Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese

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Every serious film lover sees a film that once in awhile affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about, this is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it does not have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply.

Robert-DeNiro_Mean_l   The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was “Who That Knocking at My Door” back in September 1969 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie theater located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. At the time, the theatre showed mostly art house, foreign, independent and classic films. I was home Vietnam on leave, losing myself  in as many movies as I could. And if you want to lose yourself in movies, New York City is the best place to be other than maybe Paris.

I must have read a review of the film in a newspaper and the synopsis of a young Italian-American kid living on the streets of Little Italy struggling with life’s complexities (girls, Catholic guilt) appealed to me on a personal level.  The film was amazingly unlike just about any other I had ever seen. The fact that the filmmaker was this Italian-American guy, like me, and he wrote and directed the film made it even more enticing. My wildest fantasies were coming true, only it was Martin Scorsese who was living it.  I never forgot the film or the name Scorsese as I went off to Fort Polk, La. for four months and then thirteen months in Germany before being discharged and getting back to my real life, when in 1972, a Roger Corman produced film called “Boxcar Bertha came out and I noted the director’s name, Martin Scorsese. Hmm…  The film was typical King of the B’s Corman stuff, maybe somewhat better than most of his films filled with the prerequisite amount of violence and sex, all the good things low-budget filmmaking does best.

Then came October 1973.

Means Streets LC robinson    Scorsese wrote the script for “Mean Streets” along with his friend and fellow NYU student, Mardik Martin with whom he collaborated with previously on some of his short films. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Briskind states the two friends sat in Martin’s Valiant during a cold winter and wrote the script. Much of the story is from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in Little Italy. During the filming of “Boxcar Bertha” Scorsese tried to interest Corman into financing his next film. However, Corman would agree only if Marty changed all the characters to black. Fortunately, for all he found other financing from Jonathan Taplin, then a road manager for the rock group, “The Band.”

Scorsese hired Harvey Keitel to play Charlie Cappa, in time to film the San Gennaro festival, which takes place every October in Little Italy. He then offered Robert DeNiro a choice of any of the other roles in the film. The two originally met when teenagers but did not hang out together, DeNiro the child of two artists, grew up in Greenwich Village though he spent much of his time in the Little Italy neighborhood next door. He had seen Scorsese’s first feature “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” and was impressed with the film’s accurate portrayal of life in Little Italy.  After some discussions and a meeting with Keitel, who suggested he play Johnny Boy, it was settled.

“Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy, an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie is also having an affair with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson).

scan0021    Part of what drives “Mean Streets” is the interaction between the two protagonists whose improvised street-wise dialogue has a free form jazz like quality. Just listen to the Joey Clams/Frankie Bones monologue between Charlie and Johnny Boy.  Scorsese encouraged his actors to improvise, much of it worked on during rehearsals, which contributes to the film’s tempo. It helped that along with Scorsese, DeNiro and Keitel, some of the others in the cast grew up in similar New York neighborhoods and were familiar with the type of environment portrayed on screen.

Little Italy and its inhabitants were an enclave unto themselves, living a mostly separate existence from the rest of the city, insulated from the rest of the world. Outsiders were foreign and not wanted.  Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” shows us a world mixed with the old country and the new, a hybrid that never fully integrated. This is evident even in the superb use of music where the soundtrack combines the old (Opera), the traditional (Italian) and the modern (Rock and Roll).

Early in the film, Charlie enters a local bar owned by Tony (David Proval), sharply dressed, confident; he is greeted like a king. He dances to the beat of The Rolling Stones “Tell Me”, shaking hands with associates and friends, swaying to the music. Gliding through the room, he makes his way to the stage joining two topless dancers. This is Charlie’s world, he is the center of attention, and he is a man in his element.

Yet, Charlie is conflicted; he needs to reconcile his Catholic upcoming with his outlaw life. “Taking care” of Johnny Boy is Charlie’s attempt at redemption for his lifestyle. He knows that praying his ten “Hail Mary’s” and ten “Our Fathers” every week after confession is useless. As the voice over (Scorsese) at the beginning of film says, “You don’t pay for your sins in church; you pay for them in the streets.  Charlie is also conflicted with the women in his life. He is attracted to the black topless dancer and arranges a date with her, only when the time comes he stands her up knowing that in his world he can’t get involved with a black woman. He is already involved in a delicate relationship with the epileptic Theresa, who his Uncle disapproves of, telling him she’s crazy. Charlie, like many of Scorsese’s men has a Madonna/Whore complex. He resents Theresa’s independence. He chastises her for her vulgar language, which he and his cronies use all the time. He gladly has sex with her but fears a lasting relationship and his Uncle’s wrath. Theresa is in love with Charlie and she wants out of the neighborhood. She wants Charlie to commit to her and wants them to move uptown away from the neighborhood and into the outside world. Charlie cannot commit and he certainly will not leave the neighborhood. For men like Charlie, the neighborhood is everything.  scan0019

Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks.

Scorsese shows us a world where violence can erupt at any moment as it does in the now well-known “Mook” scene. Here we see Charlie and his boys go to a local pool hall to make a collection. The owner is happy to pay until one of the guys calls another a “mook.” While no one is sure, what’s a “mook” they are sure it’s an insult and soon a brawl breaks out between the two groups as The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” blast away on the soundtrack. Scorsese’s mobile camera is in the middle of the mix as we watch these guys battle each other, Johnny Boy jumping on a pool table swinging a broken cue stick and kicking wildly. The police break it up but are paid off not to press any charges. As the cops leave, the two sides agree to have a drink together; however before you know it, another fight breaks out.

Scorsese poured himself into this film; Charlie is Marty’s on screen surrogate. There are indicators throughout the film most obviously with the lead character’s name. Charlie was Scorsese’s father’s name and Cappa was his mother’s maiden name. Like Scorsese, Charlie likes movies, twice we see him in a movie theater. Also, Charlie’s struggle with religion versus his outside life reflects the young Scorsese’s own internal battle.

Influenced by the cinema verite documentary movement of the 1960’s, the French New Wave as well as by film noir of the 1940’s (Charlie’s Uncle watches Lang’s “The Big Heat” on TV) film critics greeted the film with warm open arms. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker called “Mean Streets”, “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times,   “No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter. Such a film is Mean Streets…” “Mean Streets” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973 and opened two weeks later exclusively at the Cinema 1 theater on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the film did not do well at the box office, it may have been too New York, too isolated to the tribal rituals of Italian-Americans or too blue collar. Finally, the film is not so much a gangster film as a coming of age story.

Amazingly, most of this New York film was shot in Los Angeles for budgetary reasons. Scorsese only shot about six days of exteriors in New York, including the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. In addition, the tenement building shots were filmed in New York because of their authenticity and atmosphere. In those six days of filming Scorsese crammed in a lot of Little Italy including the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and even a drive by shot of the Waverly Theater (now the IFC) in Greenwich Village.

Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy. As influenced as Scorsese was by those who came before, “Mean Streets” would go on to influence filmmakers of the next generation.

From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.

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16 comments on “Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese

  1. That’s an absolutely brilliant review of not just one of your favourite movies, but one of mine too. In fact, this might just be your best review that I’ve read, and that’s saying a lot since I’ve found all your reviews great.

    More than your analysis of the movie, which was really nice, I loved your personal & emotional connect with the movie. When you mentioned that you watched this movie prior to your leaving for Vietnam for national service, and the fact that you too are an Italian-American, I realised the movie was as much personal for Scorsese as it is perhaps for you.

    And as you rightly mentioned, French New Wave certainly played a vital role in the aesthetics of the movie – the jerky camera, the improvised dialogues, and all. I too have watched Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door? and felt Mean Streets was a natural progression and buildup to the former movie, which too was very good.

    And De Niro performance was absolutely terrific. His performance provided the template that Joe Pesci build upon to legendary effects in Goodfellas.

    Thanks for an absolutely wonderful read.

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    • John Greco says:

      Shubhajit – thanks very much and I am glad you’re a big fan if this film. Who’s That Knocking at My Door was really the genesis of Mean Streets, they are very much connected.

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  2. R.D. Finch says:

    John, I agree that this may be the best post of yours ever, clearly inspired by your deep feelings about the film. This may not be Scorsese’s greatest movie (although it’s definitely one of them), but I think it may be my favorite. It has such a feeling of liberation (in the cinematic sense) to it, the way the best films of the early French New Wave do. It seems the movie of an enthusiastic young man, the product of someone exuberant with the unexplored possibilities of cinematic self-expression. It’s honest, spontaneous, and direct in a way that Scorsese’s recent films haven’t always been, free of the affectations, overcomplexity, and preoccupation with the formal logistics of filmmaking that can make those more recent works seem a bit cold and too deliberate to me. That’s probably why I found “The Departed” so refreshing after the overkill of “Gangs of New York.” And any movie that opens with “Be My Baby” (my favorite rock song of all time–but only after I saw this movie) is after my own heart. I recently saw “GoodFellas” for the first time, and I was amazed at how it and “Mean Streets” contain the seeds of practically everything in the several seasons of “The Sopranos.” But back to “Mean Streets.” Keitel and de Niro are so different, yet they both give performances that practically jump off the screen–Keitel all conflict, introspection, and self-control and de Niro all unreflective dynamism. This movie has so much to recommend it, and you covered just about all of it and wrapped that up in its historical context. Just a great post that I really enjoyed.

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    • John Greco says:

      “It seems the movie of an enthusiastic young man, the product of someone exuberant with the unexplored possibilities of cinematic self-expression.”

      R.D. I think this statement of your hits it right on. Scorsese was a young turk without walls and he just shot his heart out in a burst of cinematic energy. I think many artists reach a point where they over think and lose the spontaneity that was in their early work. If they are lucky they eventually become free enough again to take chances .

      “Be My Baby” is such a great song and it just opens the movie with a bang. Scorsese’s use of music in impeccable. Thank you so much for the kind words.

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  3. Judy says:

    I also think this is one of your best-ever postings, John – a great account of your personal response to the film and the place it had in your life as well as the historical context, as RD says. I liked the way you link it back to ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’, as I agree that one film very much stems from the other and Harvey Keitel’s characters are wrestling with similar concerns in both. I’m very surprised to hear that most of the movie was made in LA rather than New York – to me it all looks so seamlessly bound together, although admittedly I have never been outside Europe! Also surprised to hear that it didn’t do well at the box office – I take your point that perhaps at the time its appeal seemed to be limited to that one place and time, but of course since then the appeal has proved to be more widespread. For anyone who is moved by Scorsese, it’s all there in this early film – and reading your great posting was almost like seeing the movie all over again.

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  4. John Greco says:

    Judy- Yes, it is all there in this film. It is amazing that at this early stage in his career he made such an accomplished film. He obviously soaked in everyhting he watched and put much of it in this film. Thank you for the kind words.

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  5. Dave says:

    John – I agree with all of the previous assessments – I think this is the finest essay that you have penned. Posts like these are the reason that I love reading movie blogs, because I’m more interested in hearing personal stories relating to movies than going through professional reviews. I really enjoyed it.

    Mean Streets is a movie that does nothing but grow on me each time I watch it. The first time that I watched it I remember being a little confused, because I was expecting something as polished as Goodfellas. Obviously this was an unrealistic expectation, but at that time I was just a kid watching anything I could find from Scorsese. But the more I watch it, the more I appreciate it and I think that this is probably the most important movie to see in order to understand Marty and his development as a director.

    My other favorite aspect of the film? The soundtrack! You rightly mentioned Be My Baby and its great use here, but the rest of it is outstanding too. It feels like somebody sat down and just picked their favorite rocks songs to use — and not just singles, also album cuts from great albums. The minute I realized that he was playing “I Looked Away” by Derek and the Dominos when Charlie is walking through the club early in the film… I knew this was a guy who truly was somebody who loved rock n’ roll. I couldn’t relate the story personally at the level you did, but something minor like these was what initially allowed me to connect to the movie.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave – I appreicate your comments, thanks. Mean Streets connected with me back then and still does today. Of all of Scorsese’s films, and I am a big admirer, this is the one that I keep comingback to.

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  6. […] John Greco is winning all kinds of praise (people are saying it’s his best piece ever!) for his new review of Scorsese’s Mean Streets at “Twenty-Four Frames: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/mean-streets-1973-martin-scorsese/ […]

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  7. Sam Juliano says:

    First of all John, let’s reflect a minute on the Carnegir Hall Cinema, which as you note is no longer in existence. God, what memories I have of that place! It was located up the street from Carnegie Hall, near 6th Avenue. I saw many films there in that cozy and intimate one screen theatre, and specifically remember seeing Bunuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEISIE there three times during it’s extended run. What other movie screens are silent now that once brightened our lives? Remember the Sutton, the Beekman and the Coronet? And the New Yorker and Thalia on the upper-West Side (on and off Broadway) that fueled our college days infatuation with Bergman, Truffaut, Renoir, Clement and the silent masters. And then there was the Waverly and the Bleecker Street Cinema? Priceless memories. But I think you have long promoted the old landmarks.

    Oddly enough, this is not one of my favorite Scorsese films, though I fully feel your passion, and have long known its indeptedness to the French New Wave. There’s a grittiness and honesty here that isn’t present in the same way as the more polished masterworks that came after. And De Niro was just coming on the scene, and was as captivating and unpretentious as he ever was. This is a dazzling, stylish film, and I can only issue the highest praise for Ken Wakeford’s superb cinematography. I have often read that it’s “an alternative to DINER,” though there’s a menace here that’s not present in the other film. I’d also admit the film has a great rock-music score, and some buffo dialogue (I really like when you suggest it has a “jazzy quality” in this sense.and macho posturing, which in some 9instances results in some funny moments. And Harvey Keitel is here too.

    I would never have thought that most of the film was shot in LA. And I see you did mention the Waverley, which is now the IFC where I saw UNCERTAINTY just this past Saturday night. Boy has it changed now!

    Quite simply and perfectly you sum up the difference between this film and THE GODFATHER:

    “Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy.”

    This is one of the very greatest on-line reviews.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam, you mention many theaters I am well familar with. Just to throw out a few more , there was the Plaza and the Fine Arts (The Producers had its initial showing here),both on 58th street. Also the 5th Ave Cinema and the 8th Street Playhouse in the Village. I use to frequent MOMA quite a bit for their film showings. Great days.

      Interesting comparison to Diner which I do not remember hearing before. This is one film I never get tired of watching. Thanks for the generous words.

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  8. J.D. says:

    This is a really wonderful review, filled with so much passion for its subject, much like Scorsese’s film. Depending on the day this is my fave Scorsese film (sometimes it’s GOODFELLAS) because of the intimacy and the energy conveyed. You really feel like you are part of this group of friends and running around with them in their neighborhood, which is something I really dig about this film. There is a sense that these guys have known each other their entire lives and the short-hand between them is quite believable.

    The vitality of the camerawork is so engaging and what really propels the film. And yet, I believe that Scorsese is showing that despite all of this energy, these characters are really going nowhere. Check out the camerawork during the “Mr. Postman” pool room brawl. The restless camera follows different characters but always seems to hit dead-ends or go in circles, which I’ve always felt reflects the characters’ lots in life.

    Anyways, this was a fantastic review that I enjoyed immensely.

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  9. John Greco says:

    J.D. yes, I’m sure these guys knew each other just about their entire lives. They grew up in the same closed neighborhood. HTe film is a excellentslice of life. thanks for stopping by.

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  10. Ira Kaufman says:

    Stellar review, John. I knew when I saw Mean Streets at the age of 19 that I was in the celluloid hands of a master. Then I paid for 15 separate admissions at the 8th Street Playhouse in the Village to see it again and again. No movie has gripped me quite like it, before or since.

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  11. John Greco says:

    Thank you Ira! Mean Streets is my favorite Scorsese film, and that says a lot, because I am a big admirer of Scorsese as you probably can tell. I have been to the 8th Street Playhouse a couple of times, but of all the Village theaters, I think I spent more time at, it was the Waverly, now the IFC Center. Thanks again for stopping by.

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  12. […] and definitions of his social and psychic environment, a theme that runs throughout Scorsese canon. Mean Streets also embedded some of the more recognisable aesthetics of the work, from the vigorous use of […]

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