The movie “Mean Streets” was not only a landmark film in both the careers of Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese (Casino) and two time Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II), but it was also the first time the two collaborated on a film together. The passionate and raw, 1973, crime drama, has all of the trademark characteristics that cinephiles have come to expect in a Scorsese directed feature. The noir movie draws the viewer in with its diverse soundtrack, emotional intensity, eruptions of violence that take place within a split second, lurid color and lighting, and fluid camera work.
Unlike the first film in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga, which had debuted a year earlier, “Mean Streets” examines the lives of small-time criminals that pervade the landscape of New York’s Little Italy. Crime comes naturally to the movie’s characters, the foot soldiers, who are attempting to make a quick score of cash without getting killed. The main protagonist of the 112 minute film, co-written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin (Raging Bull), is the anti-hero Charlie, played by talented actor Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs). (As an aside, originally the financial backers wanted actor John Voight (Midnight Cowboy) to play Charlie, but he turned them down).
Keitel’s character is a man that is conflicted by his catholic guilt combined with his unending desire to do what is necessary to ascend to a higher rank within his powerful uncle Giovanni’s (Cesare Danova) criminal organization. Charlie circulates within a world of darkly lit bars, pool halls, and movie theatres. He looks uncomfortable in the sunlight while standing on the beach dressed in his suit and overcoat almost, as if Scorsese is trying to convey to the viewer that Charlie knows that he should relegate himself to only nocturnal activities.
Two people are keeping Charlie from reaching the heights of becoming an established and respected Mafioso. Firstly, his loyalty to Robert De Niro’s character, that of the self destructive Johnny Boy, a spot on performance which combines desperation, joviality, and swagger. De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a continuing source of frustration for Charlie especially since Johnny keeps crossing the silently seething, local loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus). Secondly, Charlie wants to maintain the normalcy of life with his girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson), who both suffers from epilepsy and scorns his gangster lifestyle; she wants him to break free from the confines of his inner city neighborhood and move away with her to a new life.
The aesthetically and thematically truthful film, budgeted for an estimated $500,000, contains dialogue between the characters that sounds very genuine. From the beginning voice over, which, while showing Keitel’s character of Charlie on screen is actually spoken by Scorsese, to the opening credits that look like a home movie one would watch at a family reunion, all the way through to the climax, realism is the word I would most associate with the film. Kent L. Wakeford’s (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) cinematography is gritty and the use of hand held cameras, as well as tight close ups on the characters facial expressions, gives the movie a documentary feel as opposed to a conventional, linear plot structure. Those aspects of the film, as well as the use of subtitles at the beginning where key characters are introduced, fights that are filmed in one single tracking shot, and the swaying use of the aforementioned hand held camera to create the look of Keitel’s Charlie being heavily intoxicated, which are routine today, were definitely not commonplace back in early 70s cinema.
Trivia buffs take note, although the movie has an authentic New York look to it, most of the filming was done in Los Angeles. The original title was “Season of the Witch.” The title change was inspired by a Raymond Chandler line, “Down these mean streets a man must go.” Film critic Jay Cocks suggested the change to Scorsese who thought it was too pretentious at first, but eventually changed his mind and agreed that it would be effective. Catherine Scorsese, the woman who comes to Teresa’s aid when she is having an epileptic fit, is Martin Scorsese’s mother. In addition, the character of bar owner Tony is played by Dave Proval, who many of you might remember as the volatile Richie Aprile on the second season of “The Sopranos.” One of the film’s highlights is its soundtrack which contains a well selected mixture of 23 tracks that includes authentic Italian music intercut with songs from groups such as Cream, The Marvelettes, The Rolling Stones, and The Ronettes, among others.
As with all of Martin Scorsese’s movies there exists a prevailing sensuality that is both horrific and beautiful as well as, in certain scenes, deeply moving. In “Mean Streets,” due to his incredible talent as a filmmaker, Scorsese paints a visual canvas that showcases the indiscriminate aspects of the character’s lives with wonderful vividness. Don’t go into the movie thinking you’re going to watch a film with the same style as “Casino” or “Goodfellas” for the whole and sole reason that it is a gangster film directed by Scorsese because you will probably be sorely disappointed. “Mean Streets” has to be viewed through the prism of the time in which it was filmed and with the awareness that it is a deeply personal film for the director, arguably the most personal of Scorsese’s prolific career. For true devotees of the director and his work this is must-see viewing if for no other reason than to see the catalyst for De Niro’s and Scorsese’s working relationship. The two men have collaborated on a body of work that, including “Mean Streets,” has produced eight motion pictures, among them “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” which according to The American Film Institute are three of the 100 greatest American films of all time.