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 doesn’t 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.