has become something of a human spectacle in the community because of her epilepsy. There are several scenes showing friends and family equating it with mental illness, refusing to take her thoughts or feelings seriously. Charlie is the only person in her life who doesn't ostracize her for grappling with the disorder; he’s the only person who’s shown her true compassion, and vice versa. Teresa believes her actual boyfriend, Johnny Boy, is childish, but sees a sensitivity and maturity in Charlie that appeals to her. We root for their relationship, hopeful they won't become the doomed lovers we’re pretty certain they'll become.
Much of what we think will happen in Mean Streets does. And such isn't a surprise, considering Scorsese’s tendency to follow conventional character arcs even when the storylines that help guide them might not be. But the movie is so alive, we needn’t worry about what’s familiar. Here, the streets are mean and so specific to this time period and to this set of characters. We're thrust into its each and every moment unforgivingly. Yet the movie’s not so far off from the experiences undergone by so many. In our own lives do we have to juggle our professional and personal obligations without a completely clear idea of the future in sight; we often additionally battle various guilts and neuroses in the same ways Charlie does. Certainly, most of us do not have his job, work under this milieu; but we get it, and him.
Scorsese would, of course, go on to improve himself. Just a year later he’d do a complete 180 with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a masterful throwback to the women’s pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s. Then he’d make his magnum opus with 1976’s Taxi Driver, try out the musical genre with 1977’s tedious New York, New York, and then begin the next decade with the winding character study Raging Bull (1980). The list could go on, and it could be said that Scorsese has made a great many better films than Mean Streets. But how many have contained its same youthful intensity? A